Stunting, a completely preventable condition that results from prolonged under-nutrition in pregnancy and the early years of a child’s life, impairs cognitive development and results in gross wastage of precious human capital.

In his second State of the Nation Address (Sona), President Cyril Ramaphosa outlined some key priorities. They included broadening access to inclusive growth and job creation, improving the education system, developing skills for the future, as well as enhancing the state’s capacity to address the needs of South Africans, especially the poor.

This was only a short while ago, but the president has made progress on some of his promises. In April 2019, Ramaphosa appointed a commission on the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), a commission he will personally chair, deputised by 4IR expert, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala. This is encouraging and will hopefully set South Africa on the path towards becoming a country with a firm grasp of the future.

However, a major obstacle to achieving the president’s dream to future-proof South Africa is that it is a stunted country.

Stunting, a completely preventable condition that results from prolonged under-nutrition in pregnancy and the early years of a child’s life, impairs cognitive development and results in gross wastage of precious human capital.

Stunting short-changes the next generation’s capacity to learn and denies them the opportunity to obtain jobs and fully participate in the country’s economy. It also leaves them in worse health, robbing them of a full and productive life and placing a further burden on an already-fragile health system and overstretched state services.

Stunting affects our country’s poorest communities most severely, threatening to widen the divides that have become characteristic of South African life, and keep the president’s promise of “inclusive growth” nothing but wishful thinking.

With the prevalence of stunting in South Africa as high as 27% for children under five, none of the president’s key priority areas are achievable if stunting continues to persist at current levels.

But stunting can be beaten, and it has been beaten in a number of developing countries around the world with similar sized economies to ours.

After a period of little improvement on stunting between 1996-2005, Peru made the fight against stunting a national priority and managed to slash the country’s prevalence of stunting by almost half between 2006 and 2016. But it took a commitment from the highest level of office, a nationwide coordinated response and dedicated and protected funding specifically for the fight against stunting that saw Peru achieve the success that it did. What does this suggest about our context? Victory against stunting in South Africa will remain elusive until our country’s political leadership firmly commits to make combating this silent epidemic a national priority.

As the president addresses the nation, we urge him to centre the fight against stunting in his strategies that aim to future-proof South Africa. Kenyan lawyer PLO Lumumba, although addressing a different matter, remarked quite rightly that, “Political will must come from the top… the top is what sets the tone”.

Now, it is up to Ramaphosa to set the tone and use his position to allow his administration to become the catalyst needed to end stunting. There’s no time like the present – if you are truly committed, Mr President, to improving the lives of South Africans, giving young people “a real head start” in the world of work, improving the educational outcomes of South Africa’s children and overcoming the grave injustices of our past, then act on stunting, now.

Duduzile Mkhize is communications specialist at the Grow Great Campaign.

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