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A Dry Season – Food Security in South Africa

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Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)/Taken January 28, 2020 – Moya Wekhaya Community Garden Market in partnership with SLE Farming hold a midsummer harvest at the Moya organic Garden Market, Cape Town.This is an initiative spearheaded by the pensioners in Khayelitsha to improve food security and create opportunities for skills transfer to the youth. Economists have warned of the long-term negative consequences to the economy of a broken food production and distribution chain for consumers, farmers, and eventually retailers and their associated operations, the writer says.

By Isobel Frye

Experts are increasingly concerned about the impact that the high and ever-growing food prices will have on the future health of the nation at large, including the permanent damage to the physical and mental development of young children.

Economists also warn of the long-term negative consequences to the economy of a broken food production and distribution chain for consumers, farmers, and eventually retailers and their associated operations. The twin pincers of largely imported high food price inflation and the open-ended devastating impact of loadshedding on the food production and retail chain are considered a multi-year threat.

Government does not appear to have a plan that will make a real difference. This renders their reneging on the President’s promise to use social grants as a mechanism to cushion the poor from these very threats, even more sinister.

The latest available national survey data on hunger is the 2015 Income and Expenditure Survey, which reflected pre-Covid and pre-Ukraine realities. According to this data, one quarter of all South Africans fell below the survivalist Food Poverty Line.

The 2023 value of this poverty line is R663 per person per month. This is the amount of money needed to buy the basic foodstuffs the world Health Organisation deems necessary for a person to survive in South Africa today. That 25 percent of South Africans failed to meet this basic level five years before Covid-19 disruption to income and consumption practices shows that it is the system that is broken and that we will continue to be extremely vulnerable to any crisis until we fix that system of income and food security permanently.

To address the fears of so many millions of South Africans who are caught by the ever-tightening grip of hunger and hardship, President Cyril Ramaphosa used last month’s SONA to give the following words of reassurance to the nation. Government, he said, will ensure that “existing social grants are increased to cushion the poor against rising inflation”.

What is the real level of inflation experienced by the poor? We know that food is the single largest category of expenditure in poor households. We also know that food inflation always comes in far higher than headline CPI. The knock-on effects of rising petrol prices for the transportation of food throughout the production process is one driver for this, and now we have food shortages as well as increased costs for retailers having to generate power to keep the lights on and the fridges cold.

The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group monthly monitors the prices of a basket of staple foods that reflects the buying habits of low-income consumers. Their recent report reflects that the average cost of these staple foods increased by 17.4 percent from R2,303.78 in February 2022 to R2,705.53 in February 2023.

Just over 50 percent of all households in South Africa reported social grants as being one of their main sources of income. The means-tested Child Support Grant is received by 12.8 million children under 18. Until February, this monthly amount was R480.

Given all of these obligations on the state, and the very guarantee of the President, it was with a sense of disbelief that Finance Minister Godangwana’s budget speech was received, just a few days after the President’s reassurances. Godangwana not only announced that this will be the final year of the Social Relief of Distress grant that is a lifeline to the seven million beneficiaries, but he also announced that the R480 Child Support Grant (CSG) will increase by an initial 4.2 percent to R500 for the first half of the coming financial year, and then by an additonal R10 per child per month in October 2023. Against the real price increases of food, the CSG has been effectively slashed in real terms by government, leaving a deficit of about one quarter of the Food Poverty Line for each child, each month.

Millions of hungry children will fall into starvation. Given the global scale of the cost-of-living impact on food and fuel, exacerbated by a state-led electricity failure, this below inflation increase is a shocking message from the ruling party to the poor. What would have made sense would have been to increase the rate of tax on people earning above the income tax threshold, on companies and on wealth. But none of these taxes was raised.

Despite the Constitutional guarantees of dignity, equality and sufficient food for all, government leaders once again chose to buffer the lifestyles of the wealthier at the cost of the poor.

However, hunger has a long-term effect that emerges long after the fitful sleep of the hungry child.

The prevalence of hunger and starvation can be found in both stunting and obesity. Stunting leads to incomplete physical, cognitive and psychological development. It cannot be remedied at a later stage. Obesity is caused by eating the wrong food, in this case cheap but empty calories that don’t satisfy hunger but lead to a variety of chronic diseases including heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes that have a tragic impact on individuals and are a future cost to the state.

The final straw for many households has been loadshedding. Loadshedding has led to a far higher rate of food wastage and a greater reliance on processed foods that don’t require cooking. Retailers have confirmed that more consumers are resorting to convenience foods and takeaways. Neither of these provides the necessary fresh food required to build healthy immune systems and they also push up household food spending that deepens the poverty trap.

In her Friday briefing on food security Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Thoko Didiza seemed unable to provide any concrete details of what steps government would take to reduce the ruinous impact of loadshedding on irrigation and harvesting. While many commitments to future interventions that would draw on new energy mixes and blended financing options, the actual impact on feeding hungry people today was missing.

Is the President now in the business of giving away empty promises with no consequences?

Mongane Wally Serote’s poem written for Don Mattera resonates to the state of anguish of dark days in which a better future seems impossible, but the poem ends with a promise. If leaders are listening it is hoped that they will heed such warnings while they still have time to self- correct.

For Don M. – Banned.*

“It is a dry white season

dark leaves don’t last, their brief lives dry out

and with a broken heart they

dive down gently headed for the earth

not even bleeding….it is a dry white season but seasons come to pass”.

*Poem reproduced with kind permission from the poet.

Isobel Frye is Executive Director of the Social Policy Initiative

This article is exclusive to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.