The normalisation of hunger in South Africa

Published on 12 October 2022

Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

Gareth Haysom

African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Despite being an upper-middle-income country, hunger is widespread in South Africa and is related to the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality.

A farm worker prunes trees in South Africa
A farm worker prunes fruit trees in The Cape, South Africa. Credits: World Bank via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to the FAO, 45 per cent of the population experienced moderate or severe food insecurity in 2018-2020. South Africa presents significant prevalence rates of all three forms of malnutrition – undernutrition, overnutrition, and micronutrient deficiencies.

South Africa also reflects three forms of hunger: chronic, seasonal, and acute.

  1. Child stunting, an indicator of chronic undernutrition, has plateaued at around 25 per cent in South Africa since before the democratic transition in 1994, meaning that one in four children under 5 years old has displayed stunted growth for at least the last 30 years.
  2. Most farm workers on commercial wine and fruit farms in South Africa suffer seasonal hunger during the winter months every year.
  3. Several children in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa died of severe acute malnutrition in February 2022, a phenomenon that is also emerging in other provinces.

Acute food insecurity is related to shocks. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) revealed that food insecurity (adult and child hunger, running out of money for food) rose significantly, as a result of lockdown-related restrictions on mobility, reductions in income driven by contraction of the economy and employment, and temporary suspension of the National School Nutrition Programme’s meals at school.

Seasonal hunger is widespread in rural areas of South Africa, particularly among farm workers because of the seasonality of employment opportunities in the agriculture sector, with wider knock-on implications in towns and communities in these regions, but it is under-reported in the media and unnoticed in government policy framings. Seasonal farm workers register higher levels of food insecurity in the winter months when they have no agricultural work, under several food security measurement indicators. This seasonal hunger is ‘invisibilised’ and ‘normalised’, because people with power do not experience seasonality, and are probably unaware that many South African citizens and residents face severe hunger during the winter months.

The democratic transition in South Africa in 1994 marked a political transformation that saw power shift, away from the privileged white minority towards the dispossessed black majority. It also marked the introduction of a rights-based approach to economic, social and political life, encapsulated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights (1996), which specifically required the government to take all necessary measures to eradicate hunger, where “the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights”.

As mandated duty-bearer, the state is ultimately responsible for ensuring that no person in a country goes hungry: “in theory it’s illegal for children to starve, or even to be malnourished”. If the state is not delivering on the constitutional right of every child to ‘basic nutrition’, why is this? Possible explanations include: (1) lack of resources (constrained public finances); (2) lack of capacity (inability to deliver); (3) lack of political will (no genuine commitment).

Lack of fiscal resources is not an adequate explanation. Tax revenues are plentiful and the government is constantly berated by the media and the Auditor-General for mismanagement and inappropriate spending of state funds. Lack of state capacity could be one reason. There is no lack of analysis and understanding of the issue. Rhetorical commitment, policy statements and numerous programmes are in place. However, a wide gulf exists between policy on paper and implementation in practice.

Specifically, South Africa has a National Food and Nutrition Security Plan covering the period 2018-2023, which is located within the Presidency, suggesting that the government gives high priority to food insecurity and malnutrition. However, by mid-2022 the Plan “has not yet been funded; nor has it yet convened the Council (its first “strategic objective”) that is meant to oversee its implementation”.

Clearly, lack of political will, or inadequate commitment, is an important contributory factor. Some of the determinants relate to political incentives. At the collective level, a concerted attack on hunger is unlikely to either win or lose the ruling party large numbers of votes. The ANC and to a lesser extent, other political parties, get punished by the electorate for service delivery failures, but politicians do not lose votes in elections because of the persistence of hunger. Hunger has not been politicised. At the individual level, ANC officials do not have indicators of hunger on their performance monitoring, and accountability for poor performance is limited.

Importantly, civil society, funded largely by private donations from citizens – an indicator of public concern about hunger – works on two fronts to tackle hunger. First, by delivering food directly, and in South Africa many NGOs, like Gift of the Givers, are doing this. Second, by pressurising the state to deliver on its mandate. NGOs and the media campaign vigorously on this. Since March 2022, for instance, the online newspaper Daily Maverick has run a series of articles about hunger in South Africa under the strapline #FOODJUSTICE.

All actors need to engage with a central challenge in South Africa, namely the absence of political accountability on the ground, at the local scale. Despite a need to engage hunger related issues in context, national positions and policies dominate food security and hunger policies. Local actors such as municipalities have very little direct food system mandate. This dissonance between policy-making and the site of struggle creates a delivery vacuum, one exacerbated by lack of political will. Until the policy architecture is completely rethought, children born today will continue to suffer the slow violence of hunger and malnutrition. Until hunger is politicised and its normalised, ‘invisibilised’, nature is actively challenged, the dire state of avoidable hunger in South Africa will persist.

Stephen Devereux and Gareth Haysom are members of the Food Equity Centre, co-hosted by IDS. Find out more out their work.

Find out more about our research relating to food equity via our web page and subscribe to IDS’ Health and Nutrition newsletter for updates on research including antimicrobial resistance, tackling epidemics, zoonotic diseases, food systems and malnutrition.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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