Opinionista Sasha Stevenson 11 April 2014

Ending hunger in South Africa: We have to do better

One of the major accomplishments of the 20th century is how good we became at producing food. One of the major failures is how poor we are at getting it to people who need it. This means that despite boosting agricultural production significantly, we have made paltry gains in reducing the number of people who go hungry.

On 10 March 2014, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food issued a final report in which he presented his conclusions following six years of country visits to investigate the extent to which the right to food is being realised in low-, middle-, and high income countries.

The Special Rapporteur’s central conclusion is that “measured against the requirement that they should contribute to the realisation of the right to food, the food systems we have inherited from the twentieth century have failed.” Global food systems have been shaped to maximise efficiency gains but not to tackle distributional problems. There is more and more food being produced but it is not getting to hungry people.

The Special Rapporteur’s conclusions certainly ring true in South Africa.

We often hear that South Africa is food secure at a national level but that at an individual level, there is widespread hunger. We grow, produce or import more than enough food to feed our people and yet the South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey published in 2013 showed that 26% of the population experiences hunger and a further 28.3% of the population is at risk of experiencing hunger. At the same time, consumption of food and other goods by the rich in South Africa is conspicuous, making access to food an issue of poverty and also of inequality.

If more than half of our population lives with the uncertainty and pain of hunger in a country with sufficient food and with a constitutionally entrenched justiciable right of access to sufficient food, what is going wrong?

The problem in South Africa as in the rest of the world is not with the production of food, it is with the food system. The end of Apartheid saw a move away from state regulation of the agricultural sector that had, for years, privileged white farmers. Liberalisation of trade and the ending of agricultural marketing boards ushered in the restructuring of the agricultural market. Co-operatives bought state-built infrastructure such as silos and were converted to private companies. The private companies in turn consolidated, many turning into large agro-processing concerns, and value chains were integrated. Perhaps surprisingly in the context of a revolution that promised to extend opportunity to the historically oppressed majority, the sector became more concentrated.

As the number of players in the business shrunk, private power replaced state power. Far from the market opening up to small and emerging farmers, millers and owners of storage facilities, they found it increasingly difficult to enter the market.

The further concentration of power was certainly not the intended outcome of liberalisation. What then, was done to control private power and ensure that the market operated properly? The answer was the introduction of competition law.

Competition law was intended, as it is in all countries, to ensure that markets work. In South Africa, our form of competition law was also supposed to address what Apartheid had systematically done: place power in the hands of a small number of white people. Competition law, it was hoped, would work with other government policies to foster competition and development.

Unfortunately, the other government policies that would be required to support competition law (in this case in the regulation of the food production and retailing markets) did not come into existence. Without the support of other policy and legislation, the competition law regime has been unable, singlehandedly, to fulfil the regulatory role. As Gertrude Makhaya and Simon Roberts explain in their 2013 paper in Review of African Political Economy, the competition authorities have spent a great deal of time on merger and cartel activities (which assume a competitive market in the absence of the transaction or agreement in question) but have been relatively ineffective in addressing entrenched market power and opening up the economy to new entrants.

The inability of the competition law regime to regulate a food market dominated by very few entrenched firms without the support of state policy and legislation is unsurprising. If a market is so concentrated as to make it impossible for all but the biggest players (who control entire value chains) to operate in the market, there is little that the competition authorities can do other than, hopefully, prevent further concentration and collusion. This is particularly the case in regard to development—competition law simply can’t foster development on it its own—it requires help from parallel laws and policies.

It was clear then, and is even clearer now, that we need more than competition authorities to ensure that markets function in a way that enables the realisation of the right to food (some would argue that such realisation is not possible in a neo-liberal capitalist state, but that is a discussion for another day).

For a start we need to stop ignoring the fact that, like access to health care services and education, the value of which are generally accepted, access to food is a right. Its recognition as a right has important consequences for the way in which it should be realised and the priority attached to its realisation. The state is obliged to take “reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources”, to ensure the progressive realisation of the right. It is clear that a start would be the development of legislation and policy that shifts the balance of power to new entrants and segments of the economy, controls more effectively the abuse of power in the private sector and gives content to the right of access to sufficient food. The lack of such legislation and policy has been one of the great failings of South Africa’s approach to the realisation of the right to food.

While the right to food is widely recognised as requiring a multi-sectoral approach which includes health, social services, agricultural and trade sectors, among others, responsibility for food policy in South Africa rests predominantly on the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries, the focus of which is food production. No dedicated budgets or personnel are allocated to the realisation of the right to food and policy initiatives are launched amid fanfare and the distribution of food parcels, only to be quietly canned and replaced within a few years. There is no legislation on the right to food and policies are developed without consultation and inevitably fail to meet the needs of the people they are supposed to help. This is no way to approach the realisation of a constitutional right.

Where, as demonstrated above, the problem is in the system, solutions cannot be piecemeal. It is incumbent upon the state to ensure the realisation of the right to food both through direct provisioning, where appropriate, and through the regulation of the market to ensure that distributional problems are overcome and access to food is granted to all. The right to food will not be realised through social grants alone. It will not be realised through food gardens or food parcels at election time. As noted by the Special Rapporteur, “the eradication of hunger and malnutrition is an achievable goal. Reaching it requires, however, that we move away from business as usual and improve coordination across sectors, across time and across levels of government.” DM