FILM: Desperate Times: Covid, inequality and resilience in South Africa’s food system

The film highlights how COVID-19 regulations affected small-scale farmers, fishers and informal traders in South Africa’s food system – part of The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) in partnership with the University of Pretoria, AFRA and Masifundise Development Trust research on the Political economy of African food systems supported by IDRC.

SHORT FILMS: COVID-19 impact on women’s economic and livelihood activities

The following short films were documented by Qina Mbokodo, a group of women on farms in uMgungundlovu District Municipality with the support from the Commonwealth Foundation. The films document how COVID-19 significantly reduced women’s economic and livelihood activities, increasing poverty rates and exacerbating food insecurity.

Thandi Mchunu, farmworker, her story highlights how wages and social grants for people living in farms do not cover the budget deficit many households on farms experience.


The story of Makhosi Nkosi, (farmworker) highlights that there’s something wrong with our food system which leaves farmworkers vulnerable to hunger yet they are the producers of our food.


The story of Dudu Mshengu (street trader) highlights how COVID-19 lockdown reduced her economic and livelihood activities, increasing food insecurity in her household.


Mini Myeza, small-scale producer was locked down home with a surplus of fresh produce with nowhere to sell when COVD-19 started.


The story of Wendy Molefe highlights how COVID-19 lockdown reduced her economic and livelihood activities, increasing food insecurity in her household.


Khanyo Ndlela faced income loss as a result of COVID restrictions and was assisted by AFRA to apply for the Solidarity Fund input voucher programme.

WEBINAR: A Just Recovery: Rebuilding Food Systems after Covid-19 and Unrest in South Africa

This webinar aims to reframe the post-Covid and post-unrest ‘recovery’ discourse to foreground the danger of entrenched corporate power in the food system, and the immediate opportunities to “build back” different and better. This requires an understanding of inequality, power and politics in food systems. On the basis of social dialogues with people who derive their livelihoods as small-scale farmers, bakkie traders and street sellers, as well as ongoing research, we will report on some of the impacts on these urban food systems and identify ways this moment can be seized to reshape food systems beyond a narrow ‘recovery’ paradigm. With local government elections on the horizon, concrete action is needed. National regulation and policy should complement local solutions. Local government has a key role to play in creating, expanding and defending public space for non-corporate food producers, distributors and sellers.

AFRA Fieldworker, Ayanda Madlala, and Dudu Ngcobo, a street trader and a key informant in the AFRA food systems project are panelists in the webinar and presented how the food system in uMgungundlovu has been affected from one crisis to another and the responses by role players in the food system.

Corporate interests calling the shots at UN Food Systems Summit

By Marc Wegerif, Ruth Hall, Nkanyiso Gumede and Ayanda Madlala.

The UN Food Systems Summit opening on Thursday, 23 September, has been captured. Why does it matter and what’s to be done – globally, in Africa and in South Africa?

Dr Marc Wegerif is a Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of the Development Studies Programme in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at University of Pretoria. He does research on food systems and land issues. Ruth Hall is a professor and holds the South African Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape. Nkanyiso Gumede is a researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) at the University of the Western Cape. Ayanda Madlala, Fieldworker at Association for Rural Advancement (Afra).

What is a “food system”?

The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition declared that a “food system gathers all the elements [environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc] and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes”. The most important outputs of a food system are people enjoying their right to food (or food and nutrition security) and improving livelihoods, especially for those in the food system.

This holistic approach is a move in the right direction; it takes us beyond the common focus on value chains that by their nature – rooted in corporate supply chain management aimed at cutting costs and increasing profits – focus narrowly on the economic relations and improving returns to investors. A food system approach should foreground social and ecological issues alongside the economic concerns.

The key question, then, that is not getting enough attention is who should the food system be for? 

In an increasingly unequal world, with entrenched interests in the food system, it is not good enough to say “for all”. The reality is that there are some who gain and some who lose, and choices need to be made about this. The Covid-19 crisis has revealed even more starkly how the default position is a food system working best for the wealthiest and most powerful and leaving others hungry.

At the centre of this is the question of how to address hunger in the world’s most food-insecure continent: Africa. 

What we see is that the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) has made a clear choice in favour of the elite and a corporate-dominated industrial food system. This is a food system that is increasingly owned by investment funds based in the capitals of the richest nations; it is the food system of the elite who meet every year in Davos. What should have been a crucial turning point to democratise food systems globally has been handed over to multinational corporations – and the organisations representing most of the world’s farmers and fishers are boycotting it.

The draft African Common Position to the first UN Food Systems Summit was leaked on 7 July 2021. Instead of embracing a new direction, the position of the African Union will take Africa backwards. Here it is. This has been denounced by African civil society organisations that will boycott the event. Here is the response by the African civil society organisations.

