Food prices: ‘No rest for poor mothers’

The Covid-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the hunger crisis in South Africa, says social activists. It has simply become too expensive to exist. Photo: Supplied

“There is no rest. There is no peace. We must hustle,” said an Umlazi woman who participated in a six-month research study on the impact of food prices.

The study was conducted by PMBEJD, the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity group.

According to the January 2021 household affordability index that was just released, the price for a basket of core foods has risen by 5.1%.

This means that the standard household food basket now costS R800 more than the minimum wage earned by the majority of workers.

The index tracked food price data from 44 different supermarkets and 30 butcheries in township and urban areas in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pietermaritzburg and Springbok, explained PMBEJD programme coordinator Mervyn Abrahams.

Mervyn Abrahams from Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Speaking to Food For Mzansi, Abrahams said, “The average cost of the household food basket increased from September 2020 to November 2020. Prices then dipped slightly in December 2020, but have increased again in January 2021.”

Abrahams confirmed that the average cost of the household food basket in January 2021 is now at its highest level since the start of the expanded collection in September 2020.

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A standard food basket consisting of, among other products, maize, sugar beans, samp, sugar and potatoes, now cost the average South African household R4 051,20.

Economic Justice & Dignity Group programme director Mervyn Abrahams says they have seen in an increase in prices of staple food. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

With 60% of workers in the country earning a minimum wage of R3 321,60, it has become “too unaffordable to exist,” says Abrahams.

“The cost of this basket has breached the national minimum wage. Households are finding it more and more difficult to afford sufficient food and, if that is true, we must expect an increase in undernutrition, if not indirect hunger.”

Government withdrew most of its Covid-19 financial support in October last year after being in effect for only six months, Abrahams pointed out. 

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“The R350 Covid relief grant, which is so little, but shockingly so important, ends in January.

Government’s published list of 22 critical products and categories, including 11 basic food items that are price-monitored, does not go far enough to aid the poor, argue leading researchers. Photo: Supplied

“Government chose to withdraw support in the middle of a pandemic when almost nothing has gone back to normal and almost everything got worse. 

“The vast majority of South Africans now face the second, and possibly third and fourth waves of Covid-19 with less money in our pockets than we had at the start of the pandemic.”

Stokvels to buy food

However, most stokvels survived 2020. Abrahams revealed that women who were able to keep up with stokvel payments told the PMBEJD that their families were in a much better position than those who couldn’t.

“They were able to carry on making payments by sacrificing their own health and nutrition needs, and using some of the social grant top-ups on child support and old-age grants,” said Abrahams.

‘What can we do? We hustle. We eat less so our children can eat, we find someone, anyone to borrow money from.’

Using their own strategies and saving part of the six-month top-ups, women have been able to build up some resilience, reiterated Abrahams.

The food secured through the stokvel pay-outs in December were an absolute lifesaver granting these women a “grace period.”

“These core staple foods typically last until March or April in a normal year. This year, the food will finish sooner because families must share with those whose food has run out and because the start of the new school year has been delayed.

“The grace period will end in February. Thereafter, women tell us things are going to be very hard as many more families are going to find themselves very hungry.”

Everybody is hustling

Abrahams confirmed that the women who participated in the PMBEJD study have already had to delve deep into their talents, relationships and connections in order to survive.

They have made peace with the reality that the pandemic is far from over, and that they were on their own.

One of the participants from Umlazi, south-west of Durban, said, “What can we do? We hustle. We eat less so our children can eat. We find someone, anyone to borrow money from and then find a way not to repay them.

“Everybody is hustling to sell something, make something, grow something, beg, and borrow; to start something, anything to survive. There is no rest, there is no peace.

“We have no or little savings. We have lost our jobs. Our wages have been cut. We work fewer hours. At the same time, food, electricity and transport prices continue to rise.”

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