Hidden hunger: South Africans speak out on World Food Day

Agriculture, Food & livelihoods, Food security

On World Food Day John Magrath shares the findings of an Oxfam South Africa report which reveals that one in four citizens are going hungry. The causes of poverty, the cost of food, and related issues around malnutrition, stunting and obesity all need to be addressed. Oxfam is calling for a national conversation to bring the problem out into the open
and to the attention of politicians.

How can there be hunger in a ‘food secure’ nation?  Oxfam research in South Africa has revealed the shameful extent of hunger and malnutrition in one of Africa’s wealthiest countries where one in four citizens, some 13 million people, face hunger on a regular basis. 

To understand the extent, the causes and the effects of hunger, Oxfam and partners conducted a series of public ‘poverty hearings’ in nine municipalities in three regions, the results of which are shared in a report published this week. 

A woman preparing food in South AfricaThe testimonies given at the poverty hearings were often graphic and deeply moving. In particular, people often referred to hunger as more than physical sensations of emptiness or pain. They described it as a phenomenon that creates ‘genocide of the mind’, inducing hopelessness and despair, depriving individuals of dignity, bringing shame and demeaning them as social beings. It was
seen as both a personal and communal malaise crushing the potential of people to get out of poverty and to prosper. 

Hunger then perpetuates social inequality via a malnutrition trap. Most households in South Africa are dependent upon the market for their food: poor households described how they have to spend nearly half of their income on food but all they can get is cheap, expired and non-nutritious food.  The ‘poppie diet’, white bread and sugar water, has become the norm for some families. 

“We have to buy the cheapest of the cheapest, and we are rated as the cheapest of the cheapest”
Not only is childhood stunting a major problem, but obesity levels are amongst the highest in the world, especially for women. The result is a society that has ‘good access to bad food and bad access to good food’. As one participant said:  “We have to buy the cheapest of the cheapest, and we are rated as the cheapest of the cheapest”. 

Yet as the title of the report Hidden Hunger in South Africa: the faces of hunger and malnutrition in a food secure nation makes clear,  the paradox is that South Africa not only produces enough calories to, in theory, feed all its citizens, but the country’s constitution enshrines in law the right to sufficient food. What has gone wrong? And what needs to happen?

The evidence from the poverty hearings is that a confluence of poverty and market failure has created a systemic problem. Low wages and insecure employment and rising prices for food and also housing, transport and energy, trap many in poverty. The retail market – dominated by five large brands – barely caters for consumers who are poor. Price fixing by bread and milk producers has also been exposed and come before the courts. 

Poverty and market failure has created a systemic problemOxfam believes that it is time to eradicate hunger and malnutrition in South Africa once and for all, and that this can be achieved through decisive action taken in a coordinated way across society. 

Government policies have been piecemeal, poorly coordinated and unaccountable. The latest initiative is to create a food mountain in the northern province of Limpopo for World Food Day – hardly a long term solution to ensure 13 million don’t go to bed hungry. 

Oxfam is calling for a national ‘conversation’ on hunger and malnutrition to bring the problem out into the open and to the attention of politicians. The idea is for the voices of ordinary people to be heard and alternatives to be debated to define a more equitable and sustainable food system. This kicks off today, World Food Day, with a public dialogue and several local events including a march in Cape Town organised by the 1 in 4 Campaign for Food Justice

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Photos:  Main image: Yoliswa Peggy Stemele (left) and Maureen Njanjula (right), aloe pickers from Ngobozana, Eastern cape. Secondary image: A mother preparing a bread and sugar water meal. Credits:Oxfam

Author: John Magrath
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.