Food Insecurity: South Africa’s Weakness In The Fight Against COVID-19
South Africa has won praise across the world, including from the World Health Organization, for its public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic so far. Its national state of disaster regulations, which include a five-week nationwide lockdown, have managed to limit the spread of the virus more effectively compared to several other countries. However, a major weakness in its response has been in the distribution of food parcels to vulnerable sections of the population.
Analysis by Rebone Tau, Project Manager Political Affairs Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Southern Africa office.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, food insecurity was a concern in South Africa, which has a population of 57 million people. Around 6.8 million South Africans and 1.7 million households (21.3 percent of all households) experienced hunger in 2017, according to a Statistics South report released in 2019 (1). This shows that while the country may be food secure at the national level, the extent of its inequalities mean that food insecurity is still a reality in almost two million households. Over 60 percent of these households also lived in urban areas, mostly in townships and informal settlements. Despite Gauteng being the richest province, it had the highest proportion (25.2 percent) of households experiencing hunger. This is because it had the fewest number of households involved in agricultural activities.
Anger and desperation
Social inequalities and food insecurity have been sharply highlighted during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The media is awash with depictions of large sections of the population queuing up to receive food parcels because the lockdown brought economic activity, particularly in the informal sectors, almost to a halt. Households that were previously making barely enough to survive now have to depend entirely on the government and nongovernmental organizations for sustenance. Under these circumstances, anger and desperation have increased, leading to protests and running battles with the police and the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) members.
For instance, SANDF members had to disperse residents who had waited for food parcels for three days in the Diepsloot township, north of Johannesburg (2). In the Mitchells Plain township of Cape Town, residents similarly engaged the police in running battles over undelivered food parcels (3). These events point to the scale of the problem as well as the government’s inadequate response. Years of economic mismanagement as well as corruption and state capture, especially under former President Jacob Zuma, have left the government with serious capacity challenges and budgetary constraints. While President Cyril Ramaphosa recently announced that the government will distribute 250,000 food parcels over a two-week period (4), it is likely that this would not be enough to reach everyone who needs them.
President Ramaphosa further announced that the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) will begin using vouchers and cash transfers in addition to the physical food parcels in order to reach more vulnerable people. The government will also pay addition amounts per month for the next six months to the country’s 18 million social grant recipients. Those who are unemployed and outside the grant system will also receive a special COVID-19 grant per month for the next six months. NGOs such as Gift of the Givers, which is in the process of distributing 100,000 food parcels (5), as well as celebrities such as national rugby captain Siya Kolisi (6) are also assisting the government’s efforts. The COVID-19 Solidarity Fund has similarly made available 120 million rand for food relief (7). These measures will go a long way in easing the rising food insecurity during this period.
South Africa’s longstanding governance challenges, specifically corruption and patronage, have not spared the distribution of food parcels. Some councillors from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) have been accused of looting food parcels meant for the poor (8). In the North West, the ANC suspended two councillors after allegations that they had asked local businesses for food parcels before distributing them to their own families and supporters. In Mpumalanga, the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) accused an ANC member of provincial legislature and a SASSA regional official of distributing the parcels to ANC supporters’ households. In Gauteng, a civic organisation laid charges of fraud and corruption against provincial social department officials for distributing parcels to their families instead of the poor.
The President as well as the ANC have strongly spoken out against such practices. However, the fact that such allegations surfaced during a pandemic points to a deeply entrenched culture of patronage and corruption in the ANC and by extension, municipal and provincial government departments. It is also a stark demonstration of the legacy of Zuma’s administration.
To ensure the effectiveness of its food-parcel distribution programme, the government needs to urgently address these governance challenges. This is especially imperative given the fact that SASSA is set to use vouchers and cash transfers which have to reach the people most in need of them. Of particular concern are the unemployed who are also outside the social grants system because their exact number has not been quantified. There is therefore a risk that a large amount of those funds could be lost through corruption.
Looking to the future
Like many countries that have implemented lockdowns, South Africa is grappling with the dilemma between lifting the lockdown and restarting economic activity on the one hand and limiting COVID-19 infections on the other. It has decided on a “risk-adjusted approach” to a phased reopening of the economy partly because of concerns that persistent food shortages could spark social unrest. The extra grant payments are for a period of six months only, and sustaining the distribution of food parcels over a long period would ultimately prove difficult because of budgetary constraints.
Although the government has sought to keep the food supply chains open throughout its response, there are reports that the supply chains in the informal sectors have been disrupted during the lockdown in the Western Cape. According to the province’s department of agriculture, 30 percent of produce is sold within the informal sector (9). Besides South African nationals, there are indications that foreign nationals living in South Africa are also badly affected. Against this backdrop and to protect the economy from further recession, the government probably had little choice but to implement its risk-adjusted strategy.
Beyond the current crisis, President Ramaphosa has signalled that the government will forge a “new economy founded on fairness, empowerment, justice, equality” (10). He pledged to accelerate structural economic reforms, including the much-touted ANC policy of “radical economic transformation”, and focus more on informal sectors as well as rural and township economies. It is hoped that the government would overcome its perennial capacity and governance challenges to meaningfully implement these commitments. In addition, land reform should be intensified and should address the apartheid spatial inequalities that leave millions in urban informal settlements without recourse to subsistence farming. This would significantly address food insecurity beyond the current crisis.