Is Social Development in the EC concealing the numbers of children dying of hunger?

The Human Rights Commission in the Eastern Cape says that about 27% of children in the province are stunted and cannot pay attention due to hunger. Archive photo by Lilita Gcwabe

The South African Human Right Commission in the Eastern Cape hears of child malnutrition in the province.

The Eastern Cape department of social development has been accused of deliberately concealing the number of young children who die due to malnutrition. This revelation came to light during the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) inquiry on children’s rights to food and nutrition after children with severe acute malnutrition were admitted in the province’s hospitals, some of whom died. 

The provincial head of the commission, Dr Eileen Carter said out of the two-million children below the age of five in the province, about 27% of them are stunted and cannot sustain mental focus due to hunger. If this is not addressed the future of these children is in ruin. 

Joe Jafta, founder of a non-governmental organisation that leads a malnutrition intervention programme, Zeemeni Projects, said the problem is created by an uncaring government and he accused the Eastern Cape department of social development of lacking the will, the commitment and a coherent strategic plan to deal with child hunger and malnutrition in the province. “My work and exposure through this programme have led me to believe that incidents and prevalence of child malnutrition-related deaths are deliberately being withheld and kept secret in order to hide the extent and severity of child death.

During various programme meetings, statistics of child deaths due to malnutrition were provided by the department of health. These statistics painted a grim picture on the reality of deaths,” said Jafta.

He took a phone picture of the statistics reflecting child mortality issues in Lusikisiki: and in it there were 165 deaths in 2018/2019, 150 deaths in 2019/2020 and 63 in 2020/2021. 

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“These statistics reveal about 378 deaths of children below the age of five in Lusikisiki alone. Statistics for other areas were only shared in meetings but [copies were] never made available,” said Jafta.”It is my opinion that the statistics are deliberately being withheld to avoid scrutiny and accountability for gross dereliction of duties. These child deaths are preventable in my opinion and are tantamount to child genocide perpetrated by the Eastern Cape government against these children.”

Food parcels being distributed at Sassa offices in Khayelitsha for South Africans during lockdown in 2020. Archive photo by Lilita Gcwabe.

The head of Eastern Cape social development, Mzimkhulu Matshemba conceded that their programmes are not reaching everybody they need to because of the rural nature of the province. He said there are plans to improve coordination with other stakeholders and involve certain NGOs that are able to reach areas that the government is unable to. 

“There are NGOs that have more capacity than we have; we have seen them during the times when there’s a disaster; we need to bring them on board,” said Matshemba. 

While painting a grim picture of a lack of resources, Matshemba couldn’t respond adequately to a presentation made by the provincial treasury which said social development had returned about R372-million that it failed to spend. 

The Eastern Cape department of health also made representations to the SAHRC inquiry in which it admitted to finding itself on the backfoot as it could only respond to cases of malnutrition when people are admitted to its facilities for medical care. Health department head, Dr Rolene Wagner said most patients with severe acute malnutrition die within 24 to 48 hours of admission. 

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The SAHRC inquiry wrapped up its work on Friday and its findings are expected in due course. 

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