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South Africa’s food system is broken and urgent government intervention is needed


Koketso Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. In 2022 she was announced as a Mulago Foundation Rainer Arnhold fellow. She is also an inaugural Collective Action in Tech fellow; an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity; inaugural Obama Foundation fellow and an Aspen New Voices senior fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti 

The current alarming increases in basic food prices, coupled with high unemployment levels, low wages, inconsistent and unaffordable electricity supply and inadequate support for unemployed people, signals that turning the tide is even more urgent. 

As increases in public transport costs and electricity prices, coupled with alarmingly higher food prices take their toll on households and the plates of families, it is clear that food prices must fall. We need to reject that in a country that can feed everyone, but doesn’t, millions go hungry. Affordability plays a major part in this hunger as it creates barriers to accessing nutritious foods for the majority of people in the country.

The food industry, which includes the major supermarkets and big businesses that process and package foods, plays a key role in sustaining hunger by influencing food availability and pricing. This is described by Dr Tracy Ledger, author of An Empty Plate: Why we are losing the battle for our food system, why it matters, and how we can win it back, as vested interests determining “the income of farm workers, the price, the quality, and the source of food on your shelves”.

One example of how this works is the huge difference between what supermarkets charge consumers and how much they pay producers, especially for products that don’t need to be processed, like fruit, vegetables, eggs and whole chickens.

This has made many foods, particularly nutritious food, too expensive for the many people living in poverty in the country. In 2021, the supermarket price of a dozen eggs was about R35, but if purchased directly from the farmer it would cost around R17 per dozen, according to the findings of the South African Poultry Association’s Subsistence and Small Commercial Farmer Report. The Competition Commission has also expressed concern over the wide farm-to-retail spread in prices

Price gouging, excessive and unfair price increases that are not justified by a rise in the cost of providing the goods, and the price-fixing of essential items such as bread are a few more examples. As the country prepared to go under lockdown in March 2020, businesses used it as an opportunity to cash in on the crisis by hiking the prices of essential goods — including food.

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Food Lovers Market admitted to charging excessively for ginger and Pick n Pay entered into an agreement to cap its profit margin on garlic and ginger, following an investigation into price gouging. More recently, the Competition Commission has expressed concern about the steep increases in prices of staple foods, like sunflower oil and maize meal, which may be at risk of price gouging.  

As people like Ledger and organisations like the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group have warned, South Africa’s food system is broken. Here’s what we should be demanding as the first steps to fixing it.

Firstly, the Marketing of Agricultural Products Act No 47 of 1996, which liberalised the food market, must be amended to enable the government to regulate food prices to promote food security. In its current form, it essentially leaves it to the market to regulate itself resulting in a private-sector governed food system which has had negative outcomes for consumers, smaller farmers and farm workers. 

We also need to demand that supermarkets and big food businesses provide data and information about their pricing throughout the supply chain, including how much is paid to producers. This will enable regulators and others to monitor prices more effectively.

The need for this is evidenced by concerns that while the cost of buying bread from wholesalers went down for supermarkets in 2019, they kept the price the same for the consumer. Even right now, food prices continue to soar, despite the decrease in fuel prices and global food commodity prices.

Increase fines for businesses that profiteer and do more to protect consumers. The Presidency must take urgent action to reduce the high cost of living by working with relevant bodies, such as the Department of Trade and Industry, to strengthen the powers and mandate of the Competition Commission, Competition Tribunal and other public institutions that can help protect consumers. 

To be sure, South Africa’s hunger and nutrition crisis is not new. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, around 27% of children under five years old were not growing as they should due to chronic undernourishment. But it is getting worse. The current alarming increases in basic food prices, coupled with high unemployment levels, low wages, inconsistent and unaffordable electricity supply and inadequate support for unemployed people, signals that turning the tide is even more urgent. 

While dignity is inherent to all human beings, it needs to be affirmed in the quality of life people lead. Ensuring that food is accessible and affordable to everyone is an essential part of doing so. DM


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  • Raymond Auerbach says:

    Hooray for Koketso – at last DM begins to understand food systems! The next step is to bring together this understanding with understanding of the factors causing climate change. One of the dramatic links is that most food production currently happens using methods which deplete soil carbon, and this carbon goes into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. Until agriculture replenishes soil organic matter (also known as colloidal humus, or compost), increases biodiversity with crop rotation and reduces the pollution caused by poison use and synthetic fertilisers in the water, agriculture will remain part of the problem. Fifteen years of research in southern Africa shows how we can do this (“Organic Food Systems” [Auerbach, 2020]) available on the cabi website as an open access free download. The movement towards local organic food production is gathering pace in Southern Africa, and school gardens have an important role to play. Let us see more coverage of sustainable food systems – we need a just transition!

