Every society is only three meals away from revolution

2012-09-08 10:59

The streets of Rosebank are empty – for now.

Smashed windows and burning tyres tell the tale of a hungry crowd gone crazy. Supermarkets bore the brunt of the attack, but the little up-market restaurants were also trashed.

Flames from the African market, once filled with tourists, light up the looming dusk.

The bleak future for Johannesburg and South Africa might well resemble a page from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, where hungry citizens of the outlying districts rise against the affluent of the capital that rules over them. But is it totally alarmist?

With food prices hitting record highs this year, droughts as common as annual rains used to be and agriculture input costs rising dramatically, a Rosebank or Sandton food riot might not be a wild crystal ball prediction.

World cereal prices, in response to this disaster, increased by 17% last month, driving everything from steak to pap prices through the roof.

What will happen when the majority of South Africans cannot afford to feed themselves?

Hungry men are angry men.

Michael T Klare believes that the xenophobic violence in 2008 might have been, in part, sparked by the lack of food in Zimbabwe as persistent drought and hunger forced millions to abandon their traditional lands and flee to the squalor of shantytowns and expanding slums surrounding large cities, sparking hostility from those already living there.

Klare might have been stretching it a little, but that Zimbabweans are looking down the barrel of a gun in their hunger game is a fact. This year’s Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Zimvac) report, carried out by the UN and the Zimbabwean government, estimates that 1.6?million people in South Africa’s neighbour will require food aid next year.

The food-needs assessment report found that one in five people living in rural areas are facing food shortages during Zimbabwe’s “hunger season”, between January and March.

Alarmingly, this is a 60% increase on this year’s figures. So if there is no food in your country, you are sure to move to a country where there is.

In the Sahel region in West Africa, 18?million people are again facing one of the worst droughts in their lifetime this year. Where will they go to find food?

Add to that the record food prices worldwide because of the US drought, the worst in 56 years, and doomsday scenarios start to look a bit more realistic.

The biofuel industry is not helping. At the moment, 40% of US maize is used as fuel for cars.

Instead of growing food at reasonable prices to feed the world, maize and sugar cane are being grown to power the Hummers and Mercs of the rich and give them a “green conscience”. Food prices thus become fuel prices.

Vulnerable Africa has another problem, the ongoing land grabs by big multinationals coming to town to grow food for people across the water.

Aid organisations like Oxfam and War on Want have huge concerns about small African farmers being pushed out and no longer being able to feed their families. They then have to buy food on the open market at the currently soaring prices.

While scientists have been reluctant to link the record temperatures and droughts in the past to climate change, the great US drought of 2012 propelled many of them to say that this was only the start of a cycle of misery.

The chickens are coming home to roost and they also need food.

Earlier this year, the UK’s secretary of state for energy and climate change, Ed Davey, warned that climate instability drives political instability.

“The pressure of that makes conflict more likely,” he said. He believes current population growth means that demand for food will likely be up by 70% by 2060 – with drought spreading, it could be a spark for violence over food.

They say that every society is only three meals away from revolution. A government deprives a people collectively of three meals or more at its peril.

Economist Mike Schüssler says that while the rich in South Africa spend under 25% of their income on food, the very poor spend almost 40%.

And the rich indulge themselves with top-quality imported salmon and organic tomatoes. The poor just want their staples of bread and maize, which are no longer guaranteed.

So while a Sandton housewife might not be planning a riot over the cost of a T-bone, a hungry teenager in Alexandra unable to afford a sack of mielie meal on her current government grant might just be inclined to take up a torch and march, along with thousands more, to the nearest Pick n Pay or Spar if pushed far enough.

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