By Melene Rossouw and Siyabulela Jentile
Let’s play a game of numbers. Here’s the first number: R3,296.88. That’s the value of the national minimum wage of R21.69/hour for general workers in April, according to the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Household Affordability Index. Here’s another number: R460. That’s the value of the child support grant.
Finally, here are two more numbers R751.77 – the average cost of feeding a child a basic but nutritious diet – and R4,198.93, the average cost of a household food basket of basics.
It’s not hard to spot the problem. There’s a growing gap between what people earn and the cost of the most basic of food. What the state chips in to help is falling significantly short. This is not a problem unique to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Back in 2017, 6.8m South Africans experienced hunger, significantly down from an achingly high 13.5m in 2002, according to a food security study published by Stats SA. But if that report published in 2019 seemed to indicate fewer bellies were going empty, the Covid-19 pandemic has massively rolled back any gains made in food security over the past 20 years.
For those in the comfort of middle-class suburbia, this gnawing reality may only surface as a hint in the growing number of “bin pickers” or doorbells ringing asking for help and charity. The reality, however, is terrible. The Household Affordability Index reports the spreading hunger in poorer areas and fears it is going to worsen as winter sets in.
“Women tell us that what happens is ‘that when hunger starts coming in, a neighbour is going to support another neighbour but when both of you start getting hungry and then the third neighbour starts getting hungry and the fourth neighbour starts getting hungry then it starts a horrible ball rolling that you cannot stop.’ This situation scares women very much.”
Prof Julian May, director of the NRF-DST Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape, told eNCA in a recent interview of the “slow violence of malnutrition”. The impact of malnutrition will reverberate into the future for children, effecting physical development, the immune system (devastating in a pandemic), the motor system and cognition, he warned.
May, also co-author of the South African Child Gauge 2020 report which examined food and nutrition security, said their research suggested an additional 2.7m children had experienced hunger so far through the pandemic.
He said while it was unknown how many had been impacted to the point of malnutrition, the scale “points to a potential crisis in our future”.
The most recent National Income Dynamics Study (Nids) – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Cram) shows the growing crisis over food security and hunger. Eighteen percent of households (nearly two in 10) reported someone had gone hungry in the past seven days, an increase from 16% on the last survey done.
The long-term solutions must address the deepening wealth gap that divides SA society. Over the short term, though, a number of interventions can at least salve the pain. After the social relief of distress grant of R350 a month terminated at the end of April, the state is putting aside R2.82bn to fund yet another extension. This significant amount will unfortunately merely slow the rising tide of hunger and not turn it back.
As national director of the Black Sash Lynette Maart pointed out, more than 10m people applied for this grant, startling testimony to the scale of the hidden crisis.
Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) researcher Busi Sibeko argues the net should be widened for those qualifying (some 3m were rejected) and that the amount be raised to the food poverty line of R585 per person per month. The problem of hunger in SA requires a response greater than government policy and budget allocations. It requires the commitment and response of us all. It goes to the core of our humanity.
In this sense, we have seen the best of us as many – farmers, civil society, ordinary citizens, retailers, even brewers – step up to help ensure food ends up on the plates of the weak, the poor and hungry.
The most basic act of human compassion is expressed in the powerful gesture of sharing your bread with someone less fortunate. If we learn and practise only this as we come back from this crisis we will be immeasurably improved as a nation.
Image courtesy of Mother City Kitchen.