Sinah Mamadi can easily tell apart the children who don’t eat regular, nutritious meals at home, from those who do.
They’re the quiet ones, she says. “They can’t concentrate. Some of them, they just don’t talk much. They can’t even play with other children. You can see they are weak when they come to school.”
Mamadi knows the tiny faces of hunger all too well. She runs a two-room crèche for 115 impoverished children in the bleak heart of Makause, an informal settlement in Primrose, Germiston.
“The biggest problem here is the lack of food,” says Mamadi, as she sits under a roof of torn shade cloth.
Flies hover around her and the group of excited toddlers playing on an old jungle gym.
“Most of the parents are unemployed and can’t afford to feed their kids. Some of the children are not going to school and just wander around the squatter camp. They get raped, or they go missing. Here, at least, they are safe for a while.”
Lunch, a nutritious rice, soup and soya mix enriched with vitamins, is provided by NGO Rise Against Hunger. “For many of the children here,” says Sam Phungula, the distribution co-ordinator for Rise Against Hunger, “this is their only meal of the day.
“They come to school to get a proper meal. Some have become used to not eating at home.”
Across South Africa, deep hunger like that found in Makause, persists. Last year, the percentage of households with inadequate access to food decreased marginally from 24% in 2010 to 22%.
The scale of the hunger crisis is difficult to digest: over 5million children go hungry in South Africa.
“It remains a source of concern that almost a quarter of all households remain food insecure in a country that normally produces a surplus of food,” says David Sanders, emeritus professor and founding director of the school of public health at University of the Western Cape. This shows that there has only been “slow progress”.
His findings are contained in the new South African Child Gauge 2017, which examines what is needed to help the country’s children flourish.
The report, released this week by the Children’s Institute, finds that while most children are surviving - considering that child poverty has fallen and children’s access to basic services has improved since 1994 - far too many are failing to thrive and achieve their full potential.
Investing in children, say the researchers, particularly in violence prevention, networks of care, nutrition, education and inclusive services, “would drive the next wave of social and economic transformation, boost gross domestic product, and secure a more sustainable future”.
But hunger, violence, poverty and the poor quality of education continue to hurt South Africa’s children - and leave a negative impact on its development.
The review, for example, details how stunting, a sign of chronic malnutrition that affects a staggering one in four children, compromises children’s education, their long-term health and their future employment prospects. It costs the country R62billion every year.
The review is published by the Children’s Institute, UCT, with Unicef South Africa, the DG Murray Trust; the DST-NRF Centre for Excellence in Human Development, University of the Witwatersrand, the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation; and the programme to support pro-poor policy development in the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation.
The review details how South Africa’s implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals “can create enabling environments in which all South Africa’s children not only survive but thrive and to the benefit of the country’s prosperity”.
It draws on recent research, which reveals how violence against children cost about R239bn- or 6% of the country’s GDP - in 2015.
The effects are long-lived, says Shanaaz Mathews, director of the Children’s Institute.
The exposure of children to abuse, neglect and other forms of violence increases the risk of mental health problems and substance abuse, and contributes to an inter-generational cycle of violence.
“The good news is that South Africa now has a significant body of research that outlines the drivers of violence across the life course and what can be done to prevent it,” Matthews points out.
“We need carefully designed, multi-sectoral prevention strategies that have been proven to work, and to take these to scale.”
South Africa, say the researchers, needs to invest in more “nurturing caregiver networks” to mitigate the harm being done to children by violence, poverty and inequality - damage that costs over R300bn a year.
All children need nurturing care, says Linda Richter, a distinguished professor and director of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits University.
“This includes responsive care giving; good nutrition; protection from disease, violence and stress; and opportunities to learn. These elements are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and are essential to prepare them for adulthood.”
What will it take for young children to flourish? Nurture their capabilities, says David Harrison, the chief executive of the DG Murray Trust.
Frequent or ongoing harmful experiences of poverty can fundamentally change early brain development and lead to aggressive and antisocial behaviour across the life course, “from bullying on the playground to violent and unstable adult relationships”.
But the presence of nurturing, responsive caregivers “can make an enormous difference to enable children to reach their full potential, help break the cycle of violence and protect them from the adverse effects of poverty”.
“If we nurture all children’s normal growth and development - from conception to adulthood - we will unlock that human potential, disrupt intergenerational cycles of poverty and drive down inequality,” says Harrison.
Yet the capacity of caregivers to provide nurturing care is hampered by violence, poverty, social isolation and depression,” says Lizette Berry, a senior researcher at the Children’s Institute.
To help overcome this, parents and caregivers need family support, parenting programmes, community-based services and practical support such as maternity leave, child care and social assistance.
For Rise Against Hunger, whose focus is on feeding vulnerable children at 205 pre-schools in Gauteng, it’s about “giving a hand-up, not a handout”, says Phungula.
“We provide food so these facilities can use the money they would have spent on food to buy mattresses, toys for the children and first aid kits, for example.
“We want to make sure children grow up with the right tools. If we all do our part, we can make a difference to these kids lives.”
The Saturday Star