JOHANNESBURG, May 11 (IPS) – In the deep rural village of Jekezi in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, most young and able-bodied people have fled the area, leaving behind people with disabilities, the elderly, and children.
It’s in villages like this one that the stark statistics of one in five South Africans being so food insecure they beg to feed themselves and their families could be a reality.
The village instead supports its fragile community through an agroecological project, Abanebhongo People with Disability (APD), co-founded in 2020 by Nosintu Mcimeli as an example of food sovereignty in action.
Food security in South Africa, the second wealthiest country by GDP, is low. According to 2019 data, Statistics SA says at least 10 million people didn’t have enough food or money to buy food.
Impacts on Physical Development, Mental Health
The impacts of this are devastating; hunger not only impacts physical development but also people’s mental health. Siphiwe Dlamini, writing in The Conversation, recently reported on a study that found that those who could not afford proper nutrition resorted to eating less, borrowing, using credit, and begging for food on the streets, which was the most harmful coping strategy for mental health.
“We found that over 20% (1 in 5) of the South African households were food insecure. But the prevalence varied widely across the provinces. The Eastern Cape province was the most affected (32% of households there were food insecure). We also confirmed that food access in South Africa largely depends on socioeconomic status. People who are uneducated, the unemployed, and those receiving a low monthly income are the most severely affected by inadequate food access,” wrote Dlamini, a lecturer School of Physiology, University of the Witwatersrand.
The situation in the region is also dire, with a UN World Food Programme (WFP) report in 2020 revealing that 45 million people were severely food insecure in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
South Africa has long been afflicted with widespread hunger, but the onset of Covid, an ailing economy, climate change, fuel and food price increases, interest hikes, and the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war has deepened the food crisis.
However, Vishwas Satgar of the SA Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC) says even before Covid, the number of hungry people was close to 14 million – and “women shoulder the burden of the high food prices, sharing limited food, skipping meals, and holding families together.”
The irony, Satgar says, is that the country can feed all its people.
“We produce enough food, but it’s essentially for export. The stark paradox in the commercial food system is that it is just another commodity; most people can’t feed themselves. The poor eat unhealthy (cheaper) food, and we have an obesity problem.”
Satgar says a change of strategies is needed to feed the poor.
“Despite overwhelming research proving that small-scale farmers feed the world, many people have the perception that large-scale industrial farms are the ultimate source of food. South Africa, with an expanded unemployment rate of 46.46 percent (start of 2022), cannot afford to lose more farm workers. Agroecological farming can transform the rural and urban economy with localised farming practices that absorb many unskilled and semi-skilled people,” he says.
The SAFSC, the Climate Justice Charter Movement, and the Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC) are building a new food system to avert a catastrophe.
“We call this the food sovereignty system, which is democratically organised and controlled by small-scale farmers, gardeners, informal traders, small-scale fishers, communities, and consumers.
That’s where Mcimeli comes in. She tells IPS her activism journey began after she left a company that worked with people with disabilities in Cape Town. She contracted polio as a baby because her domestic worker mother could not take her for immunisation. “I have a disability in my right thigh and leg.”
She was working as an informal trader when she was given the opportunity from SADC, “which was releasing millions of rand to train SA women for activism in any kind of project.”
Mcimeli was one of 80 women trained in 2012 and 2013.
“In 2014, I was transferred to Copac for activist schooling. That’s when I met Vish (Satgar). I then decided to come to the Eastern Cape to plough back my activism skills.”
It was here that she co-founded the APD, and it has become an example of food sovereignty in action in Jekezi in the Eastern Cape.
Mcimeli says the ADP started an agriculture project.
“Because in rural areas there is communal land, it’s free, so we formed groups to start communal gardens. Then I realised that there are people who are bedridden, so I started enviro gardens in nearby villages. At the moment, we have 24 of these, and they are working.”
She works with four young women but wants to include more young people in the projects.
Forever Water—Free and Healthy
During the hard lockdown, the ADP got a big water tank from the local municipality and started a soup kitchen.
“We got donations of masks and sanitisers and food from Shoprite. Then a colleague of mine organised radio interviews for me, and a company that provides boreholes heard me asking for more water tanks. They said they had a lifetime solution and sponsored a community borehole. It was installed free of charge in a local schoolyard. It’s forever water—free and healthy and available for everyone, not just our projects”.
One of ADP’s beneficiaries, Bonelwa Nogemane, says: “I have a family of seven including a disabled four-year-old; we are often hungry because the food is too expensive. I joined the ADP to help my family and community to grow our own food.”
While the ADP is making a small dent, the problem is much bigger, and activists warn that unless a solution is found to the hunger crisis, South Africa is in danger of producing a lost generation of intellectually and physically stunted future leaders.
A study published in BMC Public Health on the link between food insecurity and mental health in the US during Covid found that: “Food insecurity is associated with a 257% higher risk of anxiety and a 253% higher risk of depression. Losing a job during the pandemic is associated with a 32% increase in risk for anxiety and a 27% increase in risk for depression.”
Campaign to Save Children from ‘Slow Violence of Malnutrition’
Marcus Solomon of the Children’s Resource Centre, which has launched a campaign to save SA’s children from the “slow violence of malnutrition”, says: “The consequences of this are dire for the affected children, with an estimated four million children in SA having stunted growth because of malnutrition and another 10 million going hungry every day.”
Activist Shanaaz Viljoen from Cape Town says: “My personal experience on a grassroots level is rather heartbreaking. The children we work with are always hungry due to the situation in their homes.”
In addition to an alternate food system, Trade Union Federation Cosatu, the SASFC, Copac, and others believe introducing a Basic Income Grant will go a long way towards addressing the hunger crisis in the country.
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