When people’s need for water, food and shelter isn't met, the result is catastrophic for the individual, their family and society. Food insecurity and violence are close companions, a connection exposed in South Africa during the COVID-19 lockdown when conflict over food parcels arose. Hunger, uncertainty, fear and a legacy of unfairness interacted in a toxic mix leading to public violence and anger.
In South Africa food insecurity has been found to double the risk of men’s perpetration of intimate partner violence, because food insecurity affects our mental health and relationships.
Hunger wasn’t caused by the spread of COVID-19, but measures to contain the virus have exacerbated a long-term pandemic of inequality and poverty. The South African Demographic and Health Survey 2016 says the physical growth of 27% of children under five in South Africa is stunted because they don’t get enough nutrition.
The effects of poverty and hunger mean that globally, more than 200 million children in low- and middle-income countries don’t achieve their potential. Not having enough to eat affects children’s health and their cognitive, social and emotional development. These factors combine to entrench intergenerational poverty and inequality.
Nutrition is critical to educational achievement and success in the job market. So failing to ensure all people in South African have enough nutritious food has devastating consequences for our development as a nation.
Personal safety and national development are mutually dependent, and hunger is one of a complex cluster of social problems. COVID-19 has laid this prevailing reality bare. But the virus also presents an opportunity to tackle hunger, not least because food security has finally climbed up the agenda for business, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and donors.
AgriSA told ISS Today that the problem isn’t with food supply, but with the lockdown restrictions distorting markets. South Africa is producing as much food now as before COVID-19 and the lockdown. The problem is people’s inability to access and afford food.
One challenge is the lack of reliable information about the scale of the problem and the number of people needing food support. Another is high food costs. While the price of basic goods has risen only marginally since March, low-income households face higher prices because lockdown has restricted their ability to buy from informal traders, or shop around.
There’s a significant shortfall between the value of social grants and the amount of money a household needs to feed itself. The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group tracked the cost of 38 basic items. It found that a month’s food for an average family costs R3 470 – far more than any government grant, and far more than many employed South Africans earn.
There’s also the risk that food supply will become politicised, with recent reports of local councillors favouring political party members for food parcels. The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Each One Feed One campaign has witnessed how corruption at a local level negatively affects food distribution.
Then there’s the question of what it costs to mount an operation to source and deliver food parcels at multiple sites countrywide. What would an elimination of overheads look like for delivery mechanisms? And how do food providers ensure access to food in remote rural areas? These are some of the many challenges we collectively need to confront.
In South Africa lockdown has also stimulated many exciting new initiatives by social enterprises, corporations and interest groups. New collaborations have emerged between NGOs, churches and companies with a shared commitment to get food to people who need it most. Communities have mobilised to support those who cannot afford food.
Digital tools, including mapping technology, have enabled information sharing about food distribution and the crisis is forcing NGOs, businesses, charities, government and community-based organisations to move faster, work together and rethink food supply chains. The Gauteng Food Security Committee uses the technological and organisational skills of the private sector, and a network of faith-based institutions and NGOs, to purchase, pack and distribute food parcels to communities.
There also seems to be a growing ‘social listening’ by the state. Government is taking note of trends in social media conversations and has a deeper awareness of its dependency on civil society, faith-based organisations and business intermediaries to complement government action.
We should use this heightened awareness and collaborative spirit to drive long-term change. This could include better access to reliable and affordable supplies of locally produced fresh produce in low-income communities, and sustained access to markets for small-scale farmers.
There are excellent examples of how well organised low-income communities are feeding up to 20 000 people a day in response to the food crisis caused by lockdown. The Bonteheuwel Development Forum in the Western Cape is organised at street-level, has a soup kitchen on all 17 blocks in Bonteheuwel, and is establishing community food gardens.
Initiatives like this should be enabled and supported. For example the national and provincial agriculture, land reform and rural development departments could provide training and extension services to urban gardens. Supermarket chains could offer community buying groups low prices on bulk produce. Government communicators could showcase examples of effective community organisation.
The food crisis has many causes and requires many remedies. We need to address the shortfall between household income and food budgets, bolster school feeding programmes and community soup kitchens, and ensure stable access to markets for South Africa’s four million small-scale farmers.
There are solutions. The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition could for example increase the number of basic goods subject to price regulation. Creative ways can be found for putting money directly into the pockets of financially stressed households.
South Africa’s hunger problem is now better understood, and can be solved through flexible and collaborative action from government, NGOs, faith-based organisations, the private sector, economists and communities. The necessary expertise and knowledge are available in South Africa, as are trusted conveners, organisers and problem-solving methodologies.
What is required is good leadership to act on this momentum, and more recognition of the dangerous link between hunger, violence and national development.
Chandré Gould, Senior Research Fellow, Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria and Sello Hatang, Chief Executive, Nelson Mandela Foundation
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