Food sovereignty is a bulwark against desperation

As food prices and the cost of living soar globally, the crisis of hunger in South Africa is rapidly escalating. Action must be taken, and swiftly.

In South Africa last year, more than a million bottles of champagne were imported from France at a cost of over R458 million. At the same time millions of people went hungry, about three in 10 children were estimated to be stunted owing to malnutrition and there were cases in which children starved to death. Unsurprisingly, in the first days of the winter riots, impoverished people appropriated food on a vast scale in a carnival atmosphere. 

Prior to the riots, the hard lockdowns, a violently enforced measure with no scientific rationale, and the withdrawal of the Covid grant had pushed many people into acute desperation. Parents were harvesting wild plants to make soup, or putting their children to bed with a cup of tea made from a repeatedly reused and carefully dried teabag. The air was saturated with social tension.

Now, as food and fuel prices escalate amid almost incomprehensible levels of unemployment there is again a gathering sense of desperation. Our crisis is entangled in a global crisis. Prices began to rise during the Covid pandemic and the situation was worsened by weather and war. Drought in East Africa and southern Europe, floods in Australia and heatwaves in India as well as the Southern Cone of South America have laid crops to waste. The wars in Yemen and Ethiopia have left millions without sufficient food. The war in Ukraine, and the sanctions and escalating militarism that have followed it, are both worsening the situation globally. Inflation, particularly in the United States where a recession also seems increasingly likely, is worsening the situation.

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Our crisis also has specific dimensions of its own. The ANC’s failures – and its betrayal of the struggles that brought it to power – exceed the authoritarian mishandling of the Covid situation and the failure to build an economy that can provide even the most basic levels of security for the majority.

The ANC has allowed the supermarkets to capture most of the food system and become sites of extraordinary profiteering. There was a momentary scandal way back in 2010 when then-Shoprite chief executive Whitey Basson earned just under R630 million in a single year. But there has not been sustained attention paid to the way in which supermarkets suck wealth from ordinary people into the hands of the very rich. In many respects, they enjoy a massive subsidy from the state’s system of grants.

Possible mechanisms

The ANC’s failures to achieve meaningful land reform go far beyond the question of the racial character of ownership. There has been scant discussion on what land should be used for and how it should be managed, and, in an overwhelmingly urbanised society, very little focus on the imperative for urban land reform. 

But now, as hunger gnaws at more and more of us, urgent action is required. Ensuring food security – the availability of food – is critical. Food security cannot be entrusted to ward councillors and local ANC structures, where capture through corruption and patronage is inevitable. There are, though, a number of mechanisms to improve food security that can evade predatory political elites. 

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One, of course, is to maintain and extend the current set of grants. But on their own these will not be sufficient to blunt the edge of the escalating crisis and a basic income grant is now imperative. If the ANC is not moved by the moral imperative of social solidarity, perhaps it may wish to consider how social stability can be secured without some sort of measure to ameliorate hunger. 

Another mechanism that can be used to improve food security without having to move food through the hands of corrupt politicians and local party structures is the imposition of price controls on basic food items. This is something that the supermarkets can easily accommodate by cross-subsidising from their huge profits earned on other items. 

Popular control

But while all possible steps must be taken, and as quickly as possible, to ensure food security, there also needs to be a simultaneous commitment to working to develop food sovereignty – popular control over the production and distribution of food. There should be a swift movement to ensure rapid rural and urban land reform, to insulate it from elite capture and provide support for people to grow healthy food in a sustainable way. This would need to be accompanied by establishing a system of markets in which people could, outside the control of the supermarkets, sell food directly to each other. 

The ANC has strong links to the Cuban state, where the turn to agroecology in the 1990s was very successful. Agroecology, which strives to synthesise social and ecological principles to the development and management of food systems, was developed in rural and urban areas and resulted in a massive increase in food production. There is much that could be learnt from these experiments.

But there is also innovation from below. In recent years urban land occupations, which in the past were largely focused on the acquisition of land for housing, have increasingly included the occupation of land for the purpose of producing food. There is a discernible shift under way in grassroots urban planning. The development of urban gardens has been undertaken with varying degrees of success and through different forms of labour and management. Connections are slowly being formed between some of these projects, and collective work undertaken to think through the politics of land and food.

A progressive government would, of course, act to support these experiments by releasing unused land, securing access to occupied land and providing seeds, equipment and training to enable the development of urban agroecology. But, of course, the ANC has repeatedly responded to these kinds of experiments with violent repression. 

Focus on dignity

The best-known case is the eKhenana Commune in Cato Manor, Durban, which has been extensively covered by New Frame and other social justice publications. Here the development of a democratically managed food sovereignty project – including vegetables and poultry – that was successful enough to be able to generate a surplus after meeting the needs of the community has been subject to staggering levels of repression. This has included repeated violent and unlawful evictions, repeated arrests on bogus charges – sometimes followed by long periods of imprisonment after bail has been denied – the burning of people’s homes, assaults and the assassination of two leaders. 

Transcribed and anonymised interviews with residents conducted by Jordan Buser, an American student, reveal a real sense of joy in being able to work the land. “I love working in the garden. The garden means a lot to me … I have learnt here in eKhenana to  work here in the garden to grow plants and I still want to learn more about the soil, about the plants, about the garden things.”

There is a consistent focus on dignity. One interviewee says: “The garden has a role in restoring dignity … I am able to go to the garden and plough. I am able to go and reap what I have ploughed. In that way, I am not going to bed  hungry. I am willing to do everything that is coming my way to develop the community. Slowly, slowly I am trying. I love this place. Yo! I love this place.” 

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Another resident says: “To me, to go and ask for food, whether it’s people I know or strangers, your dignity is damaged; it becomes damaged. But if you have food to survive for a day … it helps a lot.” Another interviewee, making a similar point, observes that “when you are full in your stomach, you feel like you are a human being. You are not ashamed of anything. That, in my way, that is dignity alone.”

There is also a sense that food sovereignty is not just a survivalist response to desperate circumstances, but that it is a step towards deeper social transformation. A resident says: 

“The garden is the first step in what we want to achieve. It is like a foundation, because in the fight with the capitalist system one of the most potent weapons the system uses is  poverty … I know for a fact that a lot of us as the working class are trapped by the system  because we are hungry … If I am able to control what goes into my stomach, it is huge. It is a big step.” 

Along with grants, price controls and all other measures to ensure greater food security, we also need to support the work already under way to build food sovereignty from below. Along with food, we could also do with a little more joy, a little more dignity.

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