South Africa Faces a Human Emergency

Wednesday, 15 October, 2008 - 13:27

Enough is enough. Words will not feed the hungry. It is time for action that will address the needs of the people of South Africa.

The state of the nation is not simply about how the economy is doing, or how strong our currency is. The state of the nation is about how well the people of South Africa are doing.  Are they able to live with dignity, feed their children, meet their basic needs and access employment, education and health care? According to the views expressed during the poverty hearings, our state of the nation is dire. Communities are crippled by poverty. It is a state of emergency.

This is the conclusion I have come to after listening to the testimonies during the poverty hearings across South Africa. 

Below are excerpts from some of the stories shared:

“Since I was born poverty has been following me.” (14-year-old girl in Numbi, Limpopo)

“My two boys are street children as we speak right now. They are smoking glue and eating from rubbish bins.” (a mother in North West)

“Dit is sonder gevoel en dit is ongemaklik en veroorsaak die opbreek van families en gesinslewens.” (Poverty is uncomfortable, unsympathetic and unending and it leads to the breakdown of family relationships) (woman in Northern Cape)

“Without employment young people end up doing wrong things like selling themselves for food and money, robbing people and afterwards getting illnesses like HIV and AIDS.” (elderly man, Northern Cape)

“A hungry stomach knows no law … .” (young man in Gauteng)

Another young woman told us that her parents had died while she was still young, leaving her with siblings to raise. Because she was not a guardian, she could not access benefits from the social security system. She says their lives were a daily struggle. It was not unusual for them to go without food for days. Their situation became so desperate that one day the small children ended up eating cow dung.

Throughout the poverty hearings, community members shared testimonies of their struggle for food, to access social services, take their children to school and guarantee their future.  Their struggles are of basic survival – to put food on the table and have clean water to drink. 

While talking to one of the researchers during the poverty hearings, a young woman asked: “Do you know what it is like for a mother to hear her children cry and beg for food and not be able to feed them?”

Across the country, the lack of sufficient food has been raised as a critical issue. It has caused the loss of human dignity and the erosion of family and societal values. Ordinary citizens are resorting to desperate measures in order to feed themselves and their children - such as eating from dustbins and begging on the streets. A number of young people spoke about how not having enough food had driven them into prostitution or engaging in criminal activities.

I am surprised that in the 21st century - when there is so much wealth, technology and knowledge - there are still people in the world who have to suffer the injustice and indignity that comes from hunger.  

The greatest instigator of this desperation is a lack of employment. Young people, whether school drop outs, matriculants, or those with tertiary education, are all saying they cannot find jobs. Our economy is not producing jobs. What kind of an economy is able to produce wealth for the rich, but no employment for young people who are the future?

Unemployment among young people is driving them into disillusionment, hopelessness and bitterness. For them, the future remains bleak. A number of them expressed frustration and anger at their inability to access youth funds like Umsobomvu. 

An angry young man in Cape Town said: “Hunger creates hatred. I see people with money and I want to rob them.”  Another from Kwa-Zulu Natal commented, “When there is no food from home, I end up stealing and eating in dustbins”.

People infected and affected by HIV/AIDS made specific reference to food insecurity. While their testimonies indicate that access to treatment has improved significantly, they are often unable to take their ARV treatment because they have no food to eat. ARV treatment demands a good balanced diet. Most of them depend largely on the disability grant for survival. However, they can only receive a grant when their CD4 count drops to less than 200. A number of them confessed that they would rather not take medication so that they could continue to receive the grant. 

There is no doubt that the social grants in South Africa are providing an invaluable safety net against poverty. However, communities are clearly saying that they also want opportunities to fend for themselves, sustain their livelihoods and realise their dreams. Without the creation of employment opportunities, increased support for agricultural production and institutional support to the poor, none of this seems possible. 

Poverty is a deadly cocktail that is causing a state of emergency.  The words of an elderly woman in Kwa-Zulu Natal are indicative of this: “I am saying to the power brokers – death has come knocking – please come help us.”

The anger, frustration and the feeling of hopelessness especially among young people is a recipe for possible disaster. Our recent experience of an outbreak of anger and violence resulted in xenophobic attacks. I believe the stage has been set for another eruption. 
Enough is enough.  South Africa must act now. Most of the policy provisions to cater for the poor are enshrined in the constitution, and reflected in various policies including ASGISA and Vision 2014. 

But words will not feed the hungry. It is time for action. It is no time for semantics, or debates about who is right and who is wrong. It is time for action that will address the needs of the people of South Africa. 

Archsbishop Njongo Ndungane is the President and Founder of African Monitor. He was the Chief Commissioner during the 2008 Poverty Hearings. For more information and for further interviews with Archbishop Njongo Ndungane please contact Ms. Buhle Makamanzi on +27 82 898 8488 or +27 21 713 2802.

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