SA’s national scandal: Hunger on an epic scale, says Oxfam

A report released by Oxfam this week calls epic food insecurity and hunger in this country a “national scandal”. As World Food Day (oct 16) approaches, the report “Hidden Hunger in South Africa: the faces of hunger and malnutrition in a food secure nation” reveals hunger is a daily and crippling reality for far too many.

One in four people in South Africa do not have enough to eat, and half the population is at risk of hunger, despite the country producing more than enough food, says the report.

Focus groups by Oxfam in nine municipalities across South Africa revealed how hunger perpetuates inequality and destroys South African’s potential to prosper. The report documents the lived experiences of people regularly suffering from hunger, shining a personal and human light on these shocking national statistics.

Low incomes, rising costs, a lack of access to productive resources and climate change are amongst the reasons causing 13 million people to go to bed hungry. One family of four was found to live on just R6 a day.

Oxfam’s Rashmi Mistry said: “The right to sufficient food is enshrined in the constitution but government policies have failed for one in four South Africans. October has been adopted by the government as food security month but just increasing production and creating one giant food mountain will not help the poorest and does not go far enough to address the root causes of hunger.

“We need better implemented policies that are developed with those most affected by hunger and backed by legislation that holds everyone to account for people having enough to eat.”

The report found that despite the nations’ farms producing enough calories to feed every one of its 54-million citizens, half of South Africans either face hunger or are at risk of hunger. To cope, people skip meals, eat smaller portions or make do with cheap, poor-quality food.

Communities in the nine municipalities say that the price of staple foods, like maize have increased. Electricity prices have escalated by over 200% cumulatively since 2010, forcing people to choose between food and fuel.

These awful statistics are mainly due not to a lack of food availability, but to limited economic access to food among the poor. For example, annual inflation on food and non-alcoholic beverages has been higher than CPI inflation in all but one year since 2002.

Between 2008 and 2014, the cost of a basic food basket rose from R336 to R480 per month.  Households in the bottom three income deciles spend on average over a quarter of their consumption expenditure on food, making them highly vulnerable to these price hikes.

The national income dynamics survey carried out by the Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics found that the median income for a South African household is R3 100 a month.

World Bank statistics show that the top 10% of the country’s households spend 10% of their income on food – an average of R29 000 a year.

The bottom 25% of households spend 48% of their income on food – R8 700 a year. Another 19% of their earnings goes towards housing, electricity and transport.

The most food-insecure households were those headed by women or children. This was because 46% of South African men received salaries, whereas only 32% of women did.

Although the official unemployment rate is 25%, the researchers found communities where it was as high as 80%. Women were paid less, and had to spend more hours than men doing household chores.
To cope with the increasing cost of food, Oxfam found that a fifth of South Africans cut the size of their meals for at least five days of the month and 17% skip whole meals to make their food stretch. People also ate less, bought food that was out of date, asked neighbours and relatives for food, bartered labour for food and borrowed from loan sharks.

Oxfam found this often meant households only had food security in the first week or two of the month. For the 15-million people on social grants, there was never security, it said.

Access to food is also limited by food retailers’ control over pricing and availability, notes the report. Five retailers control 60% of the formal retail market, leaving small and informal traders finding it hard to compete. The food industry has been plagued by collusion and price fixing scandals. Prices are inflated whilst farmworkers often struggle to survive in meagre wages, or face losing their jobs completely.

Without access to land, water, tools and training many poor communities don’t even have the ability to produce their own food. Meanwhile, climate change threatens to make production harder and food prices rise. Communities all over the country report changes in the climate that mean they cannot grow or store food as they used to. “We used to eat fresh food from our gardens, but now it’s impossible because of the high temperatures that make it impossible for us to work in our gardens” Community member from Eastern Cape.

Oxfam is calling for:

  • A National Food Act to ensure that no one goes hungry. The Act would require cooperation and accountability from the government, private sector and individuals.  
  • Opening of the latest National Food and Nutrition Policy to meaningful public consultation.
  • A fair, accountable and sustainable food industry that ends practices such as price fixing, reduces waste and does more to help small scale producers.
  • Improved rights to land and waterways to help communities facing hunger provide for themselves.
  • Plans to tackle climate change and reduce carbon emissions which negatively impact on food production.

Further recommendations are detailed in the report Hidden Hunger in South Africa.

Additional reading:

Too many going hungry in the land of plenty – M&G