Maverick Citizen Op-ed

Food crisis engulfing SA a stark message that food systems need transformation

Food crisis engulfing SA a stark message that food systems need transformation
August 29 2020 - A young boy in a flooded part of Green Point in Khayelitsha Cape Town.( Photo by David Harrison.)

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown up the lack of truth in the corporate-industrial food sector’s claims that it has been able to meet the food needs of the nation through the pandemic. Fully stocked supermarket shelves do not translate into food security for all. Hunger in South Africa proves the urgent need for a sea change in the logic of the food system, away from profit as the driving force, and towards meeting the food needs of each and every person every single day.

Vanessa Black


World Food Day on 16 October 2020 finds us – globally and in South Africa – in an even worse position than in 2019. By now, the severe impacts of Covid-19 on food insecurity are well known. The pandemic and the necessary responses to it have intensified and entrenched already alarming levels of hunger and malnutrition. 

It has shown the woeful lack of preparation and responsiveness of a food system dominated both directly and indirectly by large corporations and overseen by governments denuded over decades and in large part captured by corporate and privateering interests.

The pandemic has exposed the pre-existing fault lines in the food system, including extreme and growing inequality, hunger at crisis levels, diet-related ill health, and corporate-dominated food systems with little semblance of democratic control. The poor are facing unrelenting pressure. A substantial portion of the population in South Africa face a permanent food crisis, with millions daily confronting the existential question of where to find enough food to survive. 

Yet our society is structured in such a way that isolated individuals and households are left to battle this social problem on their own. The corporate-industrial food sector claims it has been able to meet the food needs of the nation through the pandemic. But fully stocked supermarket shelves do not translate into food security for all. They merely show that the corporate food system responds to the narrow needs of the relatively privileged in our society. For a substantial portion of the society, these shelves are a mirage of plenty in a sea of want without any realistic access.

The latest National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) results, released at the end of September, show that the three million jobs lost as an immediate result of the lockdown have not returned as the lockdown has eased. This spike in unemployment has hit the poorest hardest, in particular black women and rural dwellers. This translates into even less access to the food on offer in the formal system.

The right to food is enshrined in the South African Constitution. But these are just words on a piece of paper for the millions who struggle with hunger every day. Other concerns are pushed to the margins in the desperate search for food. The “progressive realisation” of the right to food has not materialised.

For this right to be more than empty words we need dedicated and courageous action in the here and now. We require a sea change in the logic of the food system away from profit as the driving force and towards meeting the food needs of each and every person every single day. Society must be mobilised, and public and private resources marshalled, to reorganise the food system in such a way that it can rapidly and effectively respond to food needs on a daily basis. 

We cannot afford to wait another 25 years to realise the right to food.

Although the picture is bleak, the crisis opens an opportunity to rethink our social and economic systems. Prior to the pandemic, food insecurity and the misery and anxiety that accompanied it were taken for granted as an inevitable part of our society, by rich and poor alike. But the immediate shock of the pandemic and lockdown mobilised a massive response of solidarity and goodwill from civil society that crossed class and race boundaries, with strong leadership by women. 

It posed anew questions about the logic of the organisation of food production and distribution in a vastly unequal society like ours.

Initial responses correctly focused on immediate food relief, of getting food today to those who need it. But there was also a quick recognition of the necessity to go beyond relief alone, to work on more systemic issues such as why ownership and control of food production is concentrated in so few hands, on why production is so far away from consumers, and on the ways in which the food system contributes to ongoing ecological degradation and the gathering climate crisis.

Across the country, individuals and collectives have taken the initiative to assert more direct control of production and distribution of food to reconfigure local food systems to be more responsive to the immediate needs of the local population. To be sure, this is not an easy task, and there will be many challenges and obstacles on the way. But there is a renewed sense of purpose that has come from people themselves individually and collectively taking practical action without waiting for others – including the state – to come from outside to rescue them. This is the embryo of a new society.

In these dire times, civil society will need to redouble efforts to mobilise to pressure government to respond effectively and democratically to the immediate demands and needs of the poor and marginalised. An urgent response is needed to the climate and ecological crises. In the food system this includes a rapid shift to agroecological production, decentralisation of processing and storage and shorter supply lines. These can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make food more readily available and accessible in all localities.

Everyone can participate in designing and implementing democratised food systems in their own areas that allow local actors to collectively discuss, prioritise and plan the ways that food is locally produced and distributed. Local food security can be strengthened through bolstering homestead and smallholder production for own use and surplus production for local markets.

Government should be supporting these efforts as a matter of priority. It can use its enormous market power through public procurement to support agroecological surplus producers and could facilitate local fresh produce markets in residential areas, especially in townships and informal settlements, to increase convenient access to good quality, locally produced and healthy food. Such interventions will also reduce the necessity for travel to procure food and reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19, which will be with us for some time to come.

Government also needs to take seriously the international obligations it has signed on to, that call for agroecology and socially and ecologically just food systems, including implementation of the recommendations and guidelines of the World Committee on Food Security (CFS), the operationalisation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Peasants, and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

It is time to acknowledge and accept the logic of the urgent necessity for a rapid shift towards agroecology, small-scale production, and active and democratic participation in food system transformation to meet the needs of people and environment before corporate profits.

Civil society must continue to deepen the collective and ethical practices that have blossomed in response to the pandemic. Even while calls are made to government to heed the urgency of the situation, we should not wait for government, but take the future into our own hands to realise the right to food for all. DM/MC

 Vanessa Black is Biowatch South Africa’s Advocacy, Research and Policy Co-ordinator. Biowatch challenges the industrialised food system and demonstrates agroecology as a means of ensuring biodiversity while attaining food and seed sovereignty and social justice.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    Your ideas are essentially Marxist and we know how that has fared until now.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Vanessa, this is a laudable objective but you need only to look at vast areas of arable land that is not utilized because people do not use their initiative to farm it. On the one hand we want cheap food which comes with economies of scale and modern farming practices and on the other we do not wish to consign people to subsistence farming. When people start taking responsibility for themselves and communities pool their resources for the common good – there is hope. Have you seen any wells dug by communities in rural areas or contour furrows from the nearest water sources?

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