OPINION | Asinamali: Food justice and the informal economy

A general view of people queuing for food parcels at a local school.
A general view of people queuing for food parcels at a local school.
Sharon Seretlo, Gallo Images

Government is presented with an opportunity to support the informal food value chain during this lockdown period. It must use this crisis to develop sustainable plans for supporting localised food systems, writes Khwezi Mabasa.

South Africans have endured the national lockdown for nearly a month now and followed the regulations promulgated by the government.

The general sentiment in public discussions presupposes that citizens' experiences of the lockdown are similar or homogenous.

It ignores how Covid-19 deepens existing social fissures in a post-apartheid society, with pervasive race, class and gender inequalities.

The recent food parcel protests in Alexandra, Mitchells Plain and Mthatha clearly illustrate that responses to Covid-19 are experienced through existing social disparities.

The reports from these areas on the underlying reasons for the protests cite corruption in food parcel distribution, communication breakdowns and non-responsiveness from local state authorities as the main reasons.

These explanations provide a partial explanation for the anger and social unrest in these communities.

There is a deeper or underlying problem: the lockdown has limited the food security strategies of citizens in low income communities. And this problem is exacerbated by inconsistent lockdown policy implementation throughout the country.  

The current discussion focuses on national food security in the formal food system markets.

Mainstream agricultural economists and sector experts have assured South Africans that we are a food secure nation. These pundits rely on economic modelling and other research methods used to examine formal agricultural value chains. 

South Africa is the most food secure country on the continent, with a ranking of 48 out of 113 countries assessed in the Global Food Security Index (2019).

Yet various reports conclude that national food security does not automatically lead to household food security. Race, class, gender and spatial inequalities determine the levels of food insecurity in communities.

This explains why plans to maintain national food security in formal value chains during the lockdown are not sufficient.

The consumer base in these value chains is largely drawn from citizens who have sufficient household incomes to buy food from large corporate retailers.  

The research on food consumption patterns in working class households proves that most citizens rely on informal traders for food security. According to PLAAS, 70% of households in townships buy some food items from informal traders.

This makes sense when one considers the rising food costs over the past years in the formal economy.

A food basket’s "share of the average monthly income of the poorest 30% of the population increased from 56.9% in October 2018 to 58.2% in October 2019" (NAMC Food Price Monitor, November 2019).  

Low income households need the informal economy to maintain some level of food insecurity.

Informal food trading is beneficial for both low income household consumers and traders.

Government has responded to this challenge by issuing regulations that permit spaza shops and informal food traders to operate during lockdown.

However, this regulation has not addressed the problem because of inconsistent policy implementation. Several informal traders allege that public security forces prevent them from trading even though they obtained permits. 

This inconsistent implementation of the regulations will inevitably fuel social unrest in township or rural communities, especially if it affects crucial human development areas like food security.  

South Africa’s government has also attempted to distribute food parcels across communities.

The recent protests and several corruption reports suggest that this intervention is not sustainable in the long run.

It confines poor households to certain food choices and creates social conflict because of local state implementation challenges.

The government should rather adopt a food justice approach, which supports existing food production and distribution strategies in low income areas.

This must start with implementing the regulations on informal traders and spaza shops consistently.

Another important aspect of food justice approach is allowing informal food producers and traders to operate under specified health regulations.

This will guarantee income for food traders and cushion customers from high prices in formal retail markets.

Government is presented with an opportunity to support the informal food value chain during this lockdown period.

It must use this crisis to develop sustainable plans for supporting localised food systems.

This requires a paradigm shift from viewing formal food markets as the only mechanism for guaranteeing food security in the country.

More importantly, marginalised citizens such as traders and consumers in the informal economy deserve some autonomy to exercise their economic agency during these testing times.    

- Khwezi Mabasa, Researcher, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISRA) 

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