South Africa – Food insecurity is worsening in South Africa as the years go by. According to Stats SA almost a quarter of South African households have inadequate or severe inadequate access to food. Considering South Africa is technically food secure, every household should have access to food.
The situation is far worse than the statistics provided by Stats SA. According to Mervyn Abrahams, Pietermaritzburg Economic, Justice and Dignity, their research shows there are far more households who have inadequate access to food. While South Africa is a good secure nation, the cost of food makes it unaffordable.
“South Africa is a food secure country at national level. We produce enough food to feed all our 60 million citizens. The difficulty is that South Africans are by and large net buyers of food. We buy our food at retail stores. The cost of food in relation to our income just makes everything unaffordable. We track a basket of 44 very basic foods and that basket now stands at R4835,96 in November of this year. That is a 13% increase in the cost of that basket since a year ago. When we look at levels of income, our income is not in any way relative to the increases we have seen whether it be in food, electricity, municipal service etc. It is actually the affordability crunch that is leading to the large-scale hunger in the country that we are experiencing at the moment.”
The reality of the hunger situation at ground level
The reality of the situation on the ground is far more severe than statistics can paint. Shahnaaz Paruk, CEO of Penny Appeal, has experienced first hand the hunger situation. There are many communities who are crying out for help. What Penny Appeal has found is even those who are working, who are the breadwinners, are struggling to put food on the table.
“We are definitely seeing a much larger cry of help coming from communities, coming through from families. We are seeing that even those individuals who are employed, it’s actually not enough anymore. Going back at least the last year or two, individuals who were earning less than about R950pm ($55), were considered unable to afford a normal food basket in a household. We are now seeing a huge call to us to increase the food baskets that we are giving out into communities. More and more people are coming to us and saying they are unable to provide for their families … What we find is both perishable and non-perishable items are now becoming a luxury. This is a stark awakening within Southern Africa.”
With the rise of inflation and climate change, food is becoming more scarce and more expensive. There are also more children who are suffering from malnutrition, said Paruk.
Paruk visited an impoverished community that sits just on the outskirts of Cape Town Central. Her visit there revealed how dire the hunger and food insecurity situation really is in South Africa.
“We distributed food packs and there was one lady in the beginning who came to us. Overrun with emotions, in absolute tears and she kept saying to us, ‘I don’t know what I would have done. I didn’t have anything for today’. For a moment I had to step aside and think, is this right? Is this real? Is this something that someone is just saying? It was not. It was a reality. This woman had genuine tears in her eyes. That is the reality of our nation currently. The reality is there are children who go to bed hungry. There are parents who go to bed hungry because they have to decide if they are going to let their children eat and they are going to miss a meal. They have to share the food. Food is restricted in some households. It paints a very dark picture for the South Africa that fought democracy.”
Food is seen as a commodity and not a necessity
As mentioned, South Africa is a food secure country. Producing enough food for all its citizens. So, it comes as a surprise that so many are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. A major part of the problem is that food has become a commodity, explained Abrahams.
“For us, food should be a basic necessity. It is part of our right to life. It is the means to sustain our life but when you look at food as a commodity that is traded on the market, then it’s a matter of how much profit can be made out of the sale of these foods. Therein lies a major problem. We are having more and more farms being monopolised. Farms are getting bigger and bigger. They are pushing out smaller players in the market in order to dominate the food market. In doing so, it comes at a cost to the consumer. The consumer has to pay this greater amount of prices for this good because we are becoming more and more price takers. It is all because the food system in South Africa is highly monopolised. It is highly commercialised. Food is not considered as a basic necessity for human beings. It’s considered a commodity from which you make a profit.”
Maize meal has kept on increasing and it is now 22% more expensive than last year. While farmers have been hit hard by fuel prices, the maize that currently sits on store shelves was harvested more than a year ago, said Abrahams. Maize should therefore not be increasing so heavily every month.
“The war in Ukraine-Russia has increased the price of flour on the global market which has led to increased cost on our local market. Over the last two or three months, the price of flour on the global market has significantly decreased. So why has the flour continued to increase over the last month? It increased by 4%. It is now 32% more expensive than it was a year ago. Brown bread increased last month by 2%. It is 20% more expensive than it was a year ago. So we really have to ask questions around not just the production of food, but the levels of profits that are being made within the food system.”
Government’s role in ending the food insecurity
Government has a huge role to play in ensuring that every South African has food on their table. This problem requires long term solutions, explained Abrahams. It is all about sorting the food system and bringing farms closer to towns.
