Since South African students began the movement “Fees Must Fall” in 2015 demanding the university fee reduced and the education budget increased, the government has presented a range of relief measures, although being accused of doing so halfheartedly.
But there is still one problem rampant among the university student community that hasn’t been addressed properly – the hunger crisis.
As the protest campaign draws more interest to the issue, experts warned it is something that needs to be attended to urgently. Studies have pointed out that it not only impacts the students’ academic performance and mental health, but also forces some to drop out early, or even turn to stealing.
Currently, there is not a lot of research focusing on the South African university students’ hunger problem, but reports before the COVID-19 pandemic indicated as many as 30% of the students might be going to class with an empty stomach.
Although South Africa is considered one of the most food secure countries in the continent, hunger remains a major problem, and likely will deteriorate especially after the pandemic.
Statistics South Africa reported that up to 6.8 million people in the country, or 20% of the households, faced hunger in 2017. Last year, it forecasted the nation’s food crisis would be aggravated as the people continue to lose their income because of COVID-19. Its survey found the ratio of respondents experiencing hunger increased nearly two times after the lockdown.
According to the World Bank, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and it expected 60% of the population might fall under the poverty line in 2020.
Many South African students from underprivileged families are able to access the tertiary education through financial aids from the government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (similar to Thailand’s Student Loan Fund). Beginning in 1996, the program has been credited for boosting the country’s university admission rates.
However, several news reports and academic studies similarly suggested that the students think the money they receive from the program is far from adequate. They also said the program doesn’t cover food costs, although the official statement says it provides for food and other living expenses.
Starved of food, and also future
Many South African universities have launched a support program providing their students with free food or living packages. For example, the Cape Town University’s food aid program said it distributed approximately 600 lunch sets every day.
Despite some relief measures in place, surveys found many students did not know about their university’s aid campaign, or felt too ashamed to receive the help openly.
Around 30% of the UKZN students said in the 2019 survey that they were “embarrassed” to accept food aid, or to reveal they could not afford food. Nearly 70% of the respondents said hunger “diminishes [their] self-esteem.”
The report also indicated the students believed hunger significantly impacted their academic performance, with almost 65% said it affected their concentration. About 30% said they had to skip classes due to the lack of food.
Several experts pointed out that the majority of students facing food insecurity are from disadvantaged backgrounds, therefore, they might be the first of the family to have access to university while also being the breadwinner. The lack of food and financial support during their study could compel them to choose jobs over education.
While access to higher education helps increase chances for people to escape poverty, this particular hunger issue in South Africa shows that the inability to afford food could be a great complication that deprives these students of the opportunity they have already acquired.
The 2017 data analysis from Statistics South Africa found only 29% of undergraduate students could complete their program within the 3-year required period, while 29% took four to six years, and the rest took more than six years or dropped out entirely.
Although there are still not enough studies to conclude that hunger is a significant factor to South Africa’s rather high university dropout rates, the 2015 Free State University research called for an immediate action, as “food is a basic physiological need, it is feasible that food insecurity may contribute to poor student success in South Africa.”
“The ideals of higher education… representing an opportunity through which individuals can escape poverty, are defeated if large numbers of students are going hungry, and threaten the country’s investment in human capital,” the researchers concluded.