The political consequences of exacerbated hunger during the Covid-19 lockdown are not yet clear. But historically, mass hunger has frequently led to a breakdown in consent for the established order.
Racial capitalism in South Africa deliberately produced abundance for a minority and impoverishment for the majority. A quarter of a century after apartheid, the complexion of the middle classes and elites had changed in significant ways, but mass impoverishment continued, and continued to be a principally black phenomenon.
With the ANC torn between elites who had accumulated personal wealth through an accommodation with capital and aspirant elites intent on accumulating personal wealth through the state, there has been no serious project to counter mass impoverishment. Attempts at organising counter-power among the oppressed, and outside of the ruling party, were brutally suppressed. The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town, the Landless People's Movement in Johannesburg, Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and the 2012 strike at Lonmin in Marikana were all met with slander and violence rather than dialogue.
But the elitism that characterises our society is hardly just a failing of the ruling party. With a public sphere that often elevates intra-elite contestation above all else, there has never been anything like a sufficient discussion of the desperate situation to which millions have been condemned, or viable strategies for overcoming it.
Few things concretise the bitter realities of impoverishment more than the stark fact of hunger. Before the Covid-19 lockdown annihilated or reduced the income of so many people, more than a quarter of urban households were going hungry, and in rural areas that figure was at over 30%. More than a quarter of children under the age of five suffered from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition.
This crisis has expanded, massively, during the lockdown. Reports from grassroots activists and trade unionists are often harrowing. Families that were eating regularly have suddenly had to resort to famine food. A woman sobs as she explains that she has been boiling leaves to feed her children. A man who has lived on nothing but tea for days so that his children can eat lifts up his shirt to show what looks like shingles, a disease closely linked to intense stress.
Already going hungry
Things will certainly improve when the lockdown is ended. But many people will not be able to return to the livelihoods and jobs that sustained them, often inadequately. And, of course, millions of people were already going hungry before the lockdown.
The likely political consequences of pervasive hunger are not yet clear. But throughout history, and around the world, mass hunger has frequently been associated with a breakdown in consent for the established order. This can take reactionary forms, such as xenophobic violence, attraction to demagogic leaders or attacks on women declared to be witches. It can also take potentially emancipatory forms ranging from price setting from below to the direct appropriation of food, land occupations and revolutions.
The overture to the French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille in Paris, on 14 July 1789, was motivated in part by a shortage of food. The events that culminated in the Russian Revolution began on 8 March 1917, when thousands of women took to the streets of Petrograd demanding bread. More recently, a number of analysts have said that food riots in Algeria and Tunisia in January 2011 were critical to setting the stage for the uprisings that followed the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the city of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia in March that year.
In South Africa, the distribution of food to impoverished people is not only inadequate in terms of questions of scale but the food that is provided is frequently not healthy. Moreover, the mechanisms for providing food from non-governmental organisations, religious institutions and the state can be mediated through the sort of paternalism that corrodes the dignity of the people to whom it provides essential material support. The state and a number of political parties have also become notorious for providing food in a way that is more about establishing themselves as patrons than any sort of commitment to solidarity.
Fifteen years ago, grassroots activists in Durban famously coined the term "breyani politics" to critique the co-option of the provision of food into the clientelist politics of local politicians. Against this, they posed a demand for democratic practices premised on respect for the dignity for the oppressed. Now, the state and the ruling party continue to respond to autonomous forms of popular self-organisation with slander and violence rather than dialogue.
It is often said that the crisis of endemic hunger in South Africa is directly linked to the unemployment crisis, which in turn is linked to rapid deindustrialisation. At times it is also noted that pervasive hunger is directly consequent to the inadequacies of state welfare, including the fact that many people receive no support at all. These are both important points.
But our discussion about the food crisis does not take sufficient account of the extraordinary degree to which the food system in South Africa has been captured by capital at every point, from production to distribution and retail. There is a significant extent to which the grants system functions as a massive subsidy for the supermarkets, which have replaced mines as the most effective sites of elite accumulation. In 2016, it was reported that Shoprite chief executive Whitey Basson was paid R49.7 million in basic pay and a performance bonus of R50 million.
This is not only obscene because no one needs that kind of money, or because it would take a worker in a Checkers store 3 500 years to earn what Basson earned in a single year. It is also obscene because the resources of the most oppressed people in society are not, as happens in many societies, moving through their own networks and communities.
Imagine if, in 1994, the state had immediately set about a programme of land reform, rural and urban, aimed at enabling people to grow their own food. Imagine that those efforts were supported with seed, irrigation and the like. Imagine, also, if markets were established so that impoverished and working-class people could buy food from each other rather than having to take their income straight from the bank to the supermarket.
If the state has seriously pursued a programme aimed at supporting people to grow, distribute and sell their own food, we would be in a vastly better situation. But the limited land reform that has been implemented has frequently been captured by elites and aimed at replacing white commercial farmers with black commercial farmers. Existing small-scale farming areas in our major cities, like the Philippi Horticultural Area in Cape Town or the market gardens in south Durban, have come under major pressure from political and corporate elites bent on displacing urban agriculture for the pursuit of private profit. In 2009, local political elites in Durban tried to shut down the city's famous Warwick Market to build yet another mall in its place.
When people have occupied urban land to grow food and made their own arrangements to trade in the streets, popular innovation has frequently been treated as criminal and people subjected to harassment, intimidation and state violence, including at times lethal forms of state brutality.
The crisis of hunger is nothing new in South Africa. People have continually suffered from hunger since colonial dispossession from the land. But the crisis of hunger has reached new levels of intensity during the Covid-19 lockdown, and will continue to fester when the lockdown is lifted.
It is urgent that the state and other organisations work to ensure the provision of healthy food to all people in need, whether documented or not, and that this is undertaken in a dignified and respectful way. And it is vital that local political elites be prevented from distributing food on anything other than the basis of need.
It is also urgent, though, that the response to the food crisis moves beyond the limited paradigms of welfare and charity and towards the vigorous pursuit of practical mechanisms to enable people to grow, distribute and sell their own food.