Affidavits from children who said they were starving made for "tragic reading", lawyers for Equal Education (EE) and the education authorities agreed during an over three-hour virtual court hearing on Thursday. But that was where the consensus ended.
EE is in a court bid to force government to immediately reintroduce the National Schools Nutrition Programme (NSNP), which feeds over nine million learners.
North Gauteng High Court Judge Sulet Potterill said she would hand down her ruling in the matter "as soon as is humanly possible".
EE supported by the Equal Education Law Centre and SECTION27, wants the judge to declare that all qualifying learners, regardless of whether or not they have resumed classes, must receive a daily meal. It wants a structural interdict giving court supervision going forward.
National and provincial education ministers say it is unnecessary. They maintain that the programme, suspended when schools shut in March because of the Covid-19 lockdown, is being rolled out and logistical problems are being dealt with. By August, when all grades are back at school, the matter will be fully resolved.
Advocate Geoff Budlender, for EE, said, "They (the ministers) are playing games with this court, with the children and their parents in opposing this application. It is cynical and callous. It is ducking accountability and it is time to put an end to it."
He said the national minister has assured that the programme would be rolled out to all qualifying learners from the beginning of June, but she had backtracked on that and presently only those in grade seven and 12 were being fed.
"The scale of the problem is enormous. These children go hungry every day. There is a risk of malnutrition and long-term damage to their health.
"Much of this is not in dispute. Instead they (the ministers) say there will be a gradual and phased in re-introduction," said Budlender.
He said the authorities had only "sprung into action" when the court application was launched. What followed was "chaos and confusion", with different instructions issued, withdrawn and then reinstated in different provinces.
"It seems there were plans in place, but no action on the ground," he said.
Admitted as amicus curiae, the Children's Institute, represented by the Centre for Child Law's Advocate Karabo Ozah, described a desperate situation with more and more households being plunged into poverty since the lockdown and food prices rising.
"There should have been proper planning. Now there is a scramble," said Ozah.
Advocate Marius Oosthuizen, for the ministers, said it was unfair to cast them as being "uncaring" and accusations of them being callous or playing games were unfounded.
"The ministers could not, overnight, provide nine million meals. There were logistical problems: transport, social distancing, screening and some suppliers now asking for more money because of food hiked prices ... We are doing our best under difficult times," he said.
Oosthuizen said that from Monday, when the next phase of grades returned to school, the problem would be reduced by two thirds and then, in August, when the rest went back, everything would be up and running.
"Yes, they (the ministers) haven't delivered and a lot of children haven't received meals. But they are not sitting back and doing nothing. They are monitoring, auditing and working day and night to address it as soon as practically possible. And if this order is granted, it won't help," said Oosthuizen.
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