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The hidden food security crisis in South Africa

By Refiloe Joala

As a nation I believe we have made a concerted effort of doing away with the overplayed notion of an Africa that conjures up images of hungry children with flies around their faces staring blankly into a camera lens. Although in the case of South Africa, one would imagine images of endless rows of shacks and children playing soccer in the dusty streets of urban townships. However, the former image of a hungry child in a village is one that is becoming all too familiar in South Africa’s rural communities.

Not to discard the gains that have been in rural areas in the two decades, I am writing to tell you how hunger is affecting our nation. I feel as though, often times we speak of poverty in very abstract terms. In our on-going dialogue about the face of poverty in South Africa, we focus on housing, service delivery, unemployment and inequality. While these factors are a real part of the struggle of poverty in the country, chronic hunger presents an even more haunting reality.

For some of world’s poorest households, food accounts for a major part of total expenditures and thus the price of food directly affects their food security. According to Food Bank South Africa, more than 20% of the population today is food insecure. That means that approximately 11 million South Africans do not know where their next meal will come from. Like in many other parts of the world, the hardest hit people are women and children. Moreover, this self-reinforcing poverty trap lies rampant in rural communities.

Nonetheless, South Africa remains one of a handful of countries that produces enough food to adequately meet local food consumption needs. In other words, there is enough food to feed everyone. Therefore, the problem is distribution and access. In South Africa, food security is generally measured in terms of the price of the country’s staple food, which is maize. In broader terms however “food security occurs when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development, and an active healthy life”.

The dynamics of food security can be understood in terms of four interactive factors, namely: availability of food, access to food, stability of food supply, and food utilisation.

According to the World Health Organisation, food security in South Africa emerged as an after effect of the 2008 global economic crisis. As Africa’s largest economy, South Africa was one of the hardest hit countries in the region. The general economic downturn was the result of a slow-down in foreign flows.

In addition, South Africa entered the crisis marred with local financial weak points, which included a very large current-account deficit, high interest rates and high inflation. However, almost four years out of the recession, consumers are still feeling the brunt as the general price of food continues to rise. In February the Food and Price Monitor reported the Inflation on food and non-alcoholic beverages in January 2013 at 6.2%. Recent reports indicate that inflation has dropped to 5.9%. However, the price of rice (2kg) and maize meal (5kg) were respectively reported to be R3 and R2.20 more expensive in the rural areas compared to the urban areas.

Government’s most decisive response to poverty in South Africa is the social allowance that is granted to the poor, the elderly and the disabled. The “social grant” issue has been a longstanding controversial debate among all pockets of society, from the rural elderly to the privileged urban middle-class. Although many South Africans rely on this social security for their livelihoods, its direct impact on the eradication of poverty remains unknown. Nonetheless one can easily infer that with the rising cost of living, its beneficiaries are struggling to keep up.

The devastating reality is that for the chronically poor, poverty is likely to last for many years, in some cases for entire lifetimes and even transcend through generations. With this, I hope we can rethink how we perceive poverty, and truly begin to appreciate the depths of inequality in our communities.

Refiloe Joala is a master’s student in development economics and international project management at the Université Paris-Est Créteil in France, and a volunteer at the Letsema Centre for Development and Democracy and a British Council Global Change-maker

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