Hungry in the valley of plenty

The town of Ceres, situated about 160km north-east of Cape Town, seems an unlikely site for the study of the dynamics of long-term poverty.

From the top of Mitchell’s Pass, it looks like the fertile, sun-drenched valley described by advertising copywriters on the boxes of the town’s most prominent branded export — Ceres fruit juice.

Throughout the summer, a long procession of diesel trucks labours up and down the pass, plying the route between the surrounding valleys and Cape Town harbour.

The mountainside is rugged, bare and stony, but for most of the year the dams are full and the valley floors bear evidence of the orderly activities of industrialised agriculture: onion and wheat fields, stud and sheep farms — and, above all, neat and serried ranks of closely planted orchards: apples, pears, nectarines, peaches and plums.

Ceres and its surrounding valleys seem part of a landscape where abundant natural resources and successful commercial activity would at least have the chance of ensuring decent livelihoods for those who work and live there.

By 1998 Ceres had a gross geographic product of R265-million. But most of the 20 000 or so people who work on these farms do not see any of this wealth. Half of the households in Ceres surveyed in the 1996 Census earned less than R18 000 a year. In a third of rural enumerator areas, incomes were less than R1 000 a month.

One of the most important areas of stress experienced by households in the Chronic Poverty Research Centre survey related to food security. About 70% of respondents indicated that their households had experienced a food shortage at some time during the previous 12 months.

About a quarter — 25,8% — of children exhibited a degree of stunting.

Respondents calculated that their households, on average, spent 43% of their expenditure on food. Overheads associated with housing — rent, energy costs and municipal rates — cost about 20% of their expenditure.

Hunger certainly showed a strongly seasonal character, with many households reporting hunger more than doubling between March and July. Interestingly, breaking down these figures by income level shows that 38% of households in the highest income group still reported hungry months.

The increased power of overseas supermarkets have put pressure on fruit farmers, who tend to rely more and more on seasonal and off-farm sources of labour. When there is work, in season, it is badly paid.

These are not people trapped in a second economy, unconnected from the first economy. Farm workers in Ceres, far from being excluded, are thoroughly incorporated into the first economy.

Their poverty is produced and created by the normal operations of the market in that economy. This should give us cause to think twice about the simplistic notion that all South Africa needs to end poverty is growth.

What matters is the kind of growth and the kinds of power relationships that shape the terms of economic exchange.

Andries du Toit is a visiting research fellow at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Social Science Research

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