In the middle of the noisy political debates in South Africa, the malnutrition found among children does not get a lot of media and public attention. In 2018 the Human Sciences Research Council confirmed that 23,3% (just less than 1 out of 4) children under the age of five show signs of stunted growth as a result of malnutrition.
The World Bank in 2011 reported that a third of child deaths in South Africa could be attributed to malnutrition. No significant change took place regarding this situation since the 1990s, according to the report.
The child grant and different nutritional programmes instituted by government had since had some effect, but in 2012 and 2013, 31% of children who died in hospital were severely malnourished, according to David Sanders, Louis Reynolds and Lori Lake. Millions of children are still dying because they do not have enough food or not enough of the right kind of food.
What is the relationship between this situation and the issues that dominate political debates in South Africa?
It is striking that none of the main sides in the country’s dominant political divides takes the trouble to clarify how their positions will end child hunger. It is a non-issue.
At the moment the divisions are concentrated around the office of the Public Protector, who is an ombudsman mandated by the constitution to investigate abuses by state officials and insitutions. She has pronounced on a number of issues that have provoked intense political and legal conflict. These issues include the Apartheid government’s use of public money to support their prefered private banks, retirement of senior civil servants who are then re-employed as consultants, the use and misuse of state funds dedicated to land reform and the financing of politicians by rich corporations in internal party elections.
The governing ANC is divided into two opposing factions on these and other related issues. Cyril Ramaphosa and Pravin Gordhan are key leaders of the faction currently in control of the government, while Ace Magashule and Jacob Zuma are key leaders of the opposing faction who was in charge of government when Zuma was president. The struggle between these two factions is more intense than fights between governing and opposition parties in many other places. It overshadows the conflicts between the governing ANC and the other parties who are formally the opposition. The so-called opposition parties such as the DA, EFF and UDM have aligned themselves with one of the two ANC factions instead of opposing the ANC government as a whole.
There are multi-billions of Rands in dispute in these fights, which translate into many billions of dollars. A rough calculation puts the minimum figure at issue in the four disputes mentioned above at R1,881 billion, which translates into $123,32 million at today’s exchange rates. The World Bank estimated in 2011 that it would cost $55 million to alleviate the malnutrition that is killing children in South Africa. A search through all the tons of media generated by these disputes will not reveal any of the sides making a proposal that the fight is about using the disputed money to end malnutrition. All of them will claim when challenged that ultimately that is what their fights are about, but none of them has ever come close to suggesting making child hunger a focus of their interventions in these political struggles.
A scan through the research into child malnutrition raises two points that help explain why it is such a low priority for politicians. The first point is that the research found, as expected, a strong link between child malnutrition and poverty and income inequality. It is the children of the poor, those at the bottom of South Africa’s highly unequal distribution of wealth, who suffer hunger and malnutrition.
The second point concerns something that the research reports, while produced by a range of institutions, are all silent about – the fact that it is black children who are dying of malnutrition. None of the available research draws specific attention to this, although it is clear from how wealth and income is distributed across the divide between white and black. Why then are the research and media reports quiet about the fact that such widespread hunger overwhelmingly affects the children of a specific ‘race’ group, namely blacks? It may be that it is considered obvious, but it is also true that such a silence helps to make the suffering and discrimination suffered by black people seem normal and by implication acceptable.
The silence about child malnutrition of the dominant political groups who contend with each other for political power is part of this normalisation of black subordination. It also reflects the fact that this dominant struggle in South African politics is between different capitalist groups. When it suits them they make promises to black working class and poor people, but they are firstly concerned about their own power and wealth. The task of putting the nutrition of the children of black working class people at the centre of politics will not be carried by any of the two ANC factions or their respective followers among the other parties.