By Sanelisiwe Nyaba and Haidee Swanby
In 2020, when the Covid 19 pandemic struck, the South African government implemented some of the most extreme lockdown measures in the world. These measures had a profound impact on the most marginalised communities, who suffered intense isolation – confined to their homes in locations lacking adequate services, loss of income, extensive hunger and police brutality. An urban farmer in one of these locations, on the Cape Flats about 25 kilometres out of Cape Town, catalysed a co-research project with community researchers and students at Humboldt University to measure the impacts of the pandemic on food security. This co-research project brought to light for us the structural and discursive causes of chronic hunger and inequality in post-apartheid South Africa. It also helped us see why the incarceration of ex-president Jacob Zuma in July 2021 so quickly resulted in deadly violence and looting that has been characterised as an attempt at insurrection. This article focuses especially on the experiences of one of the authors, Sanelisiwe Nyaba, with the article generally reflecting on the past year and a half. In light of recent events, we reflect on why our research proposes the need to build a new society from the micro-scale that is based on care, solidarity, hyper-localised food systems and community-led solutions.
South Africa is riddled with a history of violence. The violence was carried out by systematic oppression that would manifest physically: physically keep people in place, mentally keep people in place, and economically keep people in place. Apartheid ended with an insufficient process to hold the white community to account and exact justice for one of the most grievous human rights atrocities of modern times. Almost immediately, we were fallaciously labelled “the rainbow nation”, a diverse nation bonded by forgiveness and hope. In 2021, the haunting traumatic reality of what is hidden behind the rainbow-coloured curtain has been revealed; there is a food crisis in South Africa. There is a food crisis all around the globe.
This pandemic is eating away at the foods in our cupboards, it is eating away at the electricity, it is eating away even at the food in our stomachs. Level 1 lockdown rules returned the agency we have long taken for granted in post-apartheid South Africa, simply, a physical ability to move freely from point A to B. Level 5 sounds like the pandemic has sealed all the doors to your house. It shouts for you to stay inside every time you peep through your window. Oh, and the army, the people with guns and big machine cars. What do you do when you are hungry but are not allowed out?
There have always been times of hunger growing up. History has found different ways to frown upon us and made other means to eat away at the food in our cupboards. Always, before it got to the foods in our stomachs, my mother would get a thoughtful look on her face. She would leave the house without saying where she was going and we would be left wondering about the next meal, but too young to truly feel the burden of responsibility. She would return later with a plastic bag full of mealie meal powder, or R50, or samp and beans in an ice cream container. There would be food to eat that day.
This transaction is not a unique one in our communities. In our survey, we found that 49.9% of respondents borrowed food from neighbours in order to cope with food insecurity during the pandemic. Sharing food and resources is one of the central ways of dealing with hunger. So, what did it mean to some to have to leave their homes to ask for help when people are sick and everyone is anxious about possibly being sick? When people are being stopped and questioned by the army or police? They are there to protect us are they not? With their guns and uniforms and helmets that barely show their eyes.
A long time ago, I lived in the Eastern Cape in Cala. During winter, there was the heaviest snowfall we would ever see. We were told to stay at home, that it was dangerous to be out. It felt like a holiday for us schoolgoers. My brother and I had to entertain ourselves as my mother and sister trudged through the snow to get to the shops. The roofs at the shops had caved in and people had left their homes in numbers, to return home with bulks of food and clothes. My mother and sister came home carrying a suitcase of winter clothes we would otherwise not have afforded to buy that winter. They had been looting. Why would two women trudge through heavy snowfall to loot? Looting, with its violent connotations and all.
Moving into 2021 the pandemic has merged with our ugly history, a present already riddled with social ills. Here again in 2021, 27 years into a democracy, violence engulfs our country under the refrain of #FreeZuma. This violence is recorded by news media and smartphones circulating all over social media platforms. Things burning, people dying, people running off with bags of food, some running off with bags of luxury. A radical feminist in a seminar recently termed these acts as ‘expropriation’. It has been noted that malls were specifically targeted for looting and burning. Malls that continue to displace local businesses with franchises owned by corporates and elites, extracting cheap labour, extracting money from communities, and displaying goods that many can never access.