“People do not have enough money on the ground to source their food. At the very least, our social security net needs to ensure that households can purchase sufficient and nutritious food as a basic human right … We have to reform our social security and increase it at least to the level of our food poverty line which the government sets themselves. That’s the first step. The second step is we have to transform our food system. We have to ensure we bring more players into the fold system. We have to bring in particularly women, small scale farmers more prominently into the system and we need to be able to start producing the food closer to the table where it is consumed so we don’t spend so much money on petrol trying to transport tomatoes from the border of Zimbabwe to Cape Town.”
There is a whole way we have to look at our food system and break up these big farms, said Abrahams. Smaller farms have to be introduced into the system to break up the monopoly that has been created and there is greater competition. Abrahams believes this is the only way the government can bring down food prices.
Food insecurity and unemployed graduates
Many of those who go hungry are those with formal education. Foreigners who work on farms, nepotism to the harsh requirements for jobs are some of the reasons that graduates go hungry, said Innocent Khumalo, Unemployed Graduate Association.
“We are the primary producers of our own foods but go to those farms and check who is working there. Who is qualified to work there? You find that most of the people who work there on those farms are illegal immigrants. The foreigners who don’t have documentation whereas you got a huge number of unemployed graduates in the field of agriculture. There is also a problem of experience. Our system is not favourable for the conditions our people are facing. You find that a student who just graduated is expected to have a minimum of three years and above for them to find formal employment. Where do you expect them to acquire these three years of practicality in the field? These things should be given by the institutions. They contribute to a high level of unemployment. All these factors contribute to this hunger crisis that we face in the country.”
The solutions and pressures placed on organisations like Penny Appeal
Poverty, unemployment and hunger go hand in hand. It is all linked. Poverty and unemployment leaves one without the means to buy food for their family which means children don’t get the nutrition they need. This creates an effect whereby children don’t develop into the leaders they can be. The conversation that needs to happen is why the government has so many grants but no grants or aid for food, said Paruk.
“If a person is hungry we should be focused on providing free food. It is a basic right. Why are we not seeing food relief grants, grants in aid for food vouchers? We saw this come to the forefront for the Covid pandemic where there were smaller grants that were awarded for a specified period of time. I’d like to know why we haven’t thought about expanding food kitchens, expanding our reach into communities. Teach people how to grow their own food again. These are things that we are looking at as a charity. The need is that much worse. Now more than ever, we are constantly under pressure to provide for more and more communities, for more children. We are constantly having to face battles in communities with unemployed youth and it’s a sad state of affairs.”
The mindset has to change. The simpler solutions have to be looked at. Teaching people how to grow their own food and sell it must be one of the solutions, expressed Paruk. From this, a person can not only feed themselves but also start a small business. Organisations need to come together to find a sustainable, viable and long-term solution.
The government has not done enough to deal with food insecurity
Government has created different entities to deal with different problems. However, these entities have not yielded any results. This is down to who the government has deployed in these places, Khumalo firmly stated.
“You got your progressive youth organisations that are being funded by the government. When you ask for the results, what has been yielded from the time it was established, are we yielding sufficient results? No. No one is monitoring them. It is a circus. Anyone who is close to leadership will find deployment, go there and do as they please … The government has done something but it is not enough. For it to be enough, the government must not relax.”
Government must stop calling the youth the future because they need to be the present. The old people in parliament have been failing the country and the youth must step in to implement the changes that need to be implemented, said Khumano. We lack people who are driven by implementing changes.
Penny Appeal and their sustainable solutions
Giving out food hampers continuously will not help to end hunger or food insecurity. It is only a short-term solution and Penny Appeal are looking to create sustainable solutions. With this in mind, Paruk has started what she calls an exit strategy.
“One of the things we have done, specifically focused around food insecurity, is we have just completed in the latter part of this year, we’ve rolled out a pilot project of 10 to 12 school food gardens with the purpose of training a committee of youth. The committee of school children, in collaboration with the school, to allow these children to learn about nutrition. To learn about growing their own food. How do you grow it and when do you grow, how do you replant or what can you replant to ensure that there’s another crop afterwards. We’re seeing that this is something that’s vital because if we can buckle down to the basics of it, where we identify that hunger is the problem, to avoid anybody going hungry and having access it’s important to be able to teach them about food and nutrition. We see that the school garden project has been doing phenomenally well and we’re looking forward to rolling out more of that next year.”
One of the takeaways from this project for Paruk has been understanding there has to be a commitment from the school and community. Without a committed and dedicated community, it will not be possible for these food gardens to work. The only people that will not be able to participate in this are the elderly and those with medical conditions.
Organisations like Penny Appeal and the Unemployed Graduate Association must come together in order to create viable sustainable solutions. Government must also come to the party and help these organisations. The solutions are to reform the food system, create sustainable projects and ensure more farms are closer to towns. Bringing down the cost of the food basket will see less people go hungry to bed and food insecurity will decrease.