South Africa: Community at the Heart of Hunger Struggle

9 June 2020: Sbongile Tabhethe works in the food garden in eKhenana shack settlement in Cato Manor, Durban. (Photograph by Mlungisi Mbele)

Anna Majavu

Internationalist 360º

Communal gardens and farming enterprises are the beginning of sustainable food sovereignty in South Africa, but a basic income grant is essential to address hunger in the shorter term.

In a country where 10 million people go to bed hungry every night, the government’s Covid-19 social relief of distress grant was a lifeline. A tiny lifeline for a fraction of the estimated 28.4 million unemployed and “economically inactive” people in the country, according to researcher Siyabulela Mama, but a lifeline nonetheless.

So when the government ended the grant after just nine months, as part of its economic austerity measures, it cut more than five million people off from a monthly payout of R350 (about $23.50). Although only enough to buy a loaf of the cheapest bread each day and little else – and even though it excluded women whose minor children were already getting a child support grant of R470 a month – it kept casual and precarious workers, restaurant workers, street traders, artists and others who had lost their jobs during the pandemic from starving.

The widespread unrest triggered by a disgruntled ANC faction violently attacking delivery trucks in July quickly foregrounded hunger in the country, as thousands of starving South Africans took advantage of the chaos to appropriate food from supermarkets and food warehouses in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The government reintroduced the social relief of distress grant in response to the chaos, extending it to March 2022. Many hope it will convert to a basic income grant.

Mama, who works at the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at Nelson Mandela University, is a spokesperson for the #PayTheGrants campaign, which wants a basic income grant of R1 268 a month for those between the ages of 19 and 59. South Africa does not have a dole system and this age group falls outside the old age pensions and child support grants that the government offers.

Television news stations call him frequently to discuss the basic income grant and he says “over 10 million people go to bed hungry every night while living near shops with plenty of food that they cannot afford. That created a crisis. But this time the crisis exposed that the South African food system is so unjust and needs to be overhauled.”

Activists first proposed a basic income grant 20 years ago. The government has been “contemplating” it since 2002. A new generation of activists, such as Mama, is taking this campaign forward and combining it with grassroots food sovereignty projects based on communal gardens and poultry farming. Mama works with such projects in the coastal city of Gqeberha in Eastern Cape province.


More land occupations

Women living in the eKhenana shack settlement in the coastal city of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, are part of a growing national trend of occupying unused land and using it for the communal production of food.

Nokuthula Mabaso, 38, says the communal vegetable garden that the members of shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo established allowed them to generate enough revenue to supplement their savings of R3 000 and set up a communal poultry farm.

“When the Covid-19 lockdown was announced, we were all in financial trouble. We realised that our piece jobs [informal work] could no longer help us and our families survive … We called a meeting and discussed ways to create sustainable income for the community. We’ve made an oath to never allow anyone here to starve while there is food or money from the food projects in the community,” explains Mabaso.


This is no small feat in a country where 2.2 million people lost their jobs in last year’s Covid-19 lockdown, with the result that by June 2021, Statistics South Africa put the expanded unemployment rate at a record high of 43.2%. Even the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a scale agreed by organisations ranging from Oxfam to USAid, recently concluded that “9.34 million people in South Africa (16% of the population analysed) faced high levels of acute food insecurity and required urgent action to reduce food gaps and protect livelihoods”. The IPC said this number would rise to almost 12 million by June 2021.

In South Africa, the persistence of shack settlements reflects the lack of affordable accommodation options available to impoverished families in well-situated areas near public amenities. The 109 families of eKhenana occupied two hectares of land in 2018 after being evicted from rented shacks, naming their new village eKhenana because it is isiZulu for Canaan. Residents say the name represents their aspirations to transform eKhenana into a place fit for humans, with all the residents’ needs catered for collectively.

“Land occupations allow people to live on well-located land close to opportunities for livelihoods, education and to participate in urban planning and other ways of shaping the cities from below. Of course, land occupations also allow people to build homes, community halls, crèches and political schools. But land occupations are often also spaces that allow for urban gardening and farming,” says Abahlali baseMjondolo president S’bu Zikode.

The movement has been establishing collective farming projects for 13 years, the first in Motala Heights in 2008. A women’s organic community garden project, it went on to support the development of a similar garden group in the nearby eMmaus shack settlement. “This project did not only ensure that families had food, it also gave women some autonomy from exploitative and racialised forms of labour,” says Zikode.



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