Struggle for mass nutrition

2010-08-05 16:05

Jay Naidoo has returned to doing what he does best – fighting for justice. He spoke to Melanie-Ann Feris.

Breast milk. I am sitting in an ­office interviewing arguably one of South Africa’s most popular struggle heroes and trade union activists, and we are talking about breast milk.

Where is the firebrand activist who fought apartheid, became the general-secretary of ­Cosatu and then a minister in former ­president ­Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet?

But considering where Jay Naidoo’s journey is taking him, I suppose the topic is not that strange – as detailed in his autobiography Fighting for Justice, which was launched last week.

Are you still fighting for justice?
I have made a complete circle. I am back to what I started in. My role today is that of volunteer. That is my full-time passion.

The bulk of my time is spent in a global movement against malnutrition and hunger.

We have a horrifying challenge – almost a billion people can’t feed their children and families, and another two billion ­suffer from ­malnutrition and ­disease that we have the ­science and ­resources to cure.

I have committed myself to building a global ­partnership between ­multilateral ­systems – Unicef and the World Food Programme – working with the private sector, governments and civil society.

What makes you want to be involved?
If parents cannot feed their families it destroys the social fabric.

For me it is the most ­important gauge of whether we are making progress in sustainable human development.

I think in the 21st century to just talk about growing hunger is an abuse of human rights.

Have you ever been hungry?
We never had much but we planted vegetables in our back yards; we also had fruit trees.

As I say in my book, after storms we went to hunt for mushrooms called ­thunder ­mushrooms.

We always had food on the table and we would eat meat once a week.

Certainly we never had money working in the trade union. We lived on brown bread and amasi mixed with sugar, or on Pronutro. It was a standard diet for me.

But what is shocking is that in spite of having an extraordinary social security system where close to 14?million families receive grants, our ­statistics on malnutrition have not changed.

The critical question we have to ask ­ourselves is what are people doing with the money they receive, and are we hanging social behaviour so that they are making the right choices about the type of food they buy?

If you do not deal with nutrition in pregnant mothers and children under two, it’s too late.

What do you do as chairperson of the ­Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition?
I volunteer into it. I am building a global ­Cosatu.

What are the specific targets?
Firstly to tackle micro-nutrient deficiencies.

Secondly, to provide infants with healthy food as per the standards set by the World Health ­Organisation.

But breast-feeding rates have plummeted in the developing world since mothers switched to formula, which is not as healthy as breast milk, and it has to be mixed with water which brings up another challenge – ­access to clean drinking water.

This has an enormous impact on babies’ health.

We are looking at building an advocacy ­campaign for exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months and then a campaign for what happens up to 24 months when children move on to a mixed diet.

What is currently South Africa’s biggest challenge?
The fact that we delivered such a brilliant World Cup has set a standard and that is a standard we should demand of local ­governments, teachers in schools, people in the hospital system, of local councillors.

We must be uncompromising in this.

What is our new war?
It’s a war on poverty, inequality, one to fix up our schools and clinics, and act against ­corruption.

One of the things I talk about in my book is the predatory elite – which is like a cancer in our ­society we need take a stand on – who buy state tenders, take commissions and act as gatekeepers.

For me it really is about a ­return to a spirit of volunteerism and to the values we stood for when we fought for freedom.

Another thing I say in my book is that we never fought for status, titles or our own ­individual ­interests.

Sadly, today we see significant numbers of people who are only concerned with themselves.



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