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Keynote Address by Dr Motsepe during the Launch of the South African Child Gauge 2020 on Food and Nutrition Security for Children

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning,

I would like to thank the organisers of this event for inviting me to deliver this keynote address.I am very pleased to join you and lend my voice at the launch of the 2020 South African Child Gauge on Food and Nutrition Security for Children. 

In my various capacities throughout my years of experience in health and development work, the plight of children has always been very close to my heart.

Long before the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, we as a country, have been acutely aware that a significant number of South Africans do not have access to sufficient food and go hungry on a daily basis. The extent of child malnutrition in South Africa has often been documented and it is with distress that we learn of the deteriorating situation, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lock down restrictions. 

Our child stunting rates show that we are lagging behind in nurturing our children.Stunting reflects chronic under nutrition and a lack of adequate food to promote optimal growth and development. 

Our national demographic health survey confirmed that the proportion of children who are stunted has not changed since 1993.  

The negative impacts that COVID-19 has had on household earnings and on prices of basic foods, paint a very dim picture regarding any progress to addressing chronic malnutrition of children.

We salute the efforts and initiatives that communities and civil society have embarked on to bring relief to the hungry.

Whilst we acknowledge and thank the many organizations and individuals that have extended a helping hand to needing households, so much more needs to be done. We cannot turn our eyes away from images that mirror the gravity of hunger in our society. It is saddening to see people standing in long winding queues for food, as we have seen in media reports.    

We know from findings of the National Department of Health Ministerial Committee for the Morbidity and Mortality of Children that malnutrition remains a significant underlying cause of child mortality which is linked to one third of all child in-hospital deaths. 

While we may be distraught by these hospital-based findings, the larger burden of malnutrition lies in our communities and in our families, often hidden until later in the life of affected children.

Malnutrition casts a long shadow on children and their futures, robbing them of health and well being and condemning them to continued ill-health whilst undermining their chances to learn, to earn and to escape poverty.  It is a slow violence against our children, and we cannot thrive as a country when our children are shackled to a life of hunger and malnutrition. This was acknowledged by the first president of our democracy when he said: “Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future.”

Our children’s right to food is stipulated unequivocally in section 28 of our Constitution that beyond health and development, adequate food is fundamental to children’s safety and security. 

Hungry children will go in search of food, leading them onto the streets and unsafe environments. Children who are hungry cannot concentrate and learn. Children who are hungry become vulnerable to negative elements who will feed and manipulate them. 

Addressing hunger and malnutrition is not just a health issue, hunger and malnutrition have negative social and economic impacts. Not enough food in the home has a negative influence on family dynamics and not having enough food as a community leads to instability and violence.

The past year has exposed our food needs, the impact of the increasing cost of the food basket and the consequences of the unprecedented circumstances that we find ourselves in.  We need concerted efforts from society to respond to the needs of our children, citizens and future leaders of our nation.

We need our Ministers responsible for the food and nutrition security of our country to uphold the commitments in our Constitution. We need to strengthen the food safety nets for children including our National School Nutrition Programme, and the Early Child Development subsidy, our campaigns for exclusive breastfeeding, our programmes of food fortification and food supplementation, and our social protection policies. And we need these to be effectively implemented and adequately resourced.

In line with the recommendations of the United Nations and in support of our own National Department of Health’s Nutrition Policy, prioritizing children and safe-guarding their food and nutrition security is imperative to protect their health, education and well being, more so now given the negative impacts of COVID-19.  

Although the words of our President were directed towards our national effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, they should also apply to our efforts to address child malnutrition: “Much is being asked of you, far more than should ever be asked. And we dare not fail.”

Let us become that society that ensures that no child goes to bed hungry.

I congratulate the 2020 Child Gauge Team for their hard work in documenting the plight of our children’s food security and nutrition by providing the latest evidence.  

I thank you.