Adriaan Basson: We are fighting over hot pies while children have no food

About nine million pupils depend on school feeding schemes across the country.
About nine million pupils depend on school feeding schemes across the country.
Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp

President Ramaphosa and his Cabinet must up their game. We cannot debate hot meals while people are starving, writes Adriaan Basson.

You can sense the pain and desperation on the boy's face as he queues for his only meal of the day.

His face mask hangs loose, and his eyes are closed as the good Samaritan says a prayer.

He is five or six-years old. There is no food at home.

A series of photos by photographer Jeffrey Abrahams of a feeding scheme in Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats gripped my heart last week. No research paper or statistical modelling brings home the economic crisis that South Africa finds itself in today more harshly than the face of a hungry child.

Of course, this is not a new crisis. South Africa has always been a country with abject poverty and massive unemployment. But there is no doubt the crisis has been exacerbated by the shutdown of the economy to contain the coronavirus in our communities.

Millions of people cannot work. "No work, no pay," is reverberating through our nation.

Feeding schemes, like the one pictured by Abrahams, are keeping millions of people alive – literally.

Lunch is served at noon. "But from just after 10: 00 there are already more than 200 little ones sitting quietly on the field clutching their bakkies. Repeated pleas to adults that they were putting the operation at risk by their presence fall on deaf ears. They hover in the hope that there'll be leftovers for them," he wrote on his Facebook page.

On Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Cabinet will meet to finalise economic interventions and life after the extended lockdown to save what is left of our country. This must include emergency measures to address crippling food shortages.

It will be the second most important announcement by the president since he announced a nationwide lockdown.

Ramaphosa's Cabinet must up their game.

Last week, as Lucinda Evans and her team from Philisa Abafazi Bethu SA were feeding hungry children in Lavender Hill, Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel was trying to explain why supermarkets couldn't sell hot pies and grilled chickens, despite this not being regulated.

His colleagues Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Bheki Cele were doing their best to argue for a continued ban on alcohol and cigarettes sales.

They would ban it forever if they had their way. Thankfully, we still have a Constitution.

This comes close to perverse.

I get it that Ramaphosa and the National Command Council must do their utmost best to encourage physical distancing. Our government has been exemplary in the speed with which it reacted to the Covid-19 global outbreak.

But nothing exists in a vacuum and for every action there is a reaction. In the case of the lockdown, millions of people were banished to unemployment and concomitant starvation. This, too, has become a health crisis.

It was a calculated risk Ramaphosa and his Cabinet took. They had to protect the lives of as many as possible South Africans. History will judge their decisions.

But they must watch their priorities and act where it really matters. The selling of hot meals at supermarkets can surely not pose a bigger threat to the public healthcare system than impending famine?

The hard lockdown must end after two weeks, and we must find a responsible way to get people back to work without flooding our hospitals. Listening to Professor Salim Abdool Karim over the past few days, it is clear to me that South Africa will not sidestep the exponential curve of the coronavirus.

We cannot walk around it; we must walk through it. We have bought ourselves a few extra weeks with the lockdown to prepare our hospitals and import extra protective gear and ventilators for when we hit our peak in September.

Our infection rate will continue to grow and our death rate too. That is the sad reality.

But there will be more deaths to count if our hard lockdown is extended beyond April: those who will die of starvation. Millions of people have already been infected with the hunger virus.

We need Ramaphosa and his team to lead us through this crisis in the most responsible way. It certainly isn't an easy task, but the goodwill of the majority of South Africans to help is still there.

 - Adriaan Basson is editor-in-chief of News24

• If you would like to make a donation to Philisa Abafazi Bethu SA, visit their website here.

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