A clash between government departments and a lack of funds is crippling more than 100000 destitute HIV-Aids and TB patients in KwaZulu-Natal.
They need a special porridge to stop the side effects of their medication but the government has not had any stock for two months simply because they cannot pay the service providers.
Yesterday, spokesman of the health department, Leon Mbanjwa, admitted that the province's nutrition programme to help the poor with food supplements had failed.
"This was not part of our mandate, but when we heard that people were starving and could not take their medication, our department stepped in.
"However, it was only short-term given our budget constraints. And now we need R60million to continue with the scheme."
He said appeals to the Treasury to provide the shortfall in the budget have "fallen on deaf ears".
"It is an open secret that we asked for the money to supplement this programme but nothing has been done.
"Instead we ran into major difficulties because the department of social welfare felt that this was a clash with their programme to provide pap and cooking oil to the poor. There were sentiments expressed that our programme will make people become over-dependent on government handouts.
"Our department felt that while the nutrition programme which is geared to build up the immune system is not part of our mandate we stepped in to assist the poor because health is a human rights issue," Mbanjwa said.
"Our hands are tied on this one. Are we here to take care of our own or spend money on 2010?"
The department kick-started the programme in 2006 to help HIV and Aids patients to have something to eat before taking their antiretroviral cocktails and the XDR or MDR TB medication.
Patients increasingly complained of having harsh side effects, including vomiting, when taking their TB and HIV medication without food.
Now, service providers are concerned that people could die without their porridge.
They say the UMgungundlovu and eThekwini health districts have been hardest hit and in recent months have noted an increase in the queues for the nutrition they provide to more than 50000 people.
Patients outside Edendale Hospital in Pietermaritzburg - most of them HIV positive - told Sowetan that the discontinuation of the programme has left them suffering.
"We have been coming here for the past two months to collect our porridge. But the nurses here tell us there is nothing. We are told that those responsible for the food have not delivered it."
Similar stories have been heard from those who go to hospitals and clinics in the Durban area. For most, the government handout is the only food they have.
The service providers for the food programme are Bantu Bato Management Services, responsible for Pietermaritzburg and surrounding areas, and Dawn Feed in the eThekwini (Durban) district.
Bantu Bato Management Services director Mfundo Thango confirmed that there has been a hiccup in the programme but referred enquiries to the health department.
Director of Dawn Feed, Dawn Schneeberger, confirmed that there is a problem with the food distribution.
She said the service providers were inundated with calls from hospitals and clinics asking about food deliveries.