12 June 2020

Joint statement: Education activists and schools take Department of Basic Education (DBE) and provincial education departments to court over backtracking on National School Nutrition Programme

Equal Education (EE) and the school governing bodies (SGBs) of two Limpopo schools have today launched an urgent court application against the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and provincial education departments. EE and the SGBs are challenging the current failure to roll out the National Schools Nutrition Programme (NSNP) to all learners. The NSNP normally provides meals to over nine million learners every day but was halted when schools closed on 18 March, as a COVID-19 response measure, jeopardising the food security of these learners and exacerbating the severe hardship experienced within their households.

EE and the SGBs, represented by the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) and SECTION27, have filed legal papers at the North Gauteng High Court, which argue that the failure of the DBE and provincial education departments to roll out the NSNP to all qualifying learners – or even to produce a plan or programme for doing so – is a regressive measure that violates learners’ rights to basic nutrition, basic education and equality.

Throughout the time that schools have been closed, a number of child rights and education justice organisations, including SECTION27, EELC and EE, have repeatedly engaged with the DBE urging them to reinstate the NSNP for all learners.

The closure of the NSNP impacts on not only the health and education of learners, but has knock-on effects on entire families – in a context of heightened unemployment and loss of income due to the nationwide lockdown, many families are struggling to put food on the table. These families urgently require the NSNP to be reinstated in order to meet their children’s basic nutritional needs and ensure that they are able to buy other desperately needed necessities in the home.

On 19 May 2020, the DBE committed to reinstating the nutrition programme to all eligible learners when schools reopened for grades 7 and 12. This commitment was confirmed by the DBE on 26 May during a meeting with civil society stakeholders.

But on 1 June, the DBE backtracked on this commitment, with Minister Motshekga stating that the DBE only had “intentions” of reopening the NSNP to all eligible learners at a later stage. They offered no time frames or plans for such a roll out. The DBE claimed it did not have the capacity to roll out “new programmes” despite the fact that the NSNP has been in operation since 1994, and has been widely lauded for its successes in combating learner hunger and improving learner outcomes.

The DBE’s Standard Operating Procedures on COVID-19 make provision for the roll-out of NSNP to occur in a safe and hygienic manner. The DBE has provided no reasonable justification for its limitation of the NSNP to only grades 7 and 12 learners. The current disaster does not serve as a basis to deprive learners of their right to nutrition, and the DBE’s failure to direct provinces to roll out the NSNP for all eligible learners disproportionally affects learners from poor and working class families.

SECTION27 and EE have received gravely concerning testimonies from learners, caregivers, educators and SGB members about the dire hardship faced by children across the country in the absence of the NSNP. The following statements demonstrate the severity of suffering:

“I had to get a job doing gardening to earn some money to buy food. My sister and I do not have enough food at home. Without the meals from school, I could not concentrate on school work because I was hungry.” – Matric learner, Limpopo

“The government must also think about those learners at home. I feel bad because I am receiving meals at school while my younger sister is still struggling at home. It is not right.” – Matric Equaliser (learner member of EE), Gauteng

“I have been extremely stressed during this period but because I am a mother, I have to make a plan to make sure my family does not go hungry. I have had to resort to taking loans from a loan shark in order to make sure my family survives. The weight on my shoulders is heavy.” – Single mother of five, Limpopo

It is “unfair that some children will be able to benefit and others will not be able to” since “parents are no longer working and need the feeding scheme now more than ever”. – Grade 10 Equaliser (learner member of EE), Gauteng

For some of these families, the increased Child Support Grant or COVID-19 special economic mitigation measures were insufficient relief. In a report titled “Report on Social Grants and Feeding Schemes under the COVID-19 Lockdown in South Africa,” Professor Jeremy Seekings, from the University of Cape Town noted that the failure to deliver the new emergency COVID-19 grant and the net cut-back in feeding programmes has meant that many poor households face grave poverty. Evidence from Shaheda Omar, Clinical Director at the Teddy Bear Clinic, reiterated the conditions of food insecurity and hunger faced by many of the learners she counselled.

With legal counsel Geoff Budlender SC, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi SC and Thabang Pooe acting in the matter, we are seeking a declaratory order that there is a duty on government to ensure that all qualifying learners are entitled to receive a daily meal as provided for under the NSNP regardless of whether or not they have resumed classes at their respective schools. We are also seeking a structural order requiring the national and provincial departments to, within five days of the court order, each provide a plan or programme to ensure that all qualifying learners receive their daily meal from the NSNP.

It is imperative that the DBE and provincial education departments continue to fulfil their constitutional obligation to deliver nutrition to all eligible learners. The constitutional rights of learners to basic nutrition, basic education and equality must be protected, even during the state of National Disaster.

[ENDS]

To arrange an interview, contact:
Jay-Dee Cyster (Equal Education) 082 924 1352 or jay-dee@equaleducation.org.za
Julia Chaskalson (SECTION27) 083 440 2674 or chaskalson@section27.org.za
Tad Khosa (EE Law Centre) 081 346 0180 or tad@eelawcentre.org.za