The AU should be leading the charge for the African family farmers and fishers, most of whom are women, who produce food for their families, communities and countries – and for export. They contribute 70% of the food on the continent, a proportion that is shrinking as they lose land and market share to investment funds and agri-food corporations.

Africa’s conservatively-estimated 33 million family farms and the huge number of people on them, the fisherfolk, pastoralists and the countless millions more who process and trade food: these are the food system actors who face mounting crises of climate change, land grabbing by governments and companies, and the long-term devastation of policies that have stripped them of state support and exposed them to global competition and dumping of surplus foods from rich countries. They have also been hit hard by Covid-19 regulations that disrupted markets and dealt a blow that hit small-scale producers and traders hardest.

This is the moment to “turn the wheel” back from neoliberal policies that have shaped food governance since the 1980s.

The leaked AU position raises red flags about both undemocratic processes and substantively about African states’ capitulation to global corporate agenda. We are concerned that this position:

  1. Was pre-emptive as consultations were ongoing in member states, inadequately inclusive and widely condemned as designed with predetermined outcomes;
  2. Dismally fails to address the real causes of the food crisis; and
  3. Presents false solutions.

It is narrowly focused on agricultural policies rather than presenting a holistic understanding of food systems and their social, economic and ecological outcomes – including the right to food and livelihoods.

The leaked AU position is a draft and we hope that the final position that our governments present to the world tomorrow will differ. But from what we see, the AU’s mind seems to be made up: that biotechnologies and genomics that are patented and owned by a shrinking number of multinational companies are the answer.

The African draft position makes no mention of agroecology or other ecologically sustainable or socially just production systems. It also overlooks the dynamic food markets that are central to African food systems, instead referring to SMEs and overstating the spread of supermarkets. This is not surprising as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which the Gates Foundation funds, occupies a privileged space in the UN Summit. Its solutions of increasing use of genetically modified seed, chemical pesticide and fertilisers, and industrial monocropping, are clearly finding traction – in spite of the evidence that these concentrate profits among corporations, extract value from smallholders, and are environmentally damaging.

The summit, the first of its kind, shines a light on what kind of food system we need in the world and in South Africa.

The UNFSS is a gathering of all member states, convened by the UN secretary general and the mandated agency, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, as a multilateral forum. In other words: this is meant to be a global democracy writ large. 

But it was flawed from the start: rather than building on the inclusion of people’s organisations through the civil society mechanism at the FAO which is the democratic engagement with the UN, it was framed by the World Economic Forum – which represents a convergence of corporate interests and governments. In this sense, it is a betrayal of the multilateral system.

Further, consultations by African governments have mostly been hastily convened and inadequate. In the case of South Africa, our government convened a few online meetings. These were not broadly representative or inclusive of food systems actors. They were dominated by commercial farmers and by companies, and the dialogues were framed as being about placing the private sector at the centre through “public-private partnerships”, with “private” being equated to corporate.

We did not hear the voices of street traders, bakkie traders, farmworkers – nor were their priorities and experiences reflected in the national synthesis report. There were few small-scale farmers and no small-scale fishers. These events did not provide a mandate such as that reflected in the draft AU position.

South Africa’s food systems

South Africa’s food and agricultural systems were established under apartheid to serve a minority. Left untransformed, this system can only continue to serve a minority, whatever their race. Far from being made more equitable since the end of apartheid, the opposite has happened: government policies of liberalisation and integration into the global economy have facilitated an even greater concentration of ownership in the hands of those that apartheid left best positioned, along with a few of their new allies. Now this concentration is increasingly driven by international corporations and investment funds. The losers are among the 34.4% officially unemployed and the 44% of the population who were already moderately or severely food insecure before Covid-19.

Most people across South African society – and across the political spectrum – agree that the food system should ensure food security and also create decent livelihoods. But our government steadfastly focuses on food production rather than food distribution.

The policy debates, as seen in the recent national food systems dialogues convened by Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza – often overlook the real problems of our food system. Firstly, the focus tends to still be on increasing agricultural productivity and integrating farmers into corporate-controlled value chains regardless of who benefits and regardless of whether this actually makes food accessible to the majority. Increases in productivity are enthusiastically discussed with no reference to the job-shedding and squeeze on wages that this normally involves.

Policymakers and some academics push for the incorporation of small-scale black farmers into corporate value chains, even when their own data shows that farmers earn less from these chains.

Farmers are encouraged to stop selling to their local communities and to lock themselves into highly unequal relations with large corporations supplying distant markets.

Street and bakkie traders didn’t feature in the discussions, yet these are hundreds of thousands of people who create livelihoods in their own enterprises and sell food more cheaply in their often low-income neighbourhoods.

Also overlooked were workers in the corporate value chains, who from the farmworkers to the supermarket cashiers, remain in precarious jobs with low pay.

