I’ve written my suicide letter many times: SA’s starving kids speak out
Times Select finds out what the government feeding scheme really means for the nation’s children
Matriculant Edward Olifant has to run the household, cook, clean and take care of his teenage brother while his mom works on a farm 800km away.
For Olifant, 19, going back to school was a relief, mainly because it meant cooked meals for him and his 14-year-old brother.
Olifant’s mother is only able to return home every two weeks.
He said they struggled during level 5 lockdown because she wasn’t working or being paid. She only returned to work in level 4.
“During the first few weeks of lockdown we were deeply struggling. The [school] feeding scheme only started when we came back to school. I have a lot on my plate at the moment. I feel depressed sometimes. I’ve written my suicide letter many times. There’s just too much responsibility on me at the moment,” Olifant said.
The March closure of schools meant the nine million children in SA who rely on the National Schools’ Nutrition Programme (NSNP) would be without meals.
Pupils receive porridge in the morning and a cooked meal for lunch, the only meals of the day for many.
For the 630 pupils at Phukalla Secondary School in the Free State, which Olifant attends, the feeding scheme is a lifeline. During lockdown, when schools were closed, some pupils struggled to access food. When they reopened for certain grades in June, not all of them benefited.
Last week, the North Gauteng High Court ruled that the NSNP be immediately rolled out to the nine million qualifying pupils, regardless of whether they had returned to school or not.
This came after advocacy group Equal Education (EE) and two Limpopo schools lodged an urgent application in July. They argued that all eligible children should receive their daily meals from the programme.
Also dependent on the feeding scheme is grade 12 pupil Lerato van der Merwe, who lives with her grandmother, uncle and younger sister. Their only form of income is from traditional beer that her grandmother sells. When the sale of alcohol was prohibited, the family’s lives were threatened.
“We don’t have enough food at home, but my granny tries her best. It was tough hearing that the sale of alcohol was banned, but my granny thought we’d survive. Honestly, though, we are not surviving,” van der Merwe said.
They have now become more dependent on her older sister, a waitress in Gauteng.
With the alcohol ban back in place, many parents who own shebeens or taverns have lost their income, meaning many children are dependent on the feeding scheme.
The principal of Johannesburg’s Newclare Primary School, Derek Eastwood, said the scheme had been feeding fewer children because many parents had opted to keep their youngsters at home.
There are 1,056 children at Eastwood’s no-fee school and, before lockdown, about 300 were benefiting from the scheme. Meals include samp, beans, pap, soya mince, tinned fish, cabbage, butternut and fruit.
I wouldn’t stop any child from having food here. We hand out more than 100 food parcels. We’re not only feeding Newclare primary learners, it’s anybody who lines up.Newclare Primary School principal Derek Eastwood
With fewer pupils attending school, Eastwood and his staff pack the dry products into parcels and give them to the children.
“I wouldn’t stop any child from having food here. We hand out more than 100 food parcels. We’re not only feeding Newclare primary learners, it’s anybody who lines up. The excess food always goes to the community, nothing is wasted. We’re picking up that there’s a bigger need now. There’s just a huge demand in the community. We aren’t the only ones handing out food parcels; there are other NGOs in the area, but even that is not enough to meet the need,” Eastwood said.
A parent who has opted not to send her children back to school is former nurse Diana Louw. Her children are in grades 1, 4 and 7 at Newclare and rely on the feeding scheme. Her eldest son is unemployed and her 23-year-old daughter is a hairdresser.
Before lockdown, Louw sold sweets outside the school and made R100 a day. She has lost that income due to lockdown and now relies on food parcels and the social grants she receives.
It’s a disaster. The children are hungry, and it’s a terrible thing.Diana Louw
“It’s a disaster. The children are hungry and it’s a terrible thing. My passion is to run a soup kitchen, but there just isn’t enough. My daughter is the only one with a job and with lockdown she’s been earning even less. We really are struggling. We share food with our neighbours because we’re all in the same situation,” Louw said.
The family lives in Westbury, a predominantly underprivileged community in Johannesburg.
Louw said her main reason for not sending her children back to school was her fear of them contracting Covid-19. This despite the meals they would receive.
The conditions [at school] are unacceptable. I won’t put my children’s lives in danger. I would rather ask for help for food than send my children to school and risk their lives,” she said.