The growing crisis over food security and hunger cannot be wished away. It requires a response greater than government policy and budget allocations. It requires action from you too, argues Mandela Washington fellows Melene Rossouw and Siyabulela Jentile. Rossouw is a gender and human rights activist, while Jentile is an author and social entrepreneur.
Let’s play a game of numbers about hunger. Here’s the first number: R3 296.88. That’s the value of the national minimum wage for R21.69 per hour for general workers, according to the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Household Affordability Index.
Here’s another number: R460. That’s the value of the child support grant in April. Finally, here are two more numbers R751.77 – the average cost of feeding a child a basic but nutritious diet – and R4 198.93, the average cost of a household food basket of basics in April.
It’s not hard to spot the problem. There’s a growing gap between what people earn and the cost of the most basic of food to sustain them. What the state chips in to help is falling significantly short.
This is not a problem unique to the Covid-19 pandemic. Back in 2017 6.8 million South Africans experienced hunger, significantly down from an achingly high 13.5 million in 2002, according to a food security study published by Stats SA.
But if that report published back in 2019 seemed to indicate that fewer bellies were going empty, the Covid-19 pandemic has massively rolled back any gains made in food security over the last 20 years.
The shocking reality
For those in the comfort of middle-class suburbia, this gnawing reality may only surface as a hint in the growing number of “bin pickers” or the frequency of doorbells ringing asking for help and charity.
The reality, however, is terrible. The Household Affordability Index reports the spreading hunger in poorer areas and fears that it is going to worsen as winter sets in.
Professor Julian May, the director of the NRF-DST Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape, told eNCA in a recent interview of the “slow violence of malnutrition”.
He said, “Women tell us that what happens is ‘that when hunger starts coming in, a neighbour is going to support another neighbour.
“But when both of you start getting hungry and then the third neighbour starts getting hungry and the fourth neighbour starts getting hungry then it starts a horrible ball rolling that you cannot stop.’ This situation scares women very much.”
The impact of malnutrition will reverberate into the future for children.
It has an effect on physical development, the immune system (devastating in a pandemic), the motor system and cognition, he warned.
May, also co-author of the South African Child Gauge 2020 report which examined food and nutrition security, said their research suggested that an additional 2.7 million children had experienced hunger so far through the pandemic.
He said while it was unknown how many had been impacted to the point of malnutrition, the scale “points to a potential crisis in our future.”
This no hyperbole, and the situation will have worsened since that interview.
The most recent National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM) shows some 18% of households (nearly two in 10) reported that someone in the household had gone hungry in the last seven days.
This was an increase from 16% on the last survey done, a change which the authors call “statistically significant”.
But what is to be done?
The long-term solutions must address the deepening wealth gap that divides South African society. Over the short term, though, there are a number of interventions to at least salve the pain.
After the social relief of distress grant of R350 a month terminated at the end of April, the state is putting aside R2.82 billion to fund yet another extension. This significant amount is welcome and aligns with the findings of the Wave 3 NIDS-CRAMS survey.
Unfortunately, it will merely slow the rising tide of hunger and not turn it back.
As the national director of the Black Sash, Lynette Maart, has pointed out, more than 10 million South Africans have applied for this grant during the pandemic, startling testimony to the scale of the hidden crisis.
Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) researcher Busi Sibeko argues that the net should be widened for those qualifying for the grant (some three million have been rejected) and that the grant amount be raised to at least the Food Poverty Line of R585 per person per month.
May and other experts support this and further moves like implementing municipal-level Food Councils under a National Nutrition and Food Security plan and for the state to propose a roadmap to guarantee the constitutional right of children to nutrition.
But will those moves be enough to close the gap and close it fast enough?
The problem of hunger in South Africa requires a response greater than government policy and Budget allocations. It is a question that requires the commitment and response of us all. It goes to the core of our humanity.
In this sense, we have seen the best of us as many – farmers, civil society, ordinary citizens, retailers, even brewers – step up to help ensure food ends up on the plates of the weak, the poor and hungry.
The many challenges our post-Covid society faces are daunting but on this one we all have agency.
The most basic act of human compassion is expressed in the powerful gesture of sharing your bread with someone less fortunate. If we learn and practise only this as we come back from this crisis we will be immeasurably improved as a nation.