Home South African Battle to keep pupils fed set to be heard in court

Battle to keep pupils fed set to be heard in court

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Urgent application seeks to force government to provide meals to millions of pupils during lockdown

File picture: Brendan Magaar / African News Agency (ANA)

EQUAL Education (EE) and two Limpopo schools’ urgent application seeking to force the government to provide meals to millions of pupils who are suffering from hunger during lockdown will be heard in the North Gauteng High Court on Thursday.

Represented by the Equal Education Law Centre and SECTION27, EE and the school governing bodies of Vhulaudzi Secondary School and Mashao High School are asking the court for a declaratory order coupled with a supervisory order. 

They insist that the government has a duty to ensure that the nine million pupils who qualify to benefit from the National Schools Nutrition Programme (NSNP) must continue to receive daily meals, regardless of whether or not their grades returned to school on June 8. 

The respondents in the matter are the Minister of Basic Education and nine provincial Education departments, which have argued that the urgent court application is not necessary as the department intended providing meals from June 22 and that it was also not it’s “primary obligation” to provide nutrition as this rested with parents.

However, EE has contended in court papers that the constitutional right to both food and education are “inextricably linked”, similarly to textbooks and pupil transport.

EE cites research including a Human Sciences Research Council study describing the hunger crisis among children as well as evidence submitted by children and their mothers who claim they are suffering from exhaustion due to hunger. Others in Grade 7 and 12 who are getting meals feel guilty for eating while their families go hungry.

“Food security across the country has decreased since the lockdown. Hunger has increased. On June 4, the Human Sciences Research Council presented a study which found that 38% in the group that had been sampled had gone to bed hungry, and 22% reported a member of their household having gone hungry since the announcement of the lockdown,” EE said in court papers.

“For NSNP beneficiaries, the problem was acute. Overnight, a reliable source of food came to an end.”

EE further argued that Professor Jeremy Seekings, in his study Report on Social Grants and Feeding Schemes under the Covid-19 Lockdown in South Africa, showed that an estimated 34 million people had been pushed below the extreme poverty line since the lockdown.

“Seekings noted the statement by the government on May 29, 2020, that 788 000 food parcels had been distributed. He says that this does not come close to making up for the suspension of the school feeding scheme. The NSNP plays a unique and targeted role. It provides nine million meals per day, or 45 million meals per week, or 400 million meals over nine weeks, specifically to children. By contrast, the 788 000 food parcels, focused on an entire family, would translate to some 200 million meals over a nine-week period,” EE argued.

Seekings concluded that the programme’s suspension was “a colossal disaster”.

However, the Education Department asserted in court papers that it had used its “best endeavours, within the scope and ambit of the resources available” to put reasonable measures in place to continue the NSNP.

They contended that they were “in fact doing precisely that which the applicants want us to do, and we have been doing so without judicial supervision under a structural interdict”.

EE conceded that some measures had been put in place to mitigate the suffering, but argued that many schools it had surveyed across the provinces had not yet received funding from the department to feed all pupils.

In evidence submitted in the court papers, one mother described how her 10- and 15-year-old children were experiencing “low energy and exhaustion” due to the food shortage, while a father spoke of the stress, pressure and urgency to find food for his two children.

EE said that another pupil, who is described as EE2 in court papers, “says her younger sister gave up trying to study from home because there is not enough money for food and data. EE2 feels guilty that, as a Grade 12 pupil, she is now receiving an NSNP meal, but her younger sister and others in the area are still hungry.

“Guilt at eating when others go hungry was an emotion shared by many of the Grade 12 pupils whose testimony is reflected in this application,” EE said.