A war of words has erupted between Western Cape MEC for Education Debbie Schafer and national government over the implementation of the emergency school feeding scheme in the province amid COVID-19 lockdown.
The tensions between the DA-led provincial government in the Western Cape and the national government came after the province announced the R18 million emergency school feeding programme to help vulnerable learners who depended on the National S.
All in all there are 9.6 million learners who rely on the government’s school feeding scheme in the country.
Schafer told Inside Education through her spokesperson Kerry Mauchline on Monday that the feeding scheme, which caters for over 100 000 learners in the province, will go ahead despite the disapproval from Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, Portfolio Committee on Basic Education, labour federation COSATU and its biggest affiliate, teacher union SADTU.
“The emergency feeding of children will go ahead. Under the lockdown, we are allowed to leave home to collect food, and buildings used to distribute food are allowed to be open. Social distancing protocols are being observed,” she told Inside Education.
“It is unfortunate that SADTU and COSATU have chosen not to support a humanitarian programme to feed children who might otherwise not have a meal that day.”
This week, Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba took a swipe at the provincial government for implementing the feeding scheme despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call to observe social distancing protocols.
“We do not want to expose our communities to the possibilities of contracting the virus. We cannot be telling people to stay safe and stay at home and at the same time we are encouraging them to collect food at school,” said Mbinqo-Gigaba.
Motshekga is on recording saying her department will not support any feeding scheme programmes during the lockdown period.
“We are not going to do anything different outside of what we normally do; we are not going to have special programmes; we are not going to run feeding schemes. We have accessed our capacity and we will not be able to do it,” Motsekga was quoted in media reports.
But the Western Cape provincial government insisted this week that the emergency feeding school programme will go ahead as planned.
The education MEC’s office told Inside Education that the department had informed the police about its plans to feed school children.
“SAPS has also been made aware of the plans, and has agreed to patrol the areas around the schools when meals are being served,” said Mauchline.
“We have issued detailed protocols to schools for the implementation of this essential work to ensure that social distancing is maintained and that our learners and staff are kept safe. Learners must bring their own food containers from home, which are not touched by the staff or volunteers. We also ensure that learners remain at least 1.5m apart from one another. We also provide soap and water for learners to wash their hands, or hand sanitizer. Learners will not eat at school – they will go directly to school, collect their meals, and go directly home.”
On Monday, Equal Education, the Equal Education Law Centre, SECTION27, the Centre for Child Law, and the Children’s Institute wrote a letter to Motshekga urging her to restore the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) immediately.
“We encourage the Department of Education to urgently reconsider its approach to the provisioning of school nutrition programmes during school closures. To allow for the safe and accessible distribution of food, schools should be able to serve as collection points for food packages or pick-up-and-go meals specifically tailored for beneficiaries of the NSNP,” NGOs told Motshekga in the letter.
“Minister Motsekga, these are exceptional times that call for compassionate, clear and decisive leadership. The continuation of school nutrition provisioning for learners is critical and urgent and we urge you to ensure that children’s needs are prioritized and protected in government’s plans.”
Cosatu said at the weekend that while Ramaphosa and government were trying to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, Schafer was doing the opposite.
“We condemn her conduct in the strongest possible terms and herewith support the Sadtu for her immediate removal as MEC of Education in this province,” said Cosatu in a statement.
The trade union federation said it cannot allow children to risk being infected with Covid-19, saying Schäfer should be charged and investigated for her actions.
“We call on the premier of the Western Cape to remove the MEC with immediate effect and to replace her with a capable person. We also call on the national health minister to intervene in this matter,” it said.
Cosatu has also called for Schafer to be charged for contravening the lockdown regulations and for an investigation by the Human Rights Commission.