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Private food program gives hope to South African blacks during drought

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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.

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