'It’s paralysing studying while you’re hungry'

South African students like Bianca Nonhlanhla Skhosana are increasingly using food banks to survive.

Video Transcript

BIANCA NONHLANHLA SKHOSANA: There's nothing more debilitating and paralysing than studying while you are hungry.

- This is South Africa. It's one of the most unequal countries in the world according to the World Bank. And you can see that gap between rich and poor affecting university students today. Studies done before the pandemic showed that about a third of students were going to class hungry. The coronavirus pandemic has made that problem worse. And, now, more students are having to turn to food banks. Bianca Nonhlanhla Skhosana is a fourth year medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

BIANCA NONHLANHLA SKHOSANA: So ever since the crisis hit things have been extremely difficult.

- Two of my jobs came to an end. I did promotions. I was hosting events. And that put a lot of financial strain on me because my mom is unemployed. And that's when I started to worry that I couldn't take care of myself. I couldn't afford to buy all the food that I needed.

- The cost of going to university has been the subject of protests for many years in South Africa. Recently, supporters of the Fees Must Fall movement started by students at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg took to the street calling for more financial assistance from the government. Bianca is one of hundreds of students at the uni who's had to turn to food parcel program for help. Boikhutso Maubane runs the programme.

BOIKHUTSO MAUBANE: And then we have our food care kit. When we look at how food insecurity affects the student population, at time it can impact the concentration span. It can impact the attention span. In providing these care kits, they are able to counter challenges of stress, anxiety, or any other mental health challenges that might arise from not having access to food or toiletry supplies.

BIANCA NONHLANHLA SKHOSANA: I was so surprised. There was toiletries, non-perishable foods. I'm really grateful that I don't have to go through that struggle of having to think of where my next meal is coming from.

- Though this is the first time Bianca has had to ask for help to buy food, experts say it's part of a bigger ongoing problem.

PAULA KNIPE: A few studies on food insecurity and-- at South African tertiary institutions show an alarming picture, you know, mirroring the-- the social divisions of the country.

- A South African government spokesperson told the BBC the National Student Financial Aid scheme, "provides fully-subsidized support to students from poor and working class backgrounds for accommodation and living expenses. Students who live in catering residences receive full support for their meal expenses for the academic year." But students complain that it doesn't cover the cost of food, and there are concerns that some are having to look to other ways to support themselves.

PAULA KNIPE: Some other coping mechanisms that-- that we we're now getting reports of on campuses inclu-- include transactional sex, uh, particularly by-- used by female students as a coping mechanism. One report actually also indicated, um, that 9% of students relied on selling their belonging to buy some food. But the harsher reality is that, you know, most of these students end up dropping out as they have to, you know, find jobs to support themselves, and-- and that's the decision they have to make at the end of the day.