Secondly, there is a profound difference of opinion about how improved food security and livelihood outcomes will best be achieved – a disagreement that centres on whether large corporations are the solution or the problem. Large corporations have appropriated the language of “feeding the world” and argue vociferously, in policy forums and through their advertising campaigns, that they, with their capital and technology, are the solution.

But, commenting on their August 2021 report on food prices in South Africa, the Competition Commission’s chief economist, James Hodge, said that corporations are able to “immunise” themselves from the pressures that have been exacerbated during the pandemic. Thanks to the concentration of ownership in the food system, these corporations are able to put pressure on farmers to keep prices low and at the same time pass any increased costs onto the consumers, he explained. The majority of workers in the corporate value chains, from the farmworkers to the supermarket cashiers, remain in precarious jobs with low pay.

This is clearly seen in how corporations managed to increase their prices, margins, profits and returns to shareholders during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The largest food company, Tiger Brands, increased grain prices by 14% during Covid-19. In this way it managed to increase profits in the grain business even as its volume of sales dropped. The largest supermarket group, Shoprite, also increased prices and margins, to achieve a 17.2% increase in profits in its South African supermarket operation for the year to end June 2021.

Food prices have risen faster than core inflation every month since the outbreak of Covid-19. This really matters to people in poverty as they spend a larger proportion of their money on food. The increasing food prices come as millions have lost incomes, the inevitable result is increasing food insecurity, the full effects of which will only be seen in the coming years in outcomes such as even more children (currently almost one in four) being stunted due to poor nutrition.

If Covid-19 has taught us one thing about the food system, it is this: increased production and profits in the food system are entirely consistent with worsening food security and hunger.

Companies do what companies do: try to make money and ensure the best returns for their owners and investors. That is to be expected. But we need a food system that works not for shareholders but for citizens. That is why we need an interventionist state that will regulate markets, rein in agribusinesses, food processors and supermarkets.

Why is better regulation of food markets needed? 

  1. A locally owned enterprise keeps and circulates more of any profit in that locality;
  2. We can’t leave the fulfillment of the constitutional right to sufficient food in the hands of companies that have a different priority; and
  3. The state has to regulate to ensure better food security and other essential social and environmental outcomes.

State regulation has mostly favoured the rich and powerful. This was glaringly clear when the initial Covid-19 restrictions in March 2020 stopped all street traders from selling food, despite food being an essential service. After some weeks they were allowed to operate again, but many have still not fully recovered from the losses suffered at that time.

It continues with authorities taking pride in issuing fines and confiscating food from street traders who are selling it at low prices, trying to earn a living to support themselves and their families. In contrast, nothing is done to prevent corporations increasing food prices at rates three and even four times higher than the core inflation rate, even during a National State of Disaster.

Corporations are indeed “immunised” while those in poverty are “criminalised”.

Our food system needs far-reaching change and the Covid-19 crisis has both increased the need and the justification for decisive intervention. The UNFSS will not provide any useful direction as it is dominated by corporations and the elite and it will favour approaches that serve their interests. This can be seen, in among other things, the influential involvement of the World Economic Forum and the approaches pushed in the government-led consultations in South Africa. A holistic food system approach is needed, but it must focus on meeting the needs of the majority and those in poverty and to do that it must address power relations and processes of accumulation.

There is no blueprint for success, a diverse range of context specific solutions need to be experimented with. The ongoing research of PLAAS in a multi-country study on how Covid-19 regulations affected power and inequality in the food system, and the impacts on women in the informal food system, adds to existing knowledge about what measures are needed.

  1. We need to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and the need for systemic change.The old refrain that “South Africa is food secure at a national level” is meaningless. It is people that need to eat. The country is not food-secure until all its people enjoy their right to food. Systemic change means that we need to stop trying to include more people in the dominant corporate and industrial agri-food sector that provides profits for a few, but leaves far more in poverty and food insecure.
  1. In the absence of equitable international trade, we need to protect our agri-food sector from international competition in order to meet our needs. In dairy, poultry, maize and other grains, trade protection is needed and justifiable.
  2. Small-scale and owner-operated farms and micro-enterprises can deliver, create more jobs, more business ownership opportunities (in a society that desperately needs a far broader ownership of the economy), and contribute more to local economic development. These are, therefore, the primary enterprise model that need to be replicated. The existing activities of street traders and other micro enterprises in the food system, along with the small-scale black farmers that are succeeding, are a nucleus that should be built on to do this.
  3. Agricultural production, and the research and development to support it, needs to shift to low-external input agroecological approaches that regenerate our environment, create jobs, and build greater economic autonomy for farmers; that is autonomy from corporate supply and marketing chains.
  4. Local government policies, practices and bylaws need to stop creating space for malls owned by investment firms. Start creating public markets where people who don’t have large amounts of capital can set up enterprises and sell and buy food.

