Alarmed by a potential rise in food insecurity during the covid-19 pandemic, the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development, Thoko Didiza, says a resurgence of home gardening could meet likely future growth in food demand.
In an exclusive interview with Food For Mzansi’s co-founder, Ivor Price, Didiza warned there is grave danger that while South Africa might remain food secure at a national level in the future, it could be increasingly food insecure at a household level. It is thus critical that home gardens become an integral part of local food systems.
“As a country, we really need to look at household food security. How can we actually re-energise our people to produce food for themselves, so that we do not become a society that is nationally food secure, but still have challenges at household level, particularly in our rural areas and informal sectors? We also need to… strengthen our food systems so that the availability and affordability of food is actually realised by our consumers,” she urged.
Didiza’s remarks follows a recent warning by Statistics SA that massive income losses during the protracted pandemic may lead to higher levels of food insecurity. The covid-19 lockdown could also skyrocket the country’s unemployment rate to 50%, warns the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive, Alan Mukoki. This is in line with the National Treasury’s own worst prediction.
“The fault lines of our past became very clear (during the lockdown). You can see that the agricultural infrastructure were in those areas that I would call, quote-unquote, the former Republic of South Africa, and in your homelands (such as the former Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei and Venda) there were very little infrastructure – except your small irrigation schemes that were far and in-between which did not serve the entirety of the community.”
With the gains that were made in the past 26 years of democracy after apartheid, much more can be done to revitalise the agricultural sector, said Didiza. “Even government, the sixth (democratic) administration, the president (all agree that) agriculture is at the centre (of future plans). So, we are actually in a better position, not just post-covid but also (for) economic revival of the country, agriculture is at the centre.”
However, despite Didiza’s optimism about the future, many farmers remain skeptical following a major coronavirus shake-up that has already led to massive job losses and lower consumer demand.
More than 55 000 farmers applied for government’s covid-19 agricultural disaster fund, but only about 15 000 made the cut.
There is also growing concern that government has still not come to the rescue of the small-scale and communal farmers it said qualified for a combined relief of more than R500 million. Didiza now revealed to Food For Mzansi that this is due to irregularities uncovered after she initially addressed the nation on 17 May 2020.
The subsequent verification of application data has reduced the number of successful applicants, she said. “Of the 15 000 applications that were approved (more than 300) were actually duplications which were not quite obvious in the beginning. Only when we started processing the vouchers, did we find that two people were maybe sharing one ID. Or we found in some instances, by mistake, there was a duplication of names. So, we had to clean the data (before starting disbursements).
”The minister confirmed that her department has now started with the processing of the relief vouchers that they initially promised would be issued from 18 May onwards. “As we process, we send them to the provinces for the farmers to collect.”
Going forward, Didiza has emphasised the importance of the media to not only keep government on their toes, but to also highlight the agricultural sector’s role in creating social cohesion in South Africa. She applauded Food For Mzansi for their work in this regard, even highlighting specific articles that she found particularly meaningful.
“The media is also a watchdog where as a government we may not see how our policy intervention actually lands on the ground. The media must say to us, ‘But government, this is what you have done. We think there is this weakness because of what we have seen.’ It also helps us to strengthen our own systems. The media has a very important role to play, not only in being critical, but being educational and profiling the agricultural sector important for our economy.”