Commitment is all it takes

2013-08-15 00:00

ONE of the things erstwhile president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is revered for is his drive to ensure that every hungry person in the South American country was fed and the nation was food secure.

Launched in the early 2000s by Lula, Brazil’s Fome Zero programme had an ambitious goal: to guarantee that every Brazilian had three meals a day. This zero-hunger programme was a brilliant and comprehensive national poverty-alleviation plan with a clear objective of lifting 16,2 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty

He did this by providing direct financial assistance to poor families. He also opened government-run restaurants and tuck shops that provided cheap meals three times a day to the hungry.

Recognising that to defeat hunger, the root causes of unemployment and illiteracy had to be addressed, Lula decided on providing incentives. He said that for a family to receive money for food, their children had to attend school, so that they could free themselves from poverty.

I thought of Brazil’s success story last week when the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) released figures showing that South Africa is struggling to feed more than half of its population. Only two out of every four households have access to sufficient food. This is 45,6% of the population. Twenty-six percent of South Africans are hungry on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, most of these people are based in the country’s poorest provinces — Eastern Cape and Limpopo. The Western Cape has the highest food security.

The fact that more than half of our population battles to put food on the table begs the question: where is our government when people go hungry? Over the years, the government has adopted different strategies in an effort to combat poverty and hunger. These have included the Integrated Food Security and Nutrition Programme, which is run by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. It lacks direction and does not always reach the people it is meant to assist.

In 2008, the ANC launched the War on Poverty Campaign, targeting low-income households. This failed to save many people, including the four Mmupele children from Verdwaal, in Lichtenburg in North West Province. The story of Sebengu (9), Mmapule (7), Olebogeng (6) and Oarabetswe (2), shocked many in 2011 when they died of hunger and dehydration after they were forced to walk more than 10 km looking for food.

Food For All Campaign, also launched by the Department of Social Development, seems only to work at election time, with food parcels being dished out to the poor in areas where the ruling party feels threatened.

The social-assistance programme, which involves grant money for vulnerable people such as children and the elderly, has encountered many problems, including corruption. Most of those who are meant to benefit, don’t. How did government officials fail to identify the Mmupele children before they died?

Our government doesn’t realise that Brazil’s zero-hunger programme reaffirmed the responsibility of a government to ensure the basic human right to food. This is where it should start, by recognising food as a basic right, as enshrined in Section 27 of our Constitution.

And the Brazilian experience proves that when a government is truly committed, hunger can be eradicated. The right to food is interdependent on other rights. The government may need to reconsider the land-redistribution issue, with people given land for subsistence farming, which has sustained the poor for many years.

What stops our government from distributing vitamins and iron supplements to the malnourished? What stops it from creating, or subsidising, local spaza shops to run low-cost restaurants where poor people can have decent meals every day? And what happened to the school feeding scheme?

The government could also subsidise groceries for poor households, as according to the HSRC’s survey, the rise in food prices is a contributing factor to the high number of hungry people. It’s difficult to understand why we remain hungry, while remaining the bread basket of the region and the biggest exporter of staple crops.

The call by Numsa for “immediate policy interventions [by government] aimed at stabilising food prices and curbing agro-food market fluctuations” should be heeded. So should the option of setting up a parastatal which, through the means of coupons, would ensure the poor have a place to go for a meal.

There is a lot South Africa can learn from Brazil, its partner in Brics. Who knows, this may be our first step in realising the “Lula” moment, while ensuring that no person in this country goes to bed hungry.

• Masilo Mangena waga Makgoba is a communicator and former journalist.

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