  • Matthew Rose says:

    This article is a perfect example of the pitfalls of armchair criticism. Heavy on emotion, light on facts, with hidden untested assumptions which bely the ignorance and skewed stance of the writer.

    • Hansie Louw says:

      This is my feeling about the articles as well.
      Of course we need to bring emotion into the picture, but the possible solutions are not solutions. Short term we need NGO’s and churches and charities to step in. Long term we need to assist people to complete with certain products eg a business selling eggs at R26 in stead of the R35 as indicate as supermarket price. We need more people employed or running their own successful business or enterprice. Those are longer term solutions.

  • David Turner says:

    Very good and relevant article – thank you for addressing the topic.
    However, one solution you suggested is definitely not the answer – that the government regulate the prices. The writer would not have had the first hand experience of the apartheid government’s attempts to regulate the agricultural prices via the multitude of Boards that existed on the 60-80’s. Huge expense and manpower and they still never got it right.
    Looking after the poor and hungry can never be centralised to government, but needs to be decentralised to the lowest level of the local community, churches, NGO’s etc.

    • Jacques Wessels says:

      I could not agree more real change happens when real people get up from behind computers & hoping for governments corrupt interventions & take action. If you really want to close this perceived exploitation get into the value change in your town & compete with the evil supermarkets.

  • Patrick O'Shea says:

    Good points by the writer, but it is remiss to ignore the link between food security and farm security. Also, there is a growing movement towards sustainable farming amongst more responsible farmers, including “no till” and other innovative farming practices. However, the farmers remain near the bottom of the food chain when it comes to reward for hard work.

  • Paulo Ribeiro says:

    One of the most difficult parts of providing quality, affordable food to the end consumer is the basic lack of government function.
    To run a supermarket one cannot rely on government to provide essential services to run a business.
    I.E generator and diesel costs (Eskom), JoJo tank (municipal), private security (SAP) and high taxes just to name a few.
    Someone needs to pay, it is a business, with risk must come reward. Profit.
    Blaming a business is the wrong scapegoat, question the government as to why business have to operate in this sort of environment.

  • Fairly half baked article at best which seems totally out of touch with reality and common sense. Sounds like a petulant child moaning at everyone and anyone to get what she wants… If companies are behaved in anti-competitive behavior, then govt must simply do it’s job at regulating this via existing structures. This requires lots of people in cushy govt position to actually do the job they are already getting paid to do. (Imagine this country if that happened overnight, civil servants doing what they get paid to do… that will fix the vast majority of our problems.)

    Secondly about the pricing of food at farm gate vs retail: surely the blindingly obvious answer is then for govt/large NPO’s to buy directly from farmers and distributing to it’s constituents, giving farmers and consumers better pricing and without making corrupting profits? Or for a private co-op, or buyers club to do this. Oh wait, all these have failed because only the free market motivates and focuses people to serve the needs of the market.

    Lastly, not once was self sufficiency promoted, through say micro and/or urban farming etc. Or support of emerging farmers. Why? Because easier to demand from govt and blame business.

  • Jos Verschoor says:

    An in-depth investigation should be of the highest priority .. looking at the increases of foodstuff looks to me, are out of all proportion. If nothing is done to prevent the increase and spread of hunger, for a civilised society, as we claim to be and where salaries are growing out of all proportion and not in line with performance, particularly for members of Parliament, professing to be the representatives of the nation, with proposals of increasing privelages, and the person in the street is left behind, should not be applicable if those that are the representatives of the nation, are in fact the pariahs of that same nation they are to take care off.

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    The one thing SA doesn’t need is government intervention. Like King Midas of old everything they lay their hands on turns not to gold, but gets corrupted and broken.
    But let’s not live in denial. We have a massive problem. Regulating big business won’t help, but it’s been ably said that it’s time to compete with big business, and they have a soft underbelly; they are making huge profits.

    It’s time to support farmers’ markets and all small farming endeavours in whatever way we can. Buy milk, eggs, cheese, eggs, meat direct from the producer. It can and is being done; but on a minute scale. How can we assist farmers’ markets?

    And secondly to get people gardening. Dig for Victory enabled the British people to become self sufficient during WWII. They astonished themselves just how much food they could produce from their own gardens. We need to Dig for Dignity, so much better than hand outs.

    Where the state really could help is simply provide money for school feeding schemes, not to feed the children on super number one refined mealie meal, surely the chief cause of malnutrition, but with a mealie a day in summer, and straight run maize meal, containing all the protein and nutrients. A glass of milk, daily, an egg twice a week direct from local farmers, and seed for school gardens.

    By purchasing maize direct from the farmer, milling it ourselves, we have a big bowl of delicious mealiemeal for a pittance.

    And bread with 100% flour for R7. It can be done.

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