DM168 Deep Dive

Food for thought: the Freedom Charter and freedom from hunger

A woman carries water to her home in Zwelethemba, an informal settlement near Worcester. Water and sanitation infrastructure is interlinked with food and nutrition security. Photo: Samantha Reinders

Jane Battersby and Scott Drimie, researchers on the Nourished Child project focusing on how interconnecting systems shape the diets of young children and women, look at the Freedom Charter as it relates to the right to food.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

An overflowing waste removal bin in Masiphumelele, Cape Town. Photo: Samantha Reinders

This year we celebrate 27 years of freedom, and yet for many South Africans the quality of that freedom remains paper-thin. The last year has highlighted just how limited our freedom from hunger is. The ongoing National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile (NIDS-CRAM) surveys have demonstrated persistently high levels of food insecurity since the start of lockdown, but our research over the last decade has demonstrated that we had significant food insecurity across the nation and within our cities long before Covid-19. A quarter of our children suffer from stunting and will fail to meet their developmental potential.

So, this Freedom Month, we look back at the Freedom Charter and what it has to say about hunger and the right to food.

A street scene in Masiphumelele, Cape Town. Water and sanitation infrastructure is interlinked with food and nutrition security. Photo: Samantha Reinders

Ideals of a post-apartheid society

The Freedom Charter emerged after the Congress of the People in Kliptown, from 25 to 26 June 1955, during what was the largest consolidation of anti-apartheid forces up to that date. It involved a process spanning more than a year during which a reported 50,000 volunteers canvassed people’s needs across the country, with nearly 3,000 delegates who represented organisations in attendance. The charter was “put before a mass assembly of people”, representing different interests, united in their search for social justice in a time of extraordinary injustice. The broad themes and issues were identified for a mass circulation to elicit widespread response, and proposals flooded in.

It is therefore a political rather than policy document or blueprint for a future democratic government. It established a set of broad aims to be put into practice once the apartheid system had been overthrown.

It was crafted in clear and straightforward language to reflect the ideals expressed by the public, and arguably serves as the backbone for the Constitution of South Africa. Yet, despite the intended clarity, it seems that parts have been overlooked.

A fresh produce food vendor in Masiphumelele, Cape Town. Photo: Samantha Reinders

It’s not all about the land

The charter frames food in a very different way from the discourse that dominates our government’s approach to food and nutrition security. Periodically, members of our government will link food security programmes to the Freedom Charter’s principles, but this connection is invariably linked only to the section of the charter that addresses land.

The charter states: “The land shall be shared among those who work it.”

It talks about removing restrictions on land ownership. It speaks about providing “the peasants with implements, seeds, tractors and dams to save the soil and assist the tillers”. This is all fundamental and there is a long way to go to achieving the charter’s principles in this section.

However, that’s not the only place in the Freedom Charter where food is spoken of. Where the charter actually states that “food [should be] plentiful and that no one should go hungry”, is not in the land section, but under the section entitled “There shall be houses, security and comfort!”

If you read the Freedom Charter, the call for plentiful food and no one going hungry is in the same section as the calls for decent housing, for having preventative health schemes that are run by the state, for the building of suburbs where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches and social centres.

The collective authors of the charter knew that the provision of food cannot be separated from the provision of other fundamental basic services and infrastructure, and yet somehow this has been missed by our government. And in missing this, they have created food security programmes that are disconnected from the other core elements of our lives.

Cooked food at a food stall in Zwelethemba, an informal settlement near Worcester. Access and affordability to nutritious foods is a human right. Photo: Samantha Reinders

Making the connection

The work that we’ve been doing as part of the Nourished Child project insists that we consider food and nutrition security as being the outcome of how people experience everyday life, lived in a set of systems. It’s about how food environments shape what people are able to eat and feed their children. It’s about how access to water, sanitation, decent housing, adequate public transport and solid waste management shape what people are able to eat and feed their children. It’s about crèches as central components in household food security, about the role of clinics in providing nutrition support and about the role of social grants in supporting nutrition. Above all, it’s about how these things interconnect.

Our research argues that freedom from hunger and the right to food are not just the responsibility of national government, and that it’s not just issues of land and farming.

It argues that local government and provincial government have critical roles in shaping the conditions that allow people to be free from hunger.

Emerging from our research, it is also clear that the goal should be to provide a package of actions to coherently reorient flows of food towards healthy diets for children. This powerfully resonates with what was envisaged in the Freedom Charter: placing food at the centre of our lived contexts and realities.

To do this we need to enable all people, but especially mothers and carers of children, women of child-bearing age and pregnant women, all among the most marginalised in our society, to participate in their own decision making about food practices and behaviours.

We need to recognise that individual food choices are limited by poverty and rising food prices. Many children grow up in obesogenic environments where healthy foods are unavailable or unaffordable. Children’s dietary practices are shaped by the food system, their local food environment and dietary practices. This includes their homes, schools and early childhood development programmes and centres.

Though existing government policies acknowledge these issues to an extent, they fall short in drawing in the wide range of actors needed to recalibrate the system as a whole. This requires connecting food to the core elements of our lives and the basic services that can support these.

A creche in Zwelethemba, an informal settlement near Worcester. Early Childhood Development is impacted by food insecurity. Photo: Samantha Reinders

Starting at the very beginning

We can start by reviewing whether policy and programming are leading to the necessary actions. At the preconception phase, we can ask what is available to help women optimise their health, micronutrient status and weight before they become pregnant. At schools and at every point of contact with the healthcare system, we should ask whether we have dietary counselling available as the norm.

In seeking optimal feeding for young children, why have we not progressed sufficiently to create an enabling environment for mothers to successfully breastfeed? We should ask what the challenges are with nutritional and psychosocial support for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and what role housing, sanitation, water and transport play in all of these.

Creating dialogue

Coherence among government policy is essential to recalibrate the food system, including addressing undernutrition and overweight simultaneously. Coherence implies that many sectors and spheres of government need to play a central role.

With our work in the Nourished Child project, we are in dialogue with mothers and carers, other community members, local government officials, local activists and NGO workers, and we are seeking to engage these questions in ways that are practical and powerful.

In entering dialogue, new relationships are established with opportunities to build trust and mutual accountability. In this way, we seek together to find and work with the opportunities to align the lived realities of people with food environments that are ultimately nourishing and resilient.

Dialogue and the acknowledgment of interconnectedness and systemic injustice lie at the heart of how the Freedom Charter came to be. It is thus the responsibility of all of the people of South Africa “to strive together … until the democratic changes here set out have been won”.

Though our work shows we still have a long way to go if we are to achieve freedom from hunger, it also shows the opportunity for progress if the principles of the Freedom Charter can be truly adopted. DM168

Jane Battersby is an associate professor at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town and senior lecturer in the Environmental and Geographical Science department. Scott Drimie is an associate professor (extraordinary) in the Department of Global Health at Stellenbosch University and director at the Southern Africa Food Lab. Both are project investigators on the Nourished Child project.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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