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DA’s solutions to SA’s hunger crisis should have columnist Tim Cohen’s support, not his disdain

DA’s solutions to SA’s hunger crisis should have columnist Tim Cohen’s support, not his disdain
From Left: DA. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook) | Hunger crisis. (Photo: Gallo Images / Dino Lloyd)

The DA has proposed a range of short-term interventions to bring immediate relief, coupled with meaningful economic reforms that open the economy for jobs and growth, to tackle – at source – South Africa’s problems of hunger, poverty, unemployment and falling tax revenues.

In the face of South Africa’s prolonged and mounting hunger crisis, causing immense human suffering with tragic short- and long-term consequences for our nation, it beggars belief that Tim Cohen’s column (Daily Maverick, 2 November 2023) would choose to attack the DA for the solutions we’ve put on the table rather than the ANC for utterly failing to care about a nation in deep distress.

If Cohen thinks the DA is only now focusing on the cost of food, and only to get people to register, I would ask him what rock he’s been hiding under these past 18 months while the DA has repeatedly urged government to intervene with our proposed solutions – solutions we developed in consultation with civil society experts in 2022, in response to the sharp rise in food prices occasioned by Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Food price inflation hit a high of 8,6% in June 2022, putting enormous pressure on low-income household budgets that were already under immense strain due to bad management of the economy, the slow pace of reform, the riots and floods in KZN, the spiralling cost of electricity, and the ANC government’s irrational hard-lockdown regulations which caused a steep rise in hunger and malnutrition, as found by the NIDS-CRAM survey in May 2021.

The DA set out many of our solutions in a press conference on 8 September 2022. Cohen can read the press statement here

Far from being “populist”, the DA’s solutions to the cost-of-food crisis are well researched, workable and urgent. Everyone who cares that 27% of children under the age of five are stunted due to malnutrition, or that 81% of households miss at least one meal per day due to high food prices, should get behind these solutions and put pressure on government to implement them.

Had he made the effort to engage sincerely with the DA’s solutions, Cohen would have realised that global food price increases notwithstanding, there is so much that government could do to take pressure off low-income household food budgets.

Instead, Cohen considers there to be little the ANC government can do to alleviate South Africa’s cost-of-food crisis. So, rather than use his platform to call out government, Cohen has chosen to defend the ANC and launch an outright attack on the DA.

Cohen says if the DA is going to play “bandwagon politics” (whatever that means), we should “at least find solutions that are actually genuine”. I challenge Cohen to an open, in-person debate on “genuine” solutions to the hunger crisis. 

Meanwhile, let’s have a look at some of the DA’s solutions to reduce hunger and malnutrition in South Africa.

The DA has proposed a range of short-term interventions to bring immediate relief, coupled with meaningful economic reforms that open the economy for jobs and growth, to tackle – at source – South Africa’s problems of hunger, poverty, unemployment and falling tax revenues.

We’ve called on government to review the list of zero-rated food items, with a view to expanding it to include more items commonly purchased by the poorest 50% of households, such as bone-in chicken, tinned beans, peanut butter and baby food.

The last review of zero-rated items was done in 2018 by a panel chaired by Prof Ingrid Woolard, who agreed back in 2022 that this list is due for review. The DA’s suggested additions to the list were provided to us by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy, based on their analysis of low-income household food expenditure data.

Bone-in chicken is a high-quality source of protein and by far the most popular one for poor households, making up 14% of low-income household food budgets. 

Vulnerable South Africans need an affordable source of protein to prevent them from shifting to a less nutritious high-carb diet as their budget is squeezed. It is also versatile and quick to cook, saving on energy costs.

Zero-rating bone-in chicken would cost approximately R4-billion per annum, but experts have suggested the intervention would pay for itself through improved health, work and learning outcomes.

Budgeting is about making trade-offs. I wonder if Cohen has considered, for example, that the ANC government spends almost R4-billion per annum on protection services to protect itself from the public, when it could choose to spend this on protecting 30 million poor South Africans from hunger and malnutrition. 

As Joe Biden famously said: “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

South Africa would be a different and far less hungry country today had journalists such as Cohen heeded the DA’s advice back then and joined our call for change. This is exactly what Cohen should do now, in the face of this hunger crisis.

Based on advice from international trade experts, the DA also proposed a review of import tariffs on some food items, including those chicken categories most commonly purchased by households facing the most extreme deprivation. These experts advised that this intervention would have a negligible impact on the fiscus but a large impact on these poorest of poor households.

Cohen may disagree with these expert-held positions, but there is surely enough room for debate to render his accusation of “populist” unfair and unjustified.

In fact, the DA has for years called for tariffs on imported chicken to be lifted, which Minister Ebrahim Patel only recently did amid the outbreak of avian flu. The abolition of those tariffs has immediately brought down the price of chicken products. This is a case study on how the DA’s policy position of cutting tariffs and trade barriers would help the
poorest of the poor.

The DA has also called on government to slash fuel prices to prevent hunger and riots. Again, far from being a cynical ploy “to get people to register”, we’ve done so consistently for the past two years, and Cohen can read this statement from May 2022 to understand our reasoning.

