The attacks on Somali shopkeepers in Soweto at the end of August had their immediate origin in deliberate rumour mongering via social media. An article in The Sowetan argues that the messages were first circulated in the name of Farmers United SA. Reports indicate that the organisation’s head, Robbie McKenzie, specifically targeted shopkeepers originally from Pakistan with rumours about “fake food”.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has reported that health inspectors did not find a single instance of “fake food” after searching more than 450 shops. Bogus rumours circulated on social media, in the name of a previously unknown and clearly questionable organisation, resulted in murders.
South Africa by any standards is an exceptionally violent country. According to recent statistics 51 people are killed and at least 150 sexual offences are reported daily. Violence comes from the state, from criminals, from sexual predators at workplaces and in communities, and is also rife in the intimate space of personal and family relationships.
We’re not the only society with such frightening rates of violence. Countries in central America, like Mexico, and, as Óscar Martínez has shown in his harrowing book A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America, El Salvador and Honduras are even worse.
In our case it is clear that the pervasive violence in our society lies in the fact that the modern history of South Africa is fundamentally a history of violence – the violent dispossession of the majority of South Africans through imperialism, and the violent oppression and exclusion of the majority through the racialised divisions of apartheid.
The endemic nature of violence did not come to an end, as some had expected, after apartheid. The negotiated settlement did not provide justice to the majority, and the rapacious form of capitalism that followed apartheid has left millions exploited and impoverished.
A quick perusal of history shows that the so-called “outsider” has always been scapegoated in times of difficulties. And food, and other forms of basic sustenance, have often been central to this. For instance, during the Black Plague in Europe, rampant anti-Semitism led to Jews being accused of poisoning the wells, which led to horrific violence and torture.
Capitalism was birthed out of exceptional violence. Through violence the majority of society was disciplined into a class of workers forced to accept their conditions of exploitation, deprivation and oppression. Capitalism is not a system of abundance, as it likes to market itself. It is a system of extreme deprivation for the majority in society, so that a few may enjoy abundance. Capitalism was born through the mass enclosure of the land in western Europe, cutting off millions of families from their source of livelihood and food. This process of land dispossession, which happened later here in southern Africa, created the conditions for the exploitation and oppression for the majority. As Karl Marx famously noted, “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.
Silvia Federici has shown that from the 15th to the 17th centuries women who worked with herbs, potions and food, and refused the disciplining nature of emerging capitalist patriarchy, faced accusations of witchery and were violently dealt with, by burnings, dismembering and other horrific forms of violence.
In 1649 Gerrard Winstanley, an early communist, and The Diggers organised a land occupation on St George’s Hill in Surrey. They declared the earth “a common treasury for all”. They grew crops and distributed them at no cost.
The great English communist historian E.P. Thompson showed that the “bread riots” in 18th century England were not spontaneous outbreaks of popular anger, but conscious, organised actions undertaken to impose popular values against the emerging system of capitalism and exploitation.
In 1773 contestation over taxation of the tea trade led to the Boston Tea Party, a significant event in the American War of Independence against colonialism. The sharp rise in the price of bread and salt in 19th century France led to the revolutionary events of 1789 and the end of monarchical rule. After the defeat of slavery by Haitian revolutionaries in 1804 the victorious slave armies refused their erstwhile leader Toussaint L’Overture’s plan for them to return to sugar plantations. Instead they set up a system of small scale and autonomous agriculture.
In 1857 rumours circulated that Indian colonial soldiers were exposed to bullets greased in either pork or beef fat. These rumours fuelled a massive uprising of colonial soldiers against their masters, resulting in what is often referred to as the first war of independence against Britain.
More recently, as Raj Patel has shown, riots around food were common in the period of structural adjustment, particularly the late 1970s and early 1980s, and returned with a vengeance in many parts of the world in 2007 and 2008.
Today more food is produced on the planet than ever before. But its distribution is massively skewed towards the rich, resulting in systemic hunger. According to a 2016 United Nations Food and Agriculture report, hunger across the world is increasing, with 815 million people now living in hunger.
Popular contestation over food does not always take progressive or potentially progressive forms. In India the rise of a Hindu fascist state, run by the abhorrent Narendra Modi, has witnessed increasing social media-driven attacks on people accused of eating or trading in beef. Under the cover of a dubious religious claim about Hinduism and beef, Modi and his goons are able to violently repress and oppress various minority communities in India, including Muslims, Dalits, some Hindu communities and Christians.
In India, the holy cow, like rumours of “fake” or expired foods here, is merely a vehicle that is used to misdirect popular rage away from people and institutions with real power and towards vulnerable people who can be scapegoated.
In contemporary South Africa, the real money is made in supermarkets, not mines. A huge proportion of wages and grant money is spent in supermarkets. Most people have no access to land to grow their own food. Or access to markets outside of the supermarket system to buy and sell food outside of the capitalist system. Capitalist firms like who exploit and oppress workers here and elsewhere on the continent, do not become the target of popular anger and they continue, unperturbed, to accumulate obscene wealth for their owners and managers.
It is vital that land reform breaks up the big monopolies in the production, distribution and sale of food. It must take small-scale agriculture, rural and urban, seriously. It must build food sovereignty and a socialised non-commodified food system out of the control of the big capitalist firms.
With massive unemployment, exploitation, oppression and escalating food prices, Cyril Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” is not very rosy. The elite and middle classes will not be able to continue to drink the Kool Aid of a new dispensation for ever. The recession is here and for millions of people desperate days lie ahead. The recession will bring the harsh realities that the majority of South Africans have been labouring under for the last two decades to the banquet tables of the rich.
History teaches us that hunger is a very powerful political force. When people don’t have the food that they need, the powerful will either fall or cement dictatorship to protect their positions and power. If we are serious about building a truly liberatory and equal society, we must, with urgency, confront the capitalist food system.
The production and distribution of food must be socialised. If we are not prepared to make these fundamental changes and challenge capitalism then we can expect an increase in reactionary nationalism. A reactionary nationalism that will be guided, as usual, by the capitalist class to misdirect popular anger towards vulnerable scapegoats.
This may begin with migrant shopkeepers but will very quickly turn on others in society, especially women. What is urgently needed now is for us to build solidarity among the working class and to struggle for a socialist food system that is for the many, and not the few. DM