The news of Grade R-7 learners having being sold drug-laced muffins sent shockwaves across the country, shining the spotlight on the need for better vetting processes of street vendors and improved school safety.
In September, 90 learners from Pulamadibogo Primary School in Soshanguve were hospitalised after eating muffins laced with marijuana, allegedly sold to them by young people outside their school.
The children were rushed to local medical facilities after experiencing nausea, stomach cramps and vomiting. Teachers at the school had also reported having witnessed strange behaviour from some of the young learners.
Amukelani Nyulungu (19), Ofentse Maluleke (21) and 29-year-old Katlego Matlala are facing 43 counts of attempted murder for allegedly selling the edibles to the minors.
They were denied bail in October following protests from community members who are adamant that the alleged drug peddlers won’t be allowed back into the community.
While some residents believe the drugged muffins were initially intended for a local high school, the court has heard how the suspects allegedly threatened children who refused to eat the cakes.
Food safety concerns
As the focus remained on the bizarre and disturbing story – reports of the death of two Grade 1 Soweto learners emerged – lifting the lid on the deplorable quality of food sold in some South African spaza shops.
The young ones had allegedly consumed biscuits and juice from a local tuck shop.
Two other Grade 1 girls, also from a Soweto school, were soon also admitted to hospital after allegedly eating the same goods bought from the same tuck shop.
In the following days, at least six other children died and several others were later hospitalised in various parts of the country, including the Eastern Cape and Bloemfontein. The young people had also consumed either expired or counterfeit goods from spaza shops, which are predominantly owned by foreign nationals.
The incidents soured relations between the locals and the spaza shop owners after, through various community-led initiatives, it was discovered that in several cases, the best before date, which gives consumers an idea of how long foods will last before they lose quality, had either been scratched or changed by store owners.
Spaza shops, were traditionally owned by Black South Africans during apartheid and were the life blood of every township, selling goods in small amounts, such as half loaves of bread, to meet the needs of the poorest customers.
The informal shops, whose slang word implies – “just getting by” – also save money for cash-strapped South Africans, some who live in deep rural areas, and would have to spend a lot to get to town to buy a bag of mealie meal and fish oil to cook.
According to a study by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrian Studies, 72% of the shops are now owned by migrants.
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Government steps in
Amid public anger and swirling questions over food quality checks, government intervened.
Various provincial health departments held workshops to educate residents on the importance of checking expiry dates on the food they buy.
Residents have since been encouraged to report any shop selling expired or counterfeit products to Environmental Health Practitioners offices (EHPs).
The Eastern Cape MEC for Health, Nomakhosazana Meth, has on the other hand called for food safety inspections to be intensified and for action to be taken against shop owners found to be selling expired goods.
The court case into the Soshanguve ‘space muffin’ scandal meanwhile continues in the local magistrate court.
The National Association of School Governing Bodies (Nasgb) has since urged the Tshwane Metro Police to do random searches and make sure street vendors are selling safe food to learners.
The Nasgb and the Democratic Alliance (DA) have also called for better vetting processes for street vendors and improved safety measures at South African schools.
Written by: Nokwazi Qumbisa