Kellogg’s, a tale of two cereals

Company executives fed Corn Flakes to primary school children in Gauteng on World Hunger Day. But nearby, a former Kellogg’s worker couldn’t bear to look at the cereal it produces.

On 28 May, World Hunger Day was ushered into Daveyton on Gauteng’s East Rand to the dull, tinny sound of a cowbell. A Letsha Primary School learner waved the bell above his head, signalling that school was about to start. In between every clang, the pitter-patter of late feet hurried up the streets towards the school gate, oversized backpacks swinging this way and that.

Marketing banners pinned to the school buildings announced the reason for the Letsha learners’ punctuality: the Kellogg’s Breakfast for Better Days feeding programme. The American cereal giant claims that the government-endorsed scheme feeds 165 tonnes of Corn Flakes and half a million litres of milk every year to 25 000 learners at 43 schools around the country.

Letsha staff say that many Daveyton parents struggle to afford breakfast for their children. As a result, school attendance has risen dramatically since the feeding programme began. The speaker systems, harried public relations officers and tailored jackets that filled the school yard, however, made it clear that this was not going to be an ordinary breakfast.

Part of the reason for the commotion stood sipping coffee in the staff room. Four executives of Kellogg’s sub-Saharan operations – executive director Gerald Mahinda, sales director Anthony Holme, finance and IT director Alex Lew and marketing director Kihong Kim – shared memories from their days studying at British universities (“[London is] so much fun! Even if you are just watching street artists.”) and discussed their children’s educational prospects (one was torn between Durham and Miami universities) while they waited for the event to begin.

A single figure had been printed on a sheet of white paper, placed in a plastic sleeve and hung on a wall on the opposite side of the room: 80%. This is the pass rate the school hopes to achieve in 2019.

28 May 2019: Gerald Mahinda, the Kellogg’s executive director for sub-Saharan Africa, dishes up Corn Flakes for breakfast at Letsha Primary School.

The most painful meal of the day

In Tsakane, 30km to the south, Suzan Mokgotla’s two sons sat down to their own breakfast. There was a time when it would have been a bowl of Kellogg’s. But today, the eldest had a slice of bread and an egg with a glass of Coke. The youngest ate Weetbix.

Mokgotla cannot bear to look at Kellogg’s products any more.

She is one of 116 former casual workers whose long struggle initially appeared to have ended when the labour court compelled the company to take them on as permanent employees. After working at the plant for eight years on a casual basis, the court’s decision felt like an oasis in a desert for Mokgotla. She remembered feeling at the time that “at least now I’m going to have life”.

But lengthy battles ensued at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. First, for the wages of the newly permanent workers to be made equal to those of the factory’s existing permanent workers. And then for 10 workers, including Mokgotla, to remain in the factory where they had always worked after Kellogg’s sought to place them in new jobs elsewhere.

The 10 workers eventually lost their jobs as part of settlement agreements they signed in February 2019. But Mokgotla said the battle is not over. With the assistance of the Food and Allied Workers Union, the workers are planning to use the labour court’s initial ruling, which they allege Kellogg’s has consistently frustrated, to reopen their challenge against the company.

Mokgotla was unable to keep up with her rent after losing her job. She and her sons were forced to move in with her sister. Mokgotla has tried but failed to find work since signing the settlement. “As long as I get up in the morning and go to work, anything is fine with me.”

28 May 2019: The Kellogg’s factory in Springs, east of Johannesburg.

Singing for their breakfast

“One day, some of you need to come work for Kellogg’s,” implored a beaming Zandile Mposelwa back in Daveyton. The head of Kellogg’s external relations was attempting to rouse the small crowd of learners who were waiting for their breakfast. Since Kellogg’s opened its plant in Springs in the 1940s, the majority of its workers, like Mokgotla, have hailed from the townships of the East Rand.

Hands clasped against the morning cold, the learners shivered a choreographed response through chattering teeth: “Shine Kellogg’s, shine!”

Breakfast for Better Days was part of the reason Mposelwa joined Kellogg’s, a company she said does “business with a purpose”. “Solving hunger is important to us, and we’re doing our bit to help out,” she said. “Kids learning on a full tummy is important to us.”

According to Mokgotla, however, the company is responsible for her family’s increasingly empty tummies. Breakfasts may become a thing of the past unless she is able to find work, she said.

After helping feed a class of children, pouring Corn Flakes and milk while posing for photographs, Mahinda, who claims that “part of Kellogg’s global ethos is being sensitive to the communities where they operate,” told New Frame that he “doesn’t see a connection” between feeding primary school children in Daveyton and the hunger that former workers allege the company is creating in Tsakane. “The plant has certain requirements and we took the people that we needed to run the plant,” he said of the workers who lost their jobs in spite of the labour court ruling.

28 May 2019: Suzan Mokgotla cannot face feeding her sons breakfast cereals made by Kellogg’s since losing her job at the Kellogg’s factory in Springs.
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