Hunger epidemic: The choice between safety and food

For many vulnerable households in South Africa, food has simply become unaffordable

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Where before the covid-19 pandemic many poor and food insecure households in South Africa ran out of food in the last week of the month, that now happens two weeks into the month. 

According to Mervyn Abrahams, coordinator of the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Forum, food has become unaffordable to many households, even as coronavirus forces them to spend more on cleaning products. For many it is a choice between spending money potentially life-saving hygiene and feeding their families. 

Abrahams was one of the panellists at the Democratising South Africa’s food system in and beyond the crisis webinar hosted by the institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) this week.   

Panellists agreed that covid-19 has reinforced the fragility of the South African food system.  

The webinar was the sixth instalment in the series hosted by PLAAS, who were joined by key activists across different parts of the South African food system and shone a light on the ever-prevalent hunger crisis in the country.  

Chaired by PLAAS professor Ruth Hall, the aim of the virtual event was to understand some of the key features of the hunger crisis that is currently affecting South Africans. 

PLAAS’s Professor Ruth Hall.

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South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world and this is depicted through its food system, Hall said. While there may be ample agricultural productivity, this did not trickle down to the household level.   

The dimensions of the hunger crisis are massive and this in a country where already one in five children were stunted for malnutrition. On the one hand we are dealing with a new crisis, but also a longstanding one,” she stressed.  

Abrahams had key insights to share on the current plight of the poor.  

The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Forum was founded in 2018 and addresses the issues aligned with the unjust and unequal political economy of South Africa. Abrahams highlighted the impact that increasing food prices have had on disadvantaged people.  

“The crisis of hunger is not directly resultant from this pandemic. It has been with us and it is a feature of South Africa’s untransformed economy.” 

“What this pandemic has done is it has shone the light on the reality of hunger for millions of South Africans,” said Abrahams.  

He added that increased food prices had a severe impact on the pockets of the disadvantaged, who were reliant on informal work for their income. But, with the lockdown in effect, these workers’ incomes have since dried up. 

Mervyn Abrahams.

“Foods have increased by 7.8% in the period of two months while we have been in lockdown, that is R249 in monetary value.  

Before the pandemic, their food baskets might have carried them through for about three weeks with the last week of the month being a very difficult one for most low-income households. Food now lasts for about two weeks, he said. 

Abrahams also highlighted that consumer buying patterns had been jolted, with a focus on hygiene more centralized in the household.  

We are now spending more money on jik, and green bar soaps What that does is it competes with the amount of food that people can purchase. We are not surprised to see a deepening sense of hunger and we are not surprised to see long queues of people standing in the hot sun for food parcels.” 

The hunger crisis has reached a breaking point, with a surge of sporadic protests throughout the country. Government will have to come to the fore aggressively he believes. 

“The reality is that food has just become unaffordable.”

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