Weeks 14 – 17: Monday 31 March – Sunday, 26 April 2020
With South Africa in extended lockdown much of our news focuses on land news related to Covid-19. As South Africa’s confirmed cases rise to over 4361 with 86 confirmed deaths (26 April 2019), there are growing concerns about food security, the impact of a prolonged shutdown on the economy and the plight of poor and vulnerable South Africans. While social distancing may be feasible for the elite and middle-class South Africans, for many of our citizens living in overcrowded township housing, backyard shacks, informal settlements and hostels this is almost impossible to put into practice. The shutdown impacts on the local economy and critically on food security as many people are no longer able to work and many of them are now unable to secure a livelihood.
The lockdown in a bid to flatten the Covid-19 infection curve has been accompanied by a nation and continent-wide focus on risks to food security.
The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies were the first to blow the whistle on the disastrous effects of lock down on poor people’s access to food and the informal food economy (PLAAS 1 April 2020). They made important recommendations including the urgent need to:
Amend the lockdown regulations to allow any supplier of food items to operate. These measures would legalise certain exemptions to the lockdown for poor people – as small-scale farmers, fishers, street traders and spazas – to produce, transport and sell food. This must include spaza shops (not only those that are registered) plus a public clarification that no distinction is drawn between spazas operated by foreigners and citizens. Informal street vendors must be allowed to sell food and also to transport their produce. Small-scale farmers and small-scale fishers must be able to move to and from their farms and fishing sites and to transport their produce, and systems set up especially by large corporate players within their sector to make available the infrastructure that can help them to do so safely.
Opt for cash instead of vouchers: Proposals for food vouchers should be replaced with straight cash transfers, to put decision making into people’s hands. The attempt to control what poor people buy is patronising and ineffectual, and there is evidence from elsewhere and in the past that food vouchers get sold for cash, at a discount. It is far better to protect and build up the buying power of poor people to survive.
Initially reports allayed the concerns of South Africans with the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy reporting on 3 April that South Africa had ample supplies and that people should not be concerned about the availability of food during the pandemic. BFAP reported that empty food shelves were “a reflection of consumer stockpiling rather than disrupted food supply chains”, noting that “South Africa is a surplus producer of food and that the value of South African food exports exceeds imports by a significant margin”. The report did note however that the country’s biggest source of food and agricultural imports was the European Union which is currently the centre of the Covid-19 outbreak. Due to global transport logistics backlogs products destined for export may need to be diverted into the local market. While this could benefit local consumers in the short term, this would impact heavily on producers who would receive lower prices for their produce, while South Africa would not earn much-needed foreign exchange from food exports.
Rebecca Campbell reporting for Creamer Media’s Engineering News (16 April 2020) cited a recent report by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) which provides a sobering assessment of how agricultural input supply chains could be affected by Covid-19.
South Africa is highly dependent on imports of agricultural inputs. For instance, it is estimated that more than 80% of domestic fertiliser demand and more than 95% of plant protection chemicals are imported… And this country also imports other agricultural inputs, such as tractors, machinery, implements and the spare parts that they all require.
The risks associated with the high dependence on imports for critical inputs are twofold: Firstly, it relates to availability, either due to supply disruptions in major sourcing countries, or logistical and distribution challenges arising from Covid-19 containment measures. Secondly, there are also risks related to affordability, which is linked to availability but also influenced by the macroeconomic environment, where the relative weakness of the exchange rate, for instance, has the potential to cause substantial price volatility.
A former President of AgriSA, Dan Kriek (News24 5 April 2020) warned that “the Covid-19 pandemic will accentuate levels of inequality in ways we have not anticipated, unless we start paying closer attention to food security amongst the poorest of the poor.” He observed how:
The new regulations do not take into account the complex food supply systems in townships and poor communities. While farmers, farmworkers and retailers all classified as essential services and quickly and easily obtain permits to work and move around, informal food supplies did not. However, the haste with which regulations were promulgated for various sub-sectors of the economy has resulted in unforeseen and unintended consequences. The informal food supply systems were already so complex, and the quick changes in regulations saw a significant impact on the informal food market.
The informal food market is a complex food delivery system, consisting of spaza shops, bakkie traders, vendors and hawkers. Estimates are that 30% of South Africa’s food is distributed through the informal market to our rural areas, townships and informal settlements. Although major retail outlets expanded their operations into townships, the informal market continues to play a critical role in the everyday life of millions of South Africans.
These sentiments were echoed by Western Cape Premier Alan Winde in an interview on CapeTalk on 10 April 2020. Winde highlighted the serious economic impacts of the lockdown regulations stating that:
It takes just two weeks – two weeks without a paycheck, two weeks without your business trading… It doesn’t matter who it is that is involved in that value chain – everybody is seriously impacted.
Winde noted that we have to get more food into the system “because as soon as you don’t have that paycheck and you fall outside of a social grants system you are now in a sort of no man’s land… We need to trace where more and more people are sitting abiding by the rules, locked up in their home but the cupboard is bare”.
