Asinamali: COVID-19, Food Justice and the Informal Economy

South Africans have endured the national lockdown for three weeks and followed the regulations promulgated by government. The general sentiment in public discussions presupposes that citizens’ experiences of the lockdown are similar or homogenous. It ignores how Covid-19 deepens existing social fissures in a post-apartheid society, with pervasive race, class and gender inequalities. The recent food parcel protests in Alexandra, Mitchells Plain and Mthatha clearly illustrate that responses to Covid-19 are experienced through existing social disparities. The reports from these areas on the underlying reasons for the protests cite corruption in food parcel distribution, communication breakdowns and non-responsiveness from local state authorities as main reasons. These explanations provide a partial explanation for the anger and social unrest in these communities. There is a deeper or underlying problem: the lockdown has limited the food security strategies of citizens in low income communities. And this problem is exacerbated by inconsistent lockdown policy implementation throughout the country.

South Africans have endured the national lockdown for three weeks and followed the regulations promulgated by government. The general sentiment in public discussions presupposes that citizens’ experiences of the lockdown are similar or homogenous. It ignores how Covid-19 deepens existing social fissures in a post-apartheid society, with pervasive race, class and gender inequalities. The recent food parcel protests in Alexandra, Mitchells Plain and Mthatha clearly illustrate that responses to Covid-19 are experienced through existing social disparities. The reports from these areas on the underlying reasons for the protests cite corruption in food parcel distribution, communication breakdowns and non-responsiveness from local state authorities as main reasons. These explanations provide a partial explanation for the anger and social unrest in these communities. There is a deeper or underlying problem: the lockdown has limited the food security strategies of citizens in low income communities. And this problem is exacerbated by inconsistent lockdown policy implementation throughout the country.

1The research on food consumption patterns in working class households proves that most citizens rely on informal traders for food security. According to PLAAS, 70 % of households in townships buy some food items from informal traders. This makes sense when considering the rising food costs over the past years in the formal economy. A food basket’s ‘share of the average monthly income of the poorest 30% of the population increased from 56.9% in October 2018 to 58.2% in October 2019’. The Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) study on poverty, inequality and patronage in municipalities details how low income households need the informal economy to maintain some level of food insecurity. Informal food trading is beneficial for both low income household consumers and traders. Government has responded to this challenge by issuing regulations that permit spaza shops and informal food traders to operate during lockdown. However, this regulation has not addressed the problem because of inconsistent policy implementation. Several informal traders allege that public security forces prevent them from trading even though they obtained permits. This inconsistent implementation of the regulations will inevitably fuel social unrest in township or rural communities, especially if it affects crucial human development areas like food security.

South Africa’s government has also attempted to distribute food parcels across communities. The recent protests and several corruption reports suggest that this intervention is not sustainable in the long run. It confines poor households to certain food choices and creates social conflict because of local state implementation challenges. The government should rather adopt a food justice approach, which supports existing food production and distribution strategies in low income areas. This must start with implementing the regulations on informal traders and spaza shops consistently. Another important aspect of food justice approach is allowing informal food producers and traders to operate under specified health regulations. This will guarantee income for food traders and cushion customers from high prices in formal retail markets. Government is presented with an opportunity to support the informal food value chain during this lockdown period. It must use this crisis to develop sustainable plans for supporting localised food systems. This requires a paradigm shift from viewing formal food markets as the only mechanism for guaranteeing food security in the country. More importantly, marginalised citizens such as traders and consumers in the informal economy deserve some autonomy to exercise their economic agency during these testing times.


1 NAMC Food Price Monitor, November 2019

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