Why would so many in 2021, leave home under level 4 restrictions, to go and loot? The political motivation for a beloved leader? Motivation to steal? To take things that they would otherwise not afford? How does it feel to not afford? What work do these people do that they are in the streets in winter, breaking into malls, burning things? So motivated that they cannot feel the weight of the things they are carrying off home? That they cannot feel the danger of the violence they are immersed in? Do we not expropriate in response to injustice? What is the injustice here and by whom?
“Iyasibetha le’covid” is a common term that I hear used around me, even I have used this term sometimes. It implies that the Covid pandemic is ‘beating us up’. Our survey showed that in our area it is women-headed households who are taking the brunt of the beating, unemployed households, extended households and surprisingly, people working in the food industry. Iyasibetha le’covid calls forth again the violence. This beating is alluding to the drying up of people’s pockets as they sit at home, the loss of opportunities, the close of industries. This violence does not necessarily look or sound like the #FreeZuma riots in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng or the current deadly taxi wars confining us to our homes on the Cape Flats. Or that of police beating and shooting at young protesters in 1976. This same violence now refers to the invisible worry about basic needs. There is no telling how long this beating up will last with Covid and its evolving variants. Hunger is an obvious thing in South Africa. So is violence merged into our history and our present.
I think of this image of my mother leaving the house and coming back with food. Or a much fresher image of her and her partner leaving our home with a pot of food going to feed children at a nearby daycare centre. This image of her tackling hunger in her community, even though we are not yet rid of the pandemic wrecking through our own cupboards. Now I am old enough to bear this burden of responsibility, with two children to feed. My own relationship with worry for food is intimate. Being part of conversations about food, being able to connect the delicate thread of history to my own reality does not keep the monster from greedily emptying my cupboard.
We explored the issue of agency in our research and found that agency does not seem to be propelled by choice in this case, but rather by a need to transform a system that affects us directly. Asking people in our communities about what agency in our food systems look like, we got answers varying from wanting to know where they can express their concerns about food, wanting to know where their food is coming from and who owns it, starting a food garden and even selling fresh vegetables in their own communities. We have been reflecting together on what must be done to change this crisis and who must bring about the change. Our co-research gives a fresh perspective on agency in the food system; placing importance on community perspectives and responses pointing towards community initiatives that do not just serve food. That food must be considered in the context of the violence from both history and the present. The importance of work in communities, by communities, needs to become an obvious consideration from those that hold key positions of power in governance and society at large.
One of the visions that come out of these community perspectives is to transform the soup kitchens that proliferated during Covid into community kitchens that anchor food systems locally. Spaces that provide for the community, support local producers and entrepreneurs and seek community involvement in their success. It proposes a more dignified way of giving by sharing skills and nutritious food and hopes to experiment with new economic and social models around food. Of course, no work done today will show overnight success, that much is obvious. What is also obvious is that this crisis is in need of more collaborative solutions from all spheres of power and place, but ultimately these solutions must have engaged communities as key drivers of these initiatives.
Nicole Paganini, Hilda Adams, Khutala Bokolo, Nomonde Buthelezi, Johanna Hansmann, Washiela Isaacs, Nomonde Kweza, Alexander Mewes, Hazel Nyaba, Vuyani Qamata, Vincent Reich, Moritz Reigl, Lara Sander, Haidee Swanby. (2021). Agency in South Africa‘s food systems. A food justice perspective of food security in the Cape Flats and St. Helena Bay during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pat McFadden (2021). Centering African feminism in food cultures and politics on 27 July 2021. www.criticalfoodstudies.co.za
Mark Swilling (2021). July 2021 Zumite sedition and the emerging ‘politics of the mall’. https://theworldnews.net/za-news/op-ed-july-2021-zumite-sedition-and-the-emerging-politics-of-the-mall
Photographs by Nicole Paganini
 Sanelisiwe’s mother.