Collapse of school nutrition programme in KZN deeply concerning – ARETA

Systemic maladministration and corruption playing sickening role in this dire situation

ARETA deeply concerned about the collapse of the school nutrition programme in KZN and the deepening crisis that school nutrition programmes throughout the country are facing

20 April 2023

The African Radical Economic Transformation Alliance (ARETA) is deeply concerned and distraught by the serious problems that had been experienced with the School Nutrition Programme in specifically in KwaZulu-Natal, but also other provinces throughout South Africa.

Sadly, the highly sensitive, and critical, School Nutrition Programme that finds its roots in the constitutional right of children to have quality education, as well as for basic rights such as not to go hungry, and to have their rights to decent physical and mental well-being being taken care taken care of.

It is a sad reality that because of the extremely high levels of unemployment and poverty, especially affecting the majority of black, and specifically African South Africans, a very large - and increasingly growing - number of mainly black children are suffering severely because their most basic needs are not being addressed. This includes the heartbreaking reality that many children are malnourished, and are going to sleep at night without food, and go desperately hungry to school without food. Nutritional studies, educationists, and and mental health professionals have pointed out that in addition to the fact that it is impossible for children to be ably concentrate, and participate and benefit from their schooling when they are malnourished and hungry, the long term effects including permanent damage to brain development, and emotional growth, are severe.

The School Nutrition Programme was born out of this realisation, and must therefore be seen as a critical and essential service.

The magnitude of the overall roll-out of the School Nutrition Programme throughout our country speaks to the terrible levels of poverty and deprivation in our society. It also follows that the School Nutrition Programme create business opportunities for those who are contracted/receive tenders to provide this essential service. In essence there is nothing wrong with this, and in fact the School Nutrition Programme - if implemented on a broad community basis - should contribute to the nurturing of new, emerging, entrepreneurs and small and medium size businesses. It is in the character of the School Nutrition Programme that especially women entrepreneurs, who are often the most disadvantaged in terms of the opportunities available to them to emerge and develop businesses, can and should benefit. Because food and nutrition in general are culturally bound, and it is important that the food that is provided to school children is fresh and healthy - avoiding serving food that have gone past expiry dates - utilising service providers within the communities, and in close proximity to schools does not only make sense, but is actually essential.

It certainly makes sense to implement service provider models that spread the opportunity to provide and prepare good quality and healthy food at an affordable cost, and with reasonable profit margins, to a broad spectrum/selection of service providers. While all of this is logical, and makes a lot of common sense, in order to ensure that the School Nutrition Programme is a success, both with regards to providing adequate nutrition to school children who are in dire need, and also being a critical empowerment and developmental opportunity for emerging businesses within local communities, the national School Nutrition Programme has sadly more often than not failed to achieve these basic objectives. The main reason for this unacceptable situation is because corrupt government officials, and greedy profiteers, have seen the School Nutrition Programme as an opportunity to make money, rather than to serve our children and communities. Rampant corruption has sadly been one of the most prevalent characteristics of School Nutrition Programmes throughout our country.

Government officials who are in charge of allocating School Nutrition Programme tenders are known to demand bribes from service providers in order to ensure that they get what is seen as lucrative tenders. More often than not it has been the larger service providers who have been able to manipulate the tender system, and profit from this shockingly corrupt approach, which sadly has become systemic. Local, smaller, service providers are either unwilling, or unable, to participate in this rampant corruption, and therefore the community empowerment objectives of the School Nutrition Programme fail dismally. Furthermore, because large service providers operate with much larger food quantities in big geographical areas over long distances, the quality of the food that is being provided to school children is often of a sub-standard, if not of entirely unacceptable quality.

There have been many instances where expired, and actually rotten food, had been served to school children. In numerous instances school children became ill, and suffered food poisoning. It is a tragedy that the lives of already vulnerable children is put at risk because of these profiteering vultures, who do not care at all for the wellbeing of our children but are only concerned about optimising their profits at all and very cost - even potentially killing the very children that they are supposed to feed and care for. It is a case of them wanting to ‘eat’ to their hearts’ content, and stuff their already bulging stomachs and pockets, while hungry poor children are suffering and cannot eat.

It is evident that all of these extremely serious problems have reached crisis proportions in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal. In reality a culmination of these problems have paralysed the School Nutrition Programme to the point where the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education totally failed to feed school children since this current school term started. This is certainly no small matter! It is a very serious crisis, and a failure of epic proportions, especially in a society where poverty and deprivation are on a daily basis increasing because of the serious economic collapse in all sectors throughout our country.

The sickening role that systemic maladministration and endemic corruption play in this dire situation must not be underestimated. The crisis cannot be treated as if it is simply a once-off error that can quickly be remedied. Over many years existing and aspiring School Nutrition Programme service providers in local communities have been raising their serious concerns about being deliberately sidelined in favour of big service providers, with big budgets to bribe government officials. These callous people do not care about the quality of the service that they are providing, and are also not being held accountable by the corrupt officials whom they evidently pay off to look the other way when our children are fed sub-standard, rotten and expired food.

ARETA has noted the apology that the ANC led Provincial Government in KwaZulu-Natal issued about the collapse of the School Nutrition Programme, and the promises that they have made to correct the situation urgently. Any apology from a usually arrogant and uncaring government should be appreciated as a welcome departure, but only as long as it is not simply a public relations exercise. Empty words of contrition are simply not good enough - especially in a situation where the very well-being and lives of our children have been put at risk!

At the very least this apology must be accompanied by an in-depth, proper, analysis of the fundamental systemic ills that led to the School Nutrition Programme being a failure. At the heart of the problem is corruption, and how that leads to the allocation of tenders in a manner that do not provide quality nutrition to our children - a situation that is in fact in contravention of their most basic constitutional rights. In addition the deliberate sidelining of small and medium size community based service providers and entrepreneurs from being given a fair opportunity to be economically empowered, must also receive urgent attention.

As long as the difficult - but essential issues - regarding rampant corruption, bribing, and tender fraud are not in depth investigated and rooted out, the promises for better service delivery, and that the Food Nutrition Programme will be rescued, will simply remain empty promises.

The ANC Provincial Government in KwaZulu-Natal knows this, and if they are honest with themselves, and the communities that they are supposed to serve, their apology will be have to be accompanied by a thorough investigation and exposure of all that have gone wrong. They know very well that at the very heart of the problem is the corrupt tenders that have been granted, which is the fundamental corrupt sickness of the whole system. ONLY if the ANC KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government is prepared to ask themselves the hard and correct questions, and are prepared to address and eradicate the root of the evil, making sure that no-one is protected and that those who have benefitted, and who are continuing to benefit from the horrible crimes of corruption that they commit against our most vulnerable children are apprehended and criminally charged, can their apology be taken seriously and appreciated.

While the situation in KwaZulu-Natal has reached crisis proportions - and therefore demands urgent emergency action - it must once again be emphasised that School Nutrition Programmes throughout our country, in fact in all provinces are failing, and that the situation is progressively getting worse.

On a national scale this certainly cannot be allowed to go any further. ARETA urges the National Government, together with all Provincial Governments, to urgently intervene for the sake of our children. Similar to the crisis situation in KwaZulu-Natal the reasons for the tragic failure of School Nutrition Programmes throughout our country are known, what is required is the moral backbone and political will to act decisively.

Issued by Carl Niehaus, Chair of the Working Board, ARETA, 20 April 2023