South African education activists and schools go to court over government backtracking on National School Nutrition Programme

Trust grantee Equal Education (EE) and the school governing bodies of two schools in the South African region of Limpopo launched an urgent court application against the Department of Basic Education and provincial education departments on 12th June 2020. EE and the school governing bodies 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 18th March when a national state of disaster was declared in South Africa, and a national lockdown enforced as result of the coronavirus pandemic, jeopardising the food security of learners and exacerbating the severe hardship experienced within their households.

EE and the school governing bodies, represented by Trust grantees Equal Education Law Centre and SECTION27, have filed legal papers at the North Gauteng High Court, which argue that the failure of the Department of Basic Education 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.

The programme had been in operation since 1994 and has been widely lauded for its successes in combating learner hunger and improving learner outcomes. Initially halted in March at the start of a national lockdown due to COVID-19, the Department of Basic Education partially reopened schools on 1st June for grades 7 and 12. In May, the Department stated its commitment to roll out the programme to children in other grades, but on 1st June backtracked on this commitment, in a statement by Minister Motshekga who said that the Department only had “intentions” of reopening the NSNP to all eligible learners at a later stage, offering no time-frames or plans for such a roll out. The Department claimed it did not have the capacity to roll out “new programmes” despite the nutrition programme having run for 26 years.

EE says on the matter: “The closure of the NSNP impacts not only on 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. “

With the support of legal counsel Geoff Budlender SC, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi SC and Thabang Pooe, EE 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 under the NSNP regardless of whether or not they have resumed classes at their respective schools. EE are “seeking a structural order requiring the national and provincial departments, within five days of the court order, to each provide a plan or programme to ensure that all qualifying learners receive their daily meal from the NSNP.”

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