Opinionista Marius Oosthuizen 15 April 2020

We must act now to prevent food riots

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough food in South Africa. Our problem is that the food is only available to those who have cash, and the poorer you are, the less likely you are to live near a retailer. 

It pains me to write this, but unless certain actions are taken soon, we will drift towards a worst-case scenario during Covid-19.

First, the president has done a superb job to get the nation moving proactively in response to the pandemic. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize too has been a godsend in his portfolio at this time, and with his team, has done well to stem the spread of the virus.

Let’s applaud the command structure for the job done to date, and then get on with the job still to be done – steering the country through the triple challenges of economic incapacity, social vulnerability and rising frustration.

Criminality 

Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi this weekend lamented the 55 schools vandalised and burgled during the lockdown. While Lesufi bemoaned the damage done to education infrastructure, Police Minister Bheki Cele condemned the looting of 16 liquor stores in the Western Cape during the same period.

Forty-one arrests have now been made in Gauteng in relation to the school break-ins.

Meanwhile, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Limpopo have begun to see riotous crowds looting convenience stores. These are worrying trends.

However, insecurity at street level is not our only problem.

Running low on food

Around eight million children in South Africa depend on the school-based food programmes of the Department of Social Development. This week, activists urged Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to restart the programmes, which were suspended nationwide during the lockdown.

What have these children been eating? They have probably survived on the welfare of social grant recipients, who themselves are under pressure.

What about the millions of undocumented migrant workers in South Africa? They have probably been scrounging for meals from friends, who themselves have been unable to work for more than two weeks.

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough food in South Africa. Our problem is that the food is only available to those who have cash, and the poorer you are, the less likely you are to live near a retailer.

It is up to the informal retail distribution channels, such as spaza shops, to reach you.

Pay now, or pay later

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced that he is contemplating an extension of social grants to include a basic income grant. Well, the minister better think quickly, because I suspect most food shelves were emptied out during the Easter weekend, and this coming weekend there will be a reckoning.

South Africa has a choice between paying for these social ills now, in the form of fiscal largesse which puts cash in people’s pockets and food on their tables, or paying for them later in the form of social unrest.

Tear gas, rubber bullets and hungry crowds

For all the bravado by the SANDF’s General Solly Shoke, who in a speech last week in Tshwane said the army and police will take a tough stance without reverting to “skop en donner” tactics, I doubt the hungry crowds will be intimidated by tear gas and rubber bullets.

Instead, conflict makes a hungry person an angry person.

What happens in Manenberg or Diepsloot Extension 2 after a crowd of hungry youths torch a Casspir with three soldiers inside?

Of course, the police and SANDF will put on a brave face, announce stricter measures and kick down a few doors. But something else happens. The community loses trust in the armed forces and the legitimacy of the state evaporates. 

Next, the democratically elected president announces a State of Emergency. It feels like 1985, only this time the enemy is our own ineptitude.

Avoid the downward spiral

Once we allow the looting of spaza shops, we will have to deal with the burning of delivery trucks. Once it comes to that, the SAPS will securitise the streets and institute roadblocks. The community will roll stones onto the roads, taking control of their neighbourhoods, and burn tyres to obstruct their visibility from the onlooking securocrats.

Once these us-and-them postures are in place, running battles turn to reprisals.

In this environment, no food comes into the parts of town where it is needed most. The private sector clams up to protect themselves and the poor suffer more than anyone else.

Saving what is left of our national reputation

A recently retweeted video I found after a Twitter search for the word “looting”, contains Ian Cameron’s footage of the looting of a South African liquor store. The video was tweeted on 9 April by the UK’s polariser-in-chief, Katie Hopkins, who asked, “How far away is NYC and London from this?”

She called our looting “civil unrest”.

The tweet has so far received 761 comments and 2,700 “likes”, has been retweeted 1,300 times and viewed 117,400 times worldwide.

What this portrays to the world is that South Africa is broken and will fall apart during this crisis. It magnifies our faults and generalises our fault-lines. It obscures the good that is in our society. But to complain about the discontents of social media is to miss the point.

We need to arrest the decline, now, before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Emergency measures, before the emergency

In the same way that we proactively responded to the looming health pandemic, we need to respond now to the food riots before they happen.

We can do this by creating a national food security task team, headed by two representatives from the government, two from business and two from civil society.

We can give them a presidential mandate to convene the social partners, to mobilise the resources and develop a nationwide food parcel and voucher distribution strategy for immediate implementation.

We can partner NGOs with churches, businesses with communities, and government can facilitate the integration of these responses. We can use the crisis as a call to society-wide action to ensure that the only thing we need to fight is the virus.

If we do so, we can avert the national disaster which the president has already pre-emptively declared. If we fail to act, we will sleepwalk deeper into the disaster as another day of inaction passes. DM

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