Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
There is an interesting debate at the moment, both in medical circles and around kitchen tables, about the cause of diabetes. As a diabetic of many years, it has caught my attention.
Throughout the world, diabetes is on the rise, and in some countries, spectacularly so. This year, in his State of the Nation Address, President Zuma specifically mentioned diabetes as a challenge to our nation. I think it was more than a nod to his fiancée, Ms Bongi Ngema-Zuma, whose Foundation raises awareness on diabetes. It was, I believe, a call to our Government to prioritise prevention and treatment of this growing disease.
I was a little concerned, therefore, about the President’s reference to "encouraging South Africans to live healthier lives to reduce the impact of diabetes". While we all know that we should exercise, get enough sleep, drink enough water and have a balanced diet, is Government willing to take the next step and endorse current science?
Is there enough commitment to move from vague references to healthy lifestyles, towards educating South Africans on food choices – from what we eat to where it comes from?
One of South Africa’s leading sports scientists, Professor Tim Noakes, is in the thick of the debate over the role of carbohydrates in accelerating the onset and worsening of diabetes. Science indicates that a high-carbohydrate diet is a diabetes no-no. Professor Noakes himself is genetically predisposed to diabetes through his family history, and has adopted a low-carbohydrate, high protein, high-fat diet, with good results. But he is not alone.
I have managed my diabetes for several decades purely through diet. I seldom eat carbohydrates, but I eat a good amount of fresh vegetables, chicken and fish. Considering the schedule I manage, as an octogenarian, I consider my health sufficient evidence that there is something worth pursuing in the low-carbohydrate argument against diabetes.
Professor Noakes has pointed out that in the 1920s the medical community believed that diabetics should stay away from potatoes, rice and bread. That message was subverted in America, where high-carbohydrate diets were encouraged. The standard nutritional guide emerged that protein should form the smallest portion of any meal. Now America has a dual problem, widespread obesity and escalating diabetes.
If South Africa is to wage war on diabetes, Government is going to have to weigh-in on this debate. It is not the sole domain of health-nuts and doctors. It affects the insurance industry, the food industry, labour, finance and health.
In last week’s Sunday Times, the nutrition manager of the South African sugar Association claimed that carbohydrates are the "only source of fuel for the brain", that eliminating them from one’s diet "will be detrimental to health", and that low-carbohydrate diets are "impractical for the South African population to follow" because they are costly.
Science will have to deal with some of the arguments thrown at this debate. But I think Government has a responsibility not only to listen to science, but to find ways around the financial obstacles, if they exist. The IFP promoted this same message when we urged the former President and the late former Minister of Health to stick to science in the fight against HIV/Aids. We then secured free anti-retrovirals in KwaZulu Natal from Bohringer-Ingelheim to get around the obstacle of cost. That is the responsibility of leaders.
In this case, though, I disagree that a low-carbohydrate diet is prohibitively costly. The point is not to eat red meat at every meal.
It is to move towards dramatically increasing the consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits.
I have spoken before of my grave concern when I travel throughout South Africa and see fallow land where once there were cultivated fields. Many of our people who previously relied on subsistence agriculture are now buying their food, and often buying it in bulk.
This translates into less fresh produce, more preservatives and higher carbohydrate consumption.
The IFP has championed a return to subsistence farming because we see the threat to food security as something that must be solved, and something that can be solved. There is a great deal of underutilized land and a great number of unemployed people in our country. Should we not be teaching people to grow food for their families?
It worries me that farmers are being pushed out of South Africa by insecurity, both physical and financial. The uncertainty around land reform policy has seen thousands of farmers changing their profession.
Yet half of Government’s land reform projects have failed to permanently improve the quality of life of their beneficiaries. In many cases, new farm owners are not equipped with the skills to make it work.
The point is that South Africa is moving away from subsistence farming and embracing a government-sponsored culture of dependency. I wonder then whether Government will buy into the South African Sugar Association’s argument that our people cannot afford to follow a diet that will reduce the prevalence of diabetes. Unfortunately, the ruling Party is adept at ignoring the facts because they are hard to act on.
Changing South Africa’s diet will mean removing the obstacles to a flourishing agricultural sector.
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP