Activists protest against growing hunger in a land of plenty

Activists protest against growing hunger in a land of plenty
Protesters outside the Gauteng Legislature Building on World Food Day 2020. (Photo: supplied by the Covid-19 People's Coalition South Africa)

Friday, 16 October, was World Food Day. For activists across South Africa and the world, the day was an opportunity to highlight the plight of hungry and undernourished people, a crisis which has been globally exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, Parliament was presented with the Climate Justice Charter and given an ultimatum to start acting decisively on the climate crisis.

Individuals across the country use powerful words to raise awareness about the food and hunger crisis in South Africa. Top left, bottom left, and bottom right Port Elizabeth; top right, Capetonians fill empty paper plates with words, symbolising the extent of hunger; Middle: Children from East London join the struggle in the hope of preserving their future (Photo: supplied by the C-19 Food Working Group)

One of the causes of hunger was identified as the excessive price of food.

Last month, Maverick Citizen reported that nearly 80% of South African households do not spend enough money every month on basic nutritious food items because low-income households do not have enough money. The NIDS-CRAM wave two report also showed how Covid-19 has massively exacerbated hunger.

This fact is exemplified by findings, published last week, by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group (PMBEJD) which launched the new Household Affordability Index (HAI) reporting food price data from from 44 supermarkets and 30 butcheries in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Springbok, and Pietermaritzburg.

The Index tracks the prices of 44 items regularly purchased by low-income households. The data it yields is critical to enabling policymakers to track how low-income families are responding to a deepening financial and economic crisis.

The group reports that it has “seen food prices in supermarkets rise substantially over the past several months making it very difficult for ordinary South Africans living on low incomes to afford sufficient and nutritious food. Job losses and cuts in income have put severe pressure on the household food purse. Women are struggling to feed their families and keep families safe from Covid-19.”

The main findings from the HAI shows that the average cost of the Household Food Basket is R3,916.72 in October 2020. The Household Food Basket increased by a whopping R60,39 (1,6%) between September 2020 and October 2020:

  • The cost of the Pietermaritzburg Household Food Basket was R3,709.92.
  • The cost of the Durban Household Food Basket was R3,907.62.
  • The cost of the Cape Town Household Food Basket was R3,920.86.
  • The cost of the Joburg Household Food Basket was R3,969.41.
  • The cost of the Springbok Household Food Basket was R4,034.53.

The main foods driving up food unaffordability are maize meal (2%), rice (1%), cake flour (1%), sugar beans (7%), cooking oil (2%), potatoes (20%) and bread (white 2% and brown 1%), butternut (68%), tinned pilchards (4%), and peanut butter (5%).

By contrast, according to the PMBEJD findings, the national minimum wage for a general worker in October 2020 is R3,653.76, while the average cost of the Household Food Basket is R3,916.72.

They calculate that the  average cost to feed a child a basic nutritious diet is R693.05 a month. The Child Support Grant of R440 a month is nearly 37% below this. Bear in mind here that every child has a constitutional right to “basic nutrition” which is clearly not being met.

The conclusion: with a salary below the breadline, low-paid workers are unable to afford a basic basket of food for their families, especially when factoring in electricity and transport costs. Never mind the millions of unemployed.

Based on the current data and trends, the PMBEJD projects that the cost of household food baskets purchased by low-income families will continue to rise through the festive season and into the New Year. Considering the Covid-19 pandemic, unemployment may well continue to increase, leaving ever more families unable to put food on the table.

Civil society protests: ‘Them belly full but we hungry’

For reasons borne out by the HAI survey results on World Food Day 2020 civil society organisations were determined to raise awareness, create solutions, and educate society on the hunger epidemic which haunts South Africa. Across South Africa there were peaceful protests outside retail supermarkets, handing out pamphlets and hosting of educational workshops and webinars.

The C-19 People’s Coalition Food Working Group, for example, held Empty Plate protests, asking people to protest by carrying empty plates and demanding the realisation of everyone’s constitutional “right to sufficient food and water”. Individuals and communities answered the call as peaceful protests took place in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal.

In Johannesburg, protesters gathered outside the Gauteng Provincial Legislature, holding signs that read “We are hungry! We are Angry!” and “Pay the grants!

In Cape Town, activist Joanie Fredericks and the Tafelsig Mitchells Plain CAN (TMPC) launched the One Household, One Food Garden campaign, declaring that in response to the atrocities of starvation in South Africa, TMPC “will focus on how we are focused on filling up that empty plate, not through any support from government but through the sheer will to self organise and rebuild”.

The food system is broken and unfair

The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), the Centre of Excellence in Food Security, and the C19 People’s Coalition Food Working Group hosted a virtual meeting on the right to food and equitable food systems. The event saw panellists debate and share recent and ongoing research on the devastating impacts of Covid-19, such as increased levels of hunger around the world, massive disruptions to the food system and loss of incomes to buy food.

The Right to Food is enshrined in international agreements including the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the African Union’s Resolution on the Right to Food and Food Insecurity in Africa. The South African Constitution also guarantees everyone “the right to sufficient food and water”. Despite these agreements, one of the biggest problems facing millions of people across the world today is hunger.

And the food system plays a role in exacerbating these challenges.

“While many development institutions continue to prioritise improvements in productivity to address issues of hunger and malnutrition, this approach is increasingly challenged by an alternative focus: food systems,” says Professor Ruth Hall from the South African Research Chairs Initiative in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at PLAAS.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has crippled the already stretched food systems in Africa.

Patricia Blankson Akakpo of the Network for Women’s Rights in Ghana says that the Covid-19 lockdown measures have marginalised female farmers, fishers, and traders. While women control much of the local and cross-border food trade in West Africa, they are unable to move goods.

“It’s deeply ironic that many of the African women who are involved in farming and fishery and other food trades are vulnerable to hunger, as Covid-19 closes down parts of African foods systems,” says Editrudith Lukanga of the African Women Fish Processors and Traders’’ Network in Tanzania.

In South Africa, the problem with the emergency response to the food crisis caused by the Covid-19 lockdown was that access was so uneven and unfair (as a result of corruption), but also that the content of the food was so poor: not nutritious and not supporting local food systems, says Professor Julian May, the director of the NRF-DST Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape (Food Security South Africa).

Impact on children

May warns that the next pandemic is “already under way: malnutrition among children not yet born. The next Covid impact will be evident in infant mortality and undernourishment in the coming year. We’re jeopardising a generation”.

Realising the impact that the lockdown has had on early childhood development, the Durban-based Do More Foundation initiated a collaborative relief effort which has to date has provided 7.4 million meals to young children and their families nationwide, as well as making free online support materials available to caregivers to help learning to continue at home.

“In the face of such a dire situation it is easy to feel overwhelmed and wonder what difference you can make. But we are in a war for our children’s future and every little bit more we do counts. That little ‘more’ can be as simple as a bar of soap for an Early Childhood Development centre near you, or a R20 monthly donation which can provide a child with 20 nutritious meals to help him/her learn and grow,” says Warren Farrer, trustee and executive of the Do More Foundation. 

The Foundation has also recently launched DO MORE Porridge, a sorghum-based porridge that is being produced for donation purposes by its founder and partner RCL FOODS.

Farrer adds that, “Creating decent nutrition for young children is vital if we want to grow, nourish and sustain our future. It is a responsibility we all share, and a need we can all help address in some way. Supporting the wider provision of our DO MORE Porridge is a wonderful opportunity for South Africans to help positively impact early childhood development in our most vulnerable communities.”

Tackle climate change, tackle hunger

Finally, World Food Day also saw the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign, together with several other organisations, present the Speaker of Parliament and political parties with the world’s first Climate Justice Charter (CJC). Activists have demanded that Parliament adopt and act on the CJC and have vowed that they will return on World Food day 2021 to assess progress. Meanwhile, they will continue to build a grassroots climate justice movement across town, villages and cities.

According to activist Courtney Morgan: “The memorandum we handed over yesterday outlined our demands to Parliament to end hunger, thirst, pollution and climate harm. We also gave Parliament one year to deliberate and adopt the #ClimateJusticeCharter; we will be back next year for a report. This is just the beginning.”

The Memorandum contains multiple demands on measures needed to “Hunger, End Thirst, End Pollution, End Climate Harm” and notes: “the state president’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan… [does not represent]  the thinking that will ensure South Africa rises to the challenge of addressing multiple systemic crises through just transformation”.

The CJC is the product of six years of activism, led by the SAFSC and the Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre.  It is available in all of South Africa’s 11 official languages and appears to be gaining currency across the world. In Bolivia, for example, it has been translated into Spanish and shared amongst activists.

Over 220 organisations have now endorsed the charter, including trade unions, community organisations, youth groups and women’s organisations. Leading political foundations in South Africa such as the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Gandhi Development Trust, and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation have also thrown their weight behind the charter.

Tackling the ongoing climate crisis and resulting rippling effects is vital to tackling hunger. According to a Climate Science document that details the impact global heating will have on South Africa in particular, with a predicted 3˚C temperature increase due to global warming, experts project a spike in multi-year droughts and heat wave duration so severe that it may contribute to the collapse of maize and cattle farming in large parts of southern Africa.

Although agriculture accounts for a relatively small contribution to economic output in South Africa, the impact of a devastating climate is felt by numerous people, via agricultural employment and by rising food prices and hunger.

The climate science document was handed over to Parliament meaning that MPs can no longer claim ignorance of the threat the climate crisis poses to our country.

The handover of the charter, the climate science document, and a memorandum are all ways through which active citizens, activists, and civil society are seeking to ensure that the “right to a democratic, just and transformative future” are upheld.

According to Vishwas Satgar, one of the organisers: “We made history together today. This was a signal moment for inaugurating mass based climate justice politics in South Africa.”

The handing over of the charter was accompanied by more than 70 local protests and activities in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Port Elizabeth, Soweto, Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and Nyanga. The organisations hosted educational workshops, picketed, handed out pamphlets, and created awareness videos. DM/MC


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