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Gauteng food banks remain empty

Amost half-a-million Gauteng beneficiaries reliant on feeding schemes under the suspended provincial food bank programme, having already gone hungry for four months, are now facing a bleak Christmas.

Allegations of financial mismanagement, cancelled contracts with food suppliers, nonsensical tender deals, court battles and a general failure to take care of the hungry has resulted in the current desperate plight.

In July the Department of Social Development cancelled contracts with the feeding schemes – bringing food supplies for hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries (most of them children) to an abrupt halt. The reason given was that the five food banks responsible for providing for Gauteng’s feeding schemes were allegedly mismanaging their government funding.

And despite promising temporary solutions for the beneficiaries going forward, nothing has been done to feed those reliant on feeding schemes while the allegations are investigated.

Investigations into the food bank programme were initiated by Treasury in July to look into the alleged mismanagement of funds by five NPOs. At the time it was said that the investigation report was expected to be released in December.

But according to sources, the investigations were completed quickly and the NPOs were reinstated in September after no mismanagement was found. Reinstatement meant that the NPOs were entitled to once again receive government funding to pay suppliers for food for the early childhood development facilities they supply meals to.

In October Health-e News spoke to Kirinox, a non-profit organisation supplying food to an ECD centre.

“We were getting food from Power Foods, and would then supply the ECDs. But since this whole drama, we have not been getting any food and we’ve been unable to supply ECDs,” said an employee who asked to remain anonymous.

She confirmed that several other ECDs were also not receiving food.“We get calls from the ECD principals enquiring about food, and we no longer know what to tell them,” she said.

According to the source, the NPOs are now facing debt review as they have not received any money from the government since July.

“We don’t have money for rent, we don’t have money to pay for the cars we use, the banks are on us wanting their monthly payments,” she said.

She said employees were no longer receiving salaries.“There is no money to pay people,” she said. “The #thumamina (an ANC slogan meaning ‘send me’) is killing us, yet the ANC expect us to cast our votes in 2019. Do they think we will vote for them when they treat us like this?”

Treasury, which investigated the food banks, referred Health-e to the Department of Social Development for the findings of the investigation. Repeated attempts to get comment from the DSD have been ignored.

The suffering NPOs claim that the dire situation was caused by the arrival of new Social Development HOD Thembeni Mhlongo.

“Since her arrival from Mpumalanga in April, everything has changed. She has ruined the food programme, she must go back to Mpumalanga,” said an anonymous source.

Claims have been made that Mhlongo disrupted the food bank operations by stopping all payments to them. She allegedly appointed new suppliers and then reinstated food banks in a move the NPO’s all claim does not make any sense.

According to the NPOs, government released a media statement alleging mismanagement of funds by the food banks. This made it appear as though they were wasting money meant for the vulnerable instead of feeding them.

But when the investigation report came back in September proving that the allegations were groundless, no public announcement was ever made.

Now the NPOs are planning to sue government for defamation as they believe their reputations have been damaged.

According to the NPOs, the investigation results have still not been made available to the public. The only reason they know they have been cleared of wrongdoing is because they were suddenly reinstated in September.

Health-e’s source said: “You know when we talk about two government departments that are collapsing in Gauteng, it is Health and Social Development. We are going to see Life Esidimeni number two soon. Many people who rely on the foodbanks to eat are on treatment and cannot take their medication on empty stomachs.”

“The ANC is in power because of us. Children are no longer getting good nutrition. We talk about fighting hunger and stunting, but how do we fight it when this happens?” said the anonymous NPO employee.

“Now we are heading towards the festive season and people will not even receive their Christmas food parcels,” they said.

Dennis Rodgers, CEO of Power Foods – the company that was responsible for supplying the NPOs with food, said new DSD head Mhlongo put out a closed tender that excluded all previous suppliers. She then appointed a middleman in Cape Town who does not have capacity for the work, so he outsourced the tender to a Johannesburg company called BEE Food Manufacturing.

According to Rodgers, the current suppliers have contracts till 2019 and 2020.

“The contracts are not cancelled to date, but the work has been given to other suppliers without allowing current suppliers to apply. And why appoint a guy in Cape Town who has no infrastructure to subcontract a company in Gauteng, creating an unnecessary middleman? Why? It’s obvious corruption,” Rodgers said.

He added: “This means children and people on HIV treatment have not been given meals since mid-August. My delivered meals would only have lasted till then, so we have children with no fortified correct nutrition and HIV patients taking anti retrovirals without proper nutrition.”

He added: “My absolute main concern is the three-month period you have for a child to go hungry before stunting starts – and then it’s irreversible. This is beyond a disgrace. I want the President to intervene as the Premier has lost control of government obviously.”

Government currently owes Power Foods over R100-million for supplying food to the NPOs. But with damages and the contracts ending in March 2020, the final amount will be over R200-million.

Rodgers has confirmed that the Gauteng government is refusing to pay his company. He has filed a second set of papers to the court.

“The exact amount plus attorneys’ costs is R114 084 673.30,” he said.

“Even if they get another supplier, I will get my money from government by suing them,” he said, explaining that a new way to feed the children was needed urgently.

The latest reports are that some ECDs have been given food by the BEE Food Manufacturing Company, while others remain without. Pictures of the food delivered to ECDs and that were made available to Health-e News show packets of food labelled by hand in marking pen – something Rodgers says is illegal.

Health-e News repeatedly sent questions to DSD in a series of emails – with no response received for three weeks. In the last week of October, DSD spokesperson Mbangwa Xaba sent the following WhatsApp message: “As the government we are satisfied that all food banks have food.”

But this month Health-e News spoke to the DSD HOD Thembeni Mhlongo about the allegations made against her and the status of the food programme.

Responding to the allegations against her, she said “I dispute them … Neither did my arrival have anything to do with the manner in which the Department is doing business.”

According to Mhlongo, in May 2018 National Treasury issued circular 21 of 2018 which affected the manner in which the Department of Social Development is supposed to do business. “The change in business model was precipitated by the introduction of the circular, and had nothing to do with my arrival,” she claimed.

According to Mhlongo, her Department is subsidising ECDs at R15 per child per day.

“Therefore, all ECDs that are currently funded by the Department should be in a position to provide meals,” she said.

Commenting on the Power Foods matter, she told Health-e News the matter is sub-judice as Power Foods had approached the High Court for a resolution.

“It is our submission that we do not owe Power Foods and neither do we have a contract and/or Service Level Agreement with Power Foods. No payment is due to Power Foods by the Department,” said Mhlongo.

“As far as I am concerned, the ECD’s are supposed to have been receiving food and if there are some that are not receiving, I shall be doing an audit to determine where they are and find the reasons for them not receiving the food,” she added.

“I refute the allegation that the programme has been stopped. It is just that the manner in which we do the programme has been affected by how we do business now,” she said.

Mhlongo also explained the new tender situation.

“The appointment of BEE Food Manufacturing was through a Supply Chain Management Process in the Department and not by any food bank. However, as initially indicated, Power Foods was contracted by the food banks to deliver food to them.”

A recent letter penned by the Boipatong ECDs Forum, which is made up of 20 ECDs, claims they have no food and are desperate to feed their children.

 

An edited version of this story was published in the Saturday Star.

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