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S. African relief groups find better ways to combat hunger

In contrast to the parched earth and empty bellies, South Africa's worst drought in living memory is also leaving a more hopeful legacy of racial cooperation, increased effectiveness of relief agencies, and unprecedented public generosity.

For two years, and in some areas longer, this country's rural blacks have been hard hit by hunger, malnutrition, and some starvation, relief agency officials say. A deep recession has sharply increased rural joblessness, while lack of rain has devastated subsistence agriculture -- problems many feel are compounded by South Africa's apartheid policies.

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But amid the gloom there are some bright spots that suggest a start has been made to combat hunger far more effectively in the future. While rural black impoverishment cannot be solved without major changes in government polices that force blacks into overcrowded rural ''homelands,'' many analysts say, present relief agency efforts mark an important step forward.

The first step was taken last year when three major South African relief agencies -- Operation Hunger, World Vision, and the Red Cross -- decided to work together.

''Agencies of this sort are usually a little proud and competitive,'' says Norman Holford, secretary of the committee that now coordinates the activities of the three agencies. But the magnitude of the drought forced cooperation, he says.

The new coordinated relief effort, since joined by seven other agencies, has raised more than $5 million in drought assistance -- cash and donations in kind -- in just nine months. Mr. Holford says the sum represents the largest outpouring ever of public support for an aid program in South Africa. And most of it has come from whites.

''We've had the most incredible response,'' says Ina Perlman, national manager of Operation Hunger. ''It's obvious there are a lot of people in this country who care.''

Operation Hunger appears to be the centerpiece of the immediate hunger relief program. Started in 1980 under the auspices of the South African Institute of Race Relations as a modest effort to alleviate hunger, Operation Hunger has ballooned to the point where it now feeds 600,000 rural blacks several times a week. And the requests for food keep pouring in.

Fortunately, donations have kept pace. Ms. Perlman's desk is cluttered with letters pledging contributions. Trade unions, supermarkets, and businesses have made donations.

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But Perlman is most struck by the fact that 70 percent of the more than $2 million in donations made to Operation Hunger in the past year have come from individuals and in small amounts (under $40).

The weakness of the hunger relief programs is that they are largely reactions to present need. ''We are trying our best to promote long-term self-help programs, but in so many areas the first urgency is to keep people alive,'' says Perlman.

The real value of the new coordinated relief agency approach is that it is beginning to look beyond the immediate need. ''We're just getting down to some long-term planning,'' says Holford. ''We've drawn up a map of South Africa, pinpointing areas that are receiving aid, areas that are over-aided, and areas that are blank.''

Holford sees this eventually leading to a coordinated strategy for helping build rural infrastructures -- water wells, sanitation facilities, and conservation techniques -- that will allow communities to cope better with future drought and ongoing hunger.

One of the most dramatic features of the present drought is the stark contrast between the depths of black rural poverty, and the affluence of the white, mostly urban community.

Perlman has put more than 50,000 miles on her Operation Hunger-emblazoned station wagon (donated by South African Breweries Ltd.) in the past 18 months, traveling the back roads of rural South Africa.

She says she has glimpsed a huge problem of rural black poverty that the white government has worsened and tried to sweep aside by moving more and more blacks into the ''homelands'' and out of the so-called ''white'' areas.

''One must not delude oneself that even absent the drought there is viable subsistence agriculture going on in these areas. There isn't,'' she says. ''For 90 percent of these people hunger is a chronic problem that is only being exacerbated by the drought.''

Holford says the South African government is fond of saying that blacks in South Africa are better off than blacks elsewhere in Africa. Holford, who has traveled extensively in Africa, says this may be true in the urban areas. But in the rural areas, despite South Africa's wealth, ''we are behind much of the rest of Africa.''

Relief agency officials appear to be preparing to continue their efforts even after the present drought abates. That may be some time though. The recent crop of corn -- a staple for poor black South Africans -- was dismal and another one won't be planted until this October.

None of the relief agencies are sanguine that they alone can solve the hunger problem in South Africa. Perlman says her only gratification comes from viewing the problem in individual terms, where she feels Operation Hunger is having an impact.

Perlman recently visited the first school where Operation Hunger began operating several years ago, in the far northern reaches of Transvaal province. Like many black children in rural areas, these students were initially small and underdeveloped for their age. But after a few years of solid diet thanks to Operation Hunger, Perlman says they have grown to be ''a glorious bunch of thugs.''

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