We call on Didiza, our Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, to use her position as chair of the AU’s Specialised Technical Committee (STC) on Agriculture, Rural Development, Water and Environment to open up the space for genuine democratic dialogue in South Africa and elsewhere to drive new food systems thinking – which confronts who holds power in the food system. As both national minister, and chair of this crucial AU forum, she occupies the most significant position in Africa to influence the outcomes of the summit and the processes that follow.

This is the call from #FoodSystems4People, a broad alliance of civil society, farmer, fisher, trader, human rights and food justice organisations which rejects the corporate capture of the UN Food Systems Summit. These organisations and their global equivalents will be boycotting the summit and have set out ways to bring the urgent work of fixing food systems back into democratic and multilateral spaces.

Let’s get going on a more democratic and inclusive national dialogue on how to democratise and relocalise our food system in the hands of ordinary people. DM/MC

First published in the Daily Maverick on  22 September 2021.


Research reveals ‘gender bias in farmers relief grant’

Research into the Covid-19 relief fund for small-scale farmers has exposed a couple of issues, including gender bias in the system and processing of the fund.

According to Professor Ruth Hall of the University of Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies, preliminary findings during a field work in Limpopo revealed that men received more money and support than women and that many farmers were robbed as they lost access to their local markets.

Hall claimed the government took large amounts of money that had been allocated to the relief fund and allocated it unevenly across less than 10 big private suppliers, including the Noord Transkei Korporasie.

“Between men and women, they were almost equal in terms of who got support and who didn’t, there were slightly more women who got more support than men, and that served as an obscure of the reality of gender bias in the system,” said Hall.

“Most of the women who were getting support got it as groups, as cooperatives. One cooperative of 11 women would get the same kind of level of support as a single man got.”

Hall said over time, a lot of agricultural support pushed the farmers to produce commercial crops for far away markets without getting any payment for it.

“So, those sending crops like mustard, chillies, okra and baby marrows through to the Joburg fresh produce market found that there was no local market for them. When they did manage to send their produce, they didn’t get any income and transporters shifted the costs back to the producers,” Hall said.

She added that the first phase of the relief fund was small and across the province they had disposed more than 2 500 vouchers which sat at 1% of the estimated number of small-scale producers in Limpopo.

“In one village outside Mopane, it became clear that most people had never heard either of the departmental process, or of the Solidarity Fund. But a lot of them had lost their access to markets.”

Director of the Association for Rural Advancement in KwaZulu-Natal, Laurel Oettle, said government’s response was to launch a relief programme specifically for small-scale farmers which provided subsidies for farming inputs.

“Alongside food parcels and additional social grants, this was how government aimed to address the crisis, with many farmers receiving vouchers of R2 000 across the board, regardless of their circumstance.”

However, Hall said the vouchers were only used at private companies which pumped the money back into the privatised industry.

First published in The Citizen on 16 April 2021.

WEBINAR: The COVID relief fund for small-scale farmers, who benefitted and who lost out?

South Africa faced a food crisis before the COVID-19 lockdown from March 2020. The lockdown quickly emerged as not only a health crisis, but a sudden and acute, deeper food crisis. In this webinar hosted by PLAAS, AFRA Director, Laurel Oettle and other panelists discuss the COVID relief fund for small-scale farmers: who benefitted, who lost out, and what have we learnt about food systems?


Household garden helps farm worker put food on the table

Makhosi Nkosi, 58 is a farm worker from Hillerman Farm in Wartburg about 50 km from Pietermaritzburg. Her household of eight have to live on R2040 a month, which is less than a living wage and much lower than what is needed for a household to buy a basic basket of nutritious food. And, of course, this minimum subsistence amount does not take into account the cost of rent, electricity, clothing and other essentials. Added to this are rising food prices during the lockdown, and the loss of the one meal a day through the school-feeding scheme that her grandchildren relied on to meet their minimum nutrition needs.

During the hard lockdown her household ran out of money to buy food because of increase in food prices. She had to cut down on some of the food items and was forced to borrow money to cover other expenses. This has trapped her in a cycle of debt, including the mealie meal (25 kg) that she buys on credit from her employer who later deducts from her monthly salary.

Some of her grandchildren receive child support grants whilst others don’t because they have no birth certificates. Even with the social grants as an additional income, there is still not enough money to feed the entire family.

Confronted with an immediate need to support her family, Makhosi started a food garden. Which she says “iyalixosha ikati eziko”, an IsiZulu proverb, which means the cat does not sleep on the fireplace. A cat on a fireplace signifies hunger, since there is no cooking, the fireplace is cool enough for a cat to sleep on. In her garden she currently has spinach and cabbages that she also shares with her neighbours.