In addition to a slate of proposals we’ve put forward to grow South Africa’s food security, the DA has consistently called for the child support grant to be raised to the food poverty line. 

Few interventions could do more to address the 27% incidence of childhood stunting that so profoundly cripples those children’s prospects across the full course of their lives.

Cohen should know better than most journalists that all these interventions and more could easily be funded by meaningful economic reforms that open SA’s economy for growth and jobs. 

Should he genuinely not understand the DA’s plan to grow the economy, he can go onto our website and read our extensive suite of policies on how to deal with all the factors that make for a healthy economy.

I also point Cohen to the many steps being taken by the DA-led Western Cape government to tackle the hunger crisis. This includes feeding around 500,000 schoolchildren daily through its support for school feeding schemes, 25,000 schoolchildren through after-school and youth development programmes, over 150,000 young children through ECD centres, and over 100,000 people through funding soup kitchens. Its first 1,000 days programme provides nutritional support for children at risk of malnutrition.

With no hint of irony, having bashed the DA’s solutions, Cohen then goes on to call the DA the party of “maximal critique”, implying that all we ever do is criticise the ANC, rather than come up with solutions of our own.

I would remind Cohen that, as the official opposition, it is the DA’s constitutional duty to call out the ANC for its failures. This is literally what taxpayers pay us to do. The DA started warning South Africa about the dangers inherent in the ANC’s cadre deployment policy in 1998 and about the risks of State Capture in 2011.

South Africa would be a different and far less hungry country today had journalists such as Cohen heeded the DA’s advice back then and joined our call for change. This is exactly what Cohen should do now, in the face of this hunger crisis.

Finally, there’s Cohen’s frivolous attack on the DA for not criticising government’s proposed tax hikes. Yet, just the previous day, I tackled President Cyril Ramaphosa on these directly, during oral questions to the president. And I point Cohen to DA Shadow Minister of Finance Dion George’s press statement of 2 November, aptly titled “Increasing taxes is not the solution, Minister Godongwana”.

Maybe I’m naïve to expect more from journalists, but if you consider the extent of suffering and risk posed by South Africa’s hunger crisis, then shouldn’t Cohen take the time to understand what the DA is offering before mounting a fulsome attack on us? I certainly think so. DM

John Steenhuisen is Party leader of the Democratic Alliance.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    I can’t say any more than my comments on the previous article.

    Keep fighting the good fight to save our people from themselves.

    A huge personal thanks to all in the DA for all you do to protect and improve the lives of every single citizen in this country, whether they realise it or not.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    Good article, well said. We live in hope for a change in Government next year. We need people in Government who can solve problems, not create them.

  • John Pocock says:

    I often read After the Bell by Tim Cohen which I enjoy, and, though I don’t always agree with his views (no point in reading views that I always agree with) I do respect him as a journalist. Unfortunately the column referred to above caused my respect to slip badly, not because I disagreed with what he said but because it didn’t make sense. Right now I think that this country needs all the help it can get, some of which can be provided by the media such as Daily Maverick who normally do a good job in that respect and we all should be greatfull for that but to undermine a party that is part of the solution and not part of the problem seems wrong. If everything that Tim Cohen said is true and he can show proof of it then that, of course, is another matter. I therefore respectfully and earnestly suggest that he accept John Steenhuizen’s challenge to an open debate on this matter so that we all can gain a full understanding of his views. That would go a long way towards restoring credibility, not only to himself but to DM as well. Please let us know when this debate will take place and a link to the relevant podcast.

  • Heinrich Lesch says:

    Well said John. Mr. Cohen seems to have joined the C ANC ER party.
    He either does not follow up on the Da’s statements or he wants to be ignorant of the true facts that are threatening the poor in South Africa. Can he please be replaced with a journalist of sound mind and reasoning so that we can debate in a positive manner to look for real solutions that is facing our country? The DA must keep on pressuring the ANC to take ACTION against the 2nd wave of STATE CAPTURE that is currently taking place under Ramaphosa’s watch.

  • . . says:

    Nice to see some firey response, but I think Mr Steenhuisen doth protest a little too much. A common criticism of the DA is that they are anti ANC and don’t offer solutions. I think that these are unfair, but perhaps the DA should put some more effort into communicating their policy differences when responding to ANC failures. The mainstream media could also be more open to allowing the platform for more detailed discussion.

    Unfortunately, the DA website seems to be the last place anyone goes to look for policy information. Maybe a tweet a day can keep the ANC away!

  • Jan Malan says:

    Sometimes the press inadvertently criticize DA mercilessly while the elephant in the room (or should I say the skunk) is the ANC. They forget that the best run Province are run by the DA so to cut them slack for the miniscule mistakes they make now and should be forgiven but it is on those little things they attack with all their might while the ANC are so happy because it takes the citizen minds off the rottenness caused by the ANC.

  • Winston Bigsby says:

    Well said John. However too long by half. Got it halfway and scrolled the rest..

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