A few weeks ago, a colleague shared a trending tweet on social media by a 3rd year nursing student, Keabetswe. The tweet read ‘O jewa ke eng?’ loosely translated ‘what is bothering you?’ This singular tweet, written in Keabetswe’s home language (Setswana), had garnered over 8,000 responses in less than two months, I was definitely intrigued.
The responses, on the surface, came across as an ‘open season’ for confessions, but as one dug deeper, worrisome issues around the gross inequality that plagues South Africa came to the fore, specifically that of the number of school leavers, even those in tertiary institutions, who were hungry. A particular response read:
“Hardly bath no toiletries. 3 days without food. Can’t even go to class. No money for rent for following month. 3rd year student at NWM. I feel like dying.Depressed as f***. Posted this using campus WI-FI. Kopa thuso babaetso”.
Unfortunately, this is a reflection of the food security status of a good number of students all over campuses in South African tertiary institutions. In a society with gross levels of inequalities such as South Africa, it is hardly a surprise that the right to food is constantly denied for a vast majority of the poor.
This however remains an anomaly, given the constitutional guarantees to the right to food in South Africa. Section 27 of the Constitution guarantees the right to have access to food for everyone.
Furthermore, guarantees under international and regional instruments to which South Africa is signatory further enshrine the right to food for all.
Why then do we have students in South African tertiary institutions going to bed hungry daily? There isn’t one specific answer- the food insecurity in tertiary institutions is a reflection of the food insecurity in the broader society.
Students are hungry because they come from homes where hunger is rife. Also, there is a vacuum for school leavers (students in tertiary institutions inclusive) in terms of social security nets in the country.
The ages of 18 – 59 within which school leavers fall, have no legalised or formalised structures for social assistance in South Africa. The assumption that these ages are in their productive years and a sense of dependence should not be fostered by the provision of grants, does not take cognisance of the fact that persons within this age group are often times studying or unemployed.
There is also the problem of budgetary allocation to tertiary institutions and student funding bodies such as NSFAS, and the processes leading up to the determination of subsistence allowance amounts, which doesn’t take into consideration the realities of a sufficiently nutritious basket of food for a month.
It should not be that students go to bed on our campuses hungry- for days. This should bother us all enough to seek urgent solutions. There isn’t one simple answer- the answer lies in a myriad of suggestions: student consultation, policy intervention, university administrations intervention, civil society action, non-state actors’ intervention and even judicial pronouncement. The truth is all hands must be on deck to feed our students.
Socio Economic Rights Project
Dullah Omar Institute