A number of industry and civil society initiatives prompted the government recognition of the mounting food and livelihoods crisis in urban townships. This led to the amendment of the regulations to allow informal traders to operate with permits (TimesLive 7 April 2020). By the 9th April the City of Cape had issued 934 permits to informal traders under strict conditions:
As stipulated in government’s amended regulations, goods that are allowed to be sold include fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and fish and sweets and cool drinks.
As part of the conditions, trading can only take place between 8am and 5pm, personal protective equipment like masks and gloves must be used, a distance of a metre apart should be maintained between trading stalls and banned items like cigarettes must not be sold. (EWN 9 April 2020)
At the same time the City was issuing warnings to other traders selling non-essential goods that their stock would be confiscated if found trading in breach of the regulations.
Food for Mzansi and Grobank joined forces to organise a massive farmers webinar which brought together more than 1300 people (Food for Mzansi 16 April 2020). Keynote speaker Dr Naudé Malan identified the need for a new agriculture based on “resilient and circular agricultural enterprise” while Mandla Paahla, a Guateng farmer spelt out that there is no returning to normal after Covid-19, but there is a path forward – and that path is to transforming the South African food systems”. This is an important observation – one that clearly recognises the issues and challenges emerging across the land in the month of April.
Lloyd Philips writing in the Farmer’s Weekly (10 April 2020) highlighted how both the World Bank and the African Union had drawn attention to how border closures can impede critically needed food trade within sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank there would be at least a 5% contraction in economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa for 2020, and that on its own Africa would not be able to contain Covid-19 and its effects.
A number of media articles focused on how small-scale farmers were eligible to obtain support from government, but raised concerns about how this R1.2 billion fund was being administered. Siyanda Sishuba, writing in the Farmer’s weekly (15 April 2020) echoed concerns raised by Theo de Jager of SAAI (15 April 2020). These included the narrow window available for making applications to the fund which opened on 8 April and was set to close by 22 April, and the numerous constraints faced by small holder farmers to both obtain, complete and submit the application form.
These concerns have also been raised by activists in the land sector. One activist in KwaZulu-Natal reported that:
It has taken me three days so far to complete 32 forms. Only one or two of these farmers had heard about the relief; not one has seen an official during the announcement. Two extension officers did call me back but were not able to come and assist me to fill in forms and a DLRRD official could not assist with property information because he is working from home and the information is in the office.
Overall, there seems to be a significant mismatch between meeting the requirements set out in the application form and the capacity available to assist farmers to complete and submit these applications. This will likely mean that those small-scale producers most in need may not qualify for relief from government funding. It also raises the risk that those who are better digitally and politically connected are able to access support, while those who are most vulnerable may be excluded.
The pandemic has seen a resurgence of activism in favour of a citizen’s basic income grant (BIG) to protect household wellbeing and food security. Vishwas Satgar in an op ed in the (Daily Maverick 15 April, 2020) noted that:
Just before lockdown the Climate Justice Charter process called for stronger mitigation measures such as a substantive basic income grant, together with the trade union federation Saftu. This has also been echoed by the C-19 People’s Coalition.
He argues that if a substantive BIG is implemented now this could provide a means to prevent hunger and provide a cushion against unemployment.
The Citizen (18 April 2020) and other news outlets have highlighted a rise in incidences of violence and looting as a response by some to the mounting food crisis. These protests are not because there is no food, but because household incomes in the informal sector have dried up. Many families now have no money to buy food to eat.
Prof Julian May Director of the Centre of Excellence in Food Security, at the University of the Western Cape was reported as saying:
“There’s a bunch of us at home getting fat and there’s a bunch of people who really have nothing. And it speaks a lot about the inequalities in South Africa (that) are likely to come out. As people are not getting food parcels or hear of other people getting parcels they are starting to react. And I don’t think that’s going to ease unless there’s more rapid delivery of food to people in poor areas.”
Scott Drimie of the Southern Africa Food Lab characterised the current situation as “very, very dangerous”.
The Health Minister Zweli Mkhize (The Citizen 19 April 2020) reassured South Africans that the government was looking at “all the options to save our people from both hunger and infection. It’s not either or”.
On Tuesday 20th April President Ramaphosa announced an increase in the child support grant of R300 for May and R500 from June to October and an increase of R250 per month for all other grants over the next six months. A special Covid-19 social relief of distress grant of R350 per month for the next six months for all who are unemployed and not receiving grants or UIF payments.
Initially it was thought that the increase in the child support grant was per child, but as was clarified later (Mail and Guardian 23 April) the top up grant was for caregivers and was not indexed to the number of children they cared for. The C19 People’s Coalition, an alliance of social movements, unions, non-profits and community organisations has expressed their concern that the grants would still be insufficient to counter extreme poverty and loss of livelihoods.