Cosatu warns of riots over food price hikes

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) warned on Monday of riots as it launched a protest campaign against soaring food prices.

Rice prices on world markets have climbed about 75% in just two months, and the cost of wheat has rocketed by 120% in the past year. The price of maize, an African staple, has more than doubled since the beginning of 2006.

“People are very angry. I’ve had phone calls from all over the place on this issue, more than any other single campaign we’ve had,” Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven said.
“People really are struggling.”

Craven said the anger in South Africa, which has an unemployment rate of about 25%, had the potential to result in disturbances like those in Haiti, where five people have died after a week of food-related rioting.

There have also been protests in Cameroon, Niger and Burkina Faso in Africa, and in Indonesia and the Philippines.

“I think it could be just as bad,” Craven said. “That’s one of the reasons why we feel this campaign is so important, so that we can try to channel the anger that people undoubtedly feel in a positive direction, in an orderly peaceful campaign.”

The campaign will include marches and possible strikes around the country, as well as pickets at supermarkets and at state-owned electricity company Eskom, which wants sharp tariff rises to cope with surging demand for power.

“We’re linking it to the campaign on Eskom, because they’re proposing a price increase which will not only affect people directly, but it’s bound to have a knock-on effect on the price of virtually everything,” Craven said.

Price spiral

Economists cite a number of factors for the spiralling prices, including the diversion of crops to biofuels and crop failure due to changing weather patterns. Economic growth in China and India has also led to increased beef consumption, stoking demand for cereals.

At the same time, exporting countries have closed their markets in an effort to ensure security of food supply and combat price inflation.

In South Africa, food price inflation accelerated to 14,1% in February, helping to drive overall inflation to a five-year high that has prompted a series of interest-rate hikes, the latest on Thursday raising the rate to 11,5%.

Cosatu has accused some manufacturers and farmers of taking advantage of global food price increases.

“We’re focusing on ... people who are conspiring to add on a few extra percent under cover of the global increase,” he said.

Nico Hawkins, an analyst at Grain South Africa, said farmers were struggling with soaring costs, including higher diesel prices and the price of fertilizer, which has more than doubled in the last year.

“You can jump up and down, but in the free market nobody is prepared to produce at a certain price level with these huge input costs,” he said. “A farmer is a businessman. If he doesn’t make a profit he’s going to look at other commodities.”—Reuters

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