The constitution sets out a spectrum of rights providing for the comprehensive protection for children that are supplementary to the other rights furnished by the rest of the Bill of Rights.
These rights include, according to section 28(1), the right of every child, among others, to: (a) Family care or parental care; (b) Basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services; (c) Be protected from maltreatment, neglect abuse or degradation.
This important provision indicates that, as a nation, we have set out in theory, in an exemplary manner, how children need to be cared for. But in practice, as discussion below will indicate, this is most certainly not the position in practice. Very much more is indeed required.
In an excellent article first published in The Conversation on the effect of poverty on children, Julian May and Stephen Devereux point out in no uncertain terms that, in fact, one in every four children in South Africa go hungry each day.
This should indeed be a national concern and they indicate that if nothing is done about it, the situation and all its dire consequences for our nation will deteriorate.
The condition of chronic malnutrition of 27.4% of South African children under the age of five means their physical stature is too short and they suffer from what is known as stunting.
This is a measure of chronic hunger and a long-term indicator of under-nutrition.
Nutrition is of paramount importance for children as they develop in their mother’s womb and during the first two years of their life.
If deprived during this time, the damage from lack of growth is irreversible.
By its very nature stunting, as explained above, must certainly be of national concern.
Furthermore, the stunting statistic at 27.4%, according to the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey, is the same as it was in the previous survey, which was conducted in 2003.
Therefore, unfortunately, stunting is not on the decline and there are indications that if the problem is not addressed meaningfully it will rise.
Intervention is required
This serious problem has its roots in both poverty and malnutrition.
Both need to be addressed in a determined manner, with effective strategies and interventions.
Although SA has a social grant system, including child grant support, which reaches 12 million children, with a monthly payout of R380 a child, it is manifestly insufficient to meet nutritional needs that children have, and this needs to be substantially increased.
Furthermore, for the child grant to have a greater impact on the health of young children, the grant needs to be supplemented by a basic income grant, or family grants such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia.
A basic income grant is a measure that could give effect to the constitutional requirement to cater for the immediate basic needs of an estimated 14 million persons who are living below the poverty datum line in South Africa.
It is submitted that it is a constitutional imperative that some meaningful measure of access to social security is required for these persons and their children.
It can be argued that at this time, when fiscal discipline and austerity is the order of the day, this kind of grant is unaffordable.
However, the grant could be introduced incrementally over a period of five years.
This needs to be addressed both educationally and scientifically.
Until recently, South Africa had one of the lowest rates of exclusive breastfeeding.
The demographic health survey indicates that the figure has risen fourfold, from eight percent in 2003 to 32% in 2016.
This is extremely encouraging and indicates that education and social intervention can indeed make a difference.
More needs to be done to improve the nutritional quality of food.
South Africa as a country produces sufficient food and has abundant scientific knowledge to produce, process and distribute safe and healthy food for all our children.
It requires administrative and political will to develop and sustain the programmes required in both the urban and rural areas. This is a challenge not only to the government but to organisations of civil society, both religious and secular.
NGOs, such as Feed the Babies, have a fundamental contribution to make. Government, however, needs to co-ordinate the activities of such NGOs to ensure that its programmes have optimum outreach.
During the long and dark years of colonialism and apartheid, involving unconscionable systems of migrant labour, children were subject to profound suffering.
They were forced to make great sacrifices for the realisation of a new and just South Africa, epitomised by their conduct during the tragic Soweto disturbance in 1976 and 1977. At this juncture of our post-apartheid history, we dare not neglect our responsibility morally, socially and politically to our children.
Unfortunately, the government and the ANC appear to have become obsessed with the problems relating to the leadership of President Zuma and serious allegations of corruption and maladministration.
As a result, other seminal issues, such as child care and hunger caused by poverty, are not being meaningfully addressed.
Devenish is Emeritus Professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.