Private food program gives hope to South African blacks during drought

Although it is near harvest time, the rocky red earth of this rural African community is yielding mainly dust. Some of the crop died, the rest is too small, says local resident Samuel Moropodi, pointing to stunted maize stalks swaying in the hot afternoon wind.

Nebo, like most other black rural areas in South Africa, is suffering through a devastating drought that the government has described as possibly the most severe this century. But unlike most of the other rural communities, this one is fortunate enough to be getting some outside assistance.

The help is coming from Operation Hunger, a program for feeding children and the aged while encouraging them to feed themselves through local self-help projects. Operation Hunger has been operating quietly in black areas since 1980. But drought and rising black unemployment have underscored the value of the program as well as made it the subject recently of many more appeals for assistance.

''I've got urgent appeals that would require us to at least double our budget of some $30,000 per month on feeding schemes,'' says Ina Perlman, secretary for Operation Hunger.

Looked at in broad terms, Operation Hunger is a drop of water on a parched desert. Poverty is endemic in the black rural communities of South Africa. The white South African government, say its critics, has caused much of the problem by forcibly resettling millions of blacks onto overpopulated rural settlements in the tribal homelands.

The homelands policy has also allowed the white government to transfer responsibility for the rural poverty problem to the fledging tribal authorities, critics of the policy say.

While Operation Hunger cannot hope to reverse the deteriorating agricultural conditions in the black rural areas, it can have an impact in isolated cases. That is evident here at Nebo.

Three times each week more than 400 local schoolchildren line up for a ration of nutritious soup and a piece of bread. The food is provided by Operation Hunger, although it is prepared and distributed locally.

Mrs. Perlman says without such a program, there would be far more malnutrition in Nebo than already exists.

With this year's maize harvest looking very poor and South Africa's dry winter just ahead, Mrs. Perlman expects the food program here and in other villages it serves to make the difference between starvation and survival for many in 1983.

Operation Hunger has more than 100 such food projects in South Africa and puts meals on the plates of about 120,000 blacks - mostly children and pensioners - three times each week. The program is administered by the South African Institute of Race Relations, but has no full-time staff and works only through established local community organizations. All its funds are raised through private donations, which for the most part come in small amounts from individuals.

Ideally, Operation Hunger tries to promote subsistence agriculture in black rural communities, but in most areas there is not enough water, Mrs. Perlman says.

Where the prospects for even subsistence agriculture are limited, Operation Hunger promotes self-help projects to assist local communities in raising revenues to purchase food. One of the more noteworthy of these helps Ndebele-speaking blacks, known for their magnificent beadwork, gain better markets and higher prices for their wares.

Nebo is one of the rare black rural communities where there is a glimmer of hope of agricultural self-sufficiency. The local chief has agreed to donate land to a local group of women who have been working with Operation Hunger. The land is adjacent to a small natural water hole.

If all the pieces fit together, donors will provide funds for a pump and a water storage tank so the water from the spring can be used to irrigate the land donated by the chief. A group of women in Nebo have agreed to farm the land once it is irrigated.

But even in Nebo, hunger could become an acute problem by the end of the year. Not only has the drought withered the garden plots of most residents here, but also rising black unemployment in South Africa's urban areas is backing up into rural villages like this one.

Most of the men in Nebo rely on jobs many miles away in the cities. But many have been laid off in recent months and can only wait until white employers begin recruiting once again. Due to recession, the prospects of more hiring are not bright for most of the remainder of this year.

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