Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Why are 1 in 4 South Africans hungry?

On Saturday afternoon, 18 October, more than 300 people, mostly farm women from small towns and farms in the affluent and picturesque wine and fruit growing region of the Western Cape, marched through the streets of Cape Town. Their bright green T-shirts proclaimed ‘HUNGER HURTS’. Many carried hand-written placards and banners:
‘We have the right to food’
‘Farmwomen feed the nation’
‘A hungry child can’t learn’
The march was organised by the NGO ‘Women on Farms Project’ as a World Food Day event. It coincided with the launch this month of ‘Hidden Hunger in South Africa’, a report by Oxfam which highlights the shocking finding, from the 2013 South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, that 26% – one in four, or approximately 13 million – of South Africans currently suffer from hunger and a further 28% per cent are at risk of hunger.

Availability Versus Access

How can over half of all South Africans be food insecure, in an upper-middle-income country that produces more than enough food to feed the nation – enough, in fact, to export almost 2 million tons of maize (pdf) each year to its neighbours and overseas? As with many of South Africa’s economic and social challenges, inequality is at the heart of the issue. It is not inadequate availability of food that is the problem; it is inadequate access to food – by race, class and gender.

The Oxfam report identifies several factors for food insecurity in South Africa, including:
  • Unemployment (25%) and underemployment (e.g. seasonal and daily farm labourers)
  • Low wages for the working poor (which make adequate nutritious food unaffordable)
  • Rapidly rising food prices (and price fixing of bread, maize and dairy products by cartels)
  • Gendered inequalities (in access to employment, wages, and the burden of unpaid care work)
  • No access to land (<2% of South Africans grow the majority of their own food)
  • Poor nutrition (“poor households have good access to bad food but bad access to good food”).

How is food security a priority for the South African Government? 

The marchers approached Parliament. Their placards asked some challenging questions:
‘Why must we go hungry in a country of plenty?’
‘Do your children go to bed hungry?’
‘Can you feed your family on R12.41/hour?’
R12.41 (about 70p) is the legislated hourly minimum wage for farm workers in South Africa. Their monthly minimum wage of R2,275 equates to just £127, or $218, far below the national average gross national income (GNI) per capita of $600. In many households this is the only income, to be divided among several adults and children. A simulation by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy found that a nutritionally balanced diet would cost a family of four R2,308 per month in 2012 (pdf).

The marchers in Cape Town reached the gates of Parliament. A spokesperson for the farmwomen read their Memorandum aloud before handing it over to representatives from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, who signed it to acknowledge receipt before responding.

The Memorandum included the following demands, among others:

  • Realisation of the constitutional right to food
  • Faster land redistribution that will benefit women
  • Expropriation of unproductive and multiple farms
  • An end to farm worker evictions
  • Regulation of food corporations to stop their profiteering off basic food stuffs.

The Government spokesperson responded, but the farm women were not easily convinced.

Government: Food security is a priority for this government.
Farm woman: How? How?
Government: We will ensure that no South African has less than two meals a day.
Farm woman: More empty promises!”
Government: This week we celebrated World Food Day...
Farm woman: There is nothing to celebrate. We are hungry.

Nothing to celebrate, indeed. As Nelson Mandela said around the time of South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994:
“Freedom is meaningless if people cannot put food in their stomachs.”

Stephen Devereux is a Research Fellow in the Rural Futures cluster at IDS, and an adviser to the Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape
Colette Solomon is Director of the NGO ‘Women on Farms Project’ and an IDS Alumna.

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