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Social justice: food poverty and affordability during COVID-19

As the lockdown progresses, the poor are the hardest hit. At the best of times, their ability to buy food is based daily or weekly wages. Stan Muyebe argues that this is not a new problem, but has been a growing crisis for decades as food becomes commodified and structures that the poor previously had to access food cheaply are fast disappearing.

Over the past few weeks we have witnessed urgent calls for food relief for the poor, as well as incidents of food riots. As representatives of the Church, we should play a critical role in the food relief initiatives so as to address the growing hunger crisis during the lockdown and beyond. In discharging this ministry of charity, we cannot ignore the social justice issues behind the hunger crisis and the food riots, especially the inherent failures in the corporate driven food system.

Over-commodification of food as a problem

At the beginning of the lockdown, the agricultural minister assured us that the supply chains and the supply levels of food would not be affected by the lockdown. She forgot that the key driver for the food crisis among the poor is not a lack of food availability, but a severe lack of food affordability.    

Food unaffordability among the poor is itself a symptom of the South African food system, which is corporate driven and deeply entrenched within the capitalist framework. As such, it carries the failings of unbridled capitalism, including the over-commodification of basic resources (like water, health care, food) that the poor need for survival.

Long before the lockdown, the poor were struggling with the problem of hunger.

Food prices have increased exponentially and the food inflation rate for the poor has been higher than that of the rich, who have a far greater buying power and feel the rise of inflation less acutely. Many low-income houses cannot afford the rising food prices. Therefore, long before the lockdown, the poor were struggling with the problem of hunger.

What the lockdown has done is merely to escalate food poverty levels and bring greater visibility to the problem that the poor have been facing for decades. At the same time, the dominant media narratives on the food crisis during the lockdown have failed to give sufficient attention to the systemic problem of over-commodification of food.

Inadequate response to food inflation

Over and above offering food relief during lockdown, there is a need to address the food inflation crisis, especially with regard to the poor. It is clear that food inflation has multiple causes.

In 2002, the National Labour and Economic Development Institute identified some of the key causes: speculative profiteering, import parity pricing, low investments in agriculture, concentration of ownership in agricultural production, the food supply chain and formal retail sector (which then give rise to concerns of collusion and profiteering), and lack of sufficient mechanisms to pass on the zero rating on food to consumers.

Since then, government has not developed policies that are sufficiently comprehensive and adequate to address these underlying causes. Our advocacy should interrogate this neglect.

Inadequate response to the food market structure

The corporate driven approach to the food system has also resulted in the massive entry of supermarkets into townships and rural areas. In encouraging this development, government ignored the fact that the primary interests of the supermarkets is profit maximisation and not addressing food poverty among the poor. The massive entry of supermarkets into disadvantaged neighbourhoods has contributed to the escalation of the food crisis among the poor.

The primary interests of the supermarkets is profit maximisation and not addressing food poverty among the poor.

Studies have shown that, although the food that supermarkets sells is cheaper per kilogramme, it is unaffordable to the poor in bulk. Additionally, the informal credit systems that local spaza shops have for decades provided to the poor had the effect of offering a mechanism for the poor to attain food affordability. As the supermarkets replace the local spaza shops, this mechanism has now become almost non-existent, which in turn gives rise to increased food unaffordability.

Although the local spaza shops have for decades been the key source of affordable food for the poor, government has not put adequate measures in place for the small businesses. In its corporate driven approach to the food system, the focus is on the policy support for supermarkets. There is a need to put pressure on government to address the food market structure in favour of increased business support for local spaza shops.

A new vision of the food system

It is often said that there is enough food in the world to feed all the hungry. Similarly, there is enough food in South Africa to feed all the hungry. The problem lies with the corporate driven food system, which is deeply entrenched within the capitalist framework that encourages over-commodification of food at the expense of food unaffordability among the poor.

Some people believe that COVID-19 will bring about a new world order. Perhaps it will. If it manages to do that, I hope that the new world order focuses on humanising capitalism, including the t food system. Instead of over-commodification and putting profit at the centre of the food system, the human person and care of God’s creation should be repositioned and put at the centre. That will bring good news to the poor.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Stan Muyebe OP
Stan Muyebe OP is the Provincial for the Dominican Order in Southern Africa. He directs the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference Justice and Peace Commission. He also serves as an associate researcher both at the University of Pretoria and Domuni University. As a human rights activist and anti-corruption activist, he was involved as a complainant in the State Capture Inquiry which was conducted by Advocate Thuli Madonsela.

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