For the past two weeks, first slowly and then in a deluge, there have been social media messages warning about a proliferation of “fake food”. Fake food has become a catch-all for food that is expired, substandard or knock-offs of popular brands.
As the tale goes, the latter are being manufactured in backyards by unscrupulous foreigners, those nefarious characters who are always looking for ways to take further advantage of our people and turn a quick buck.
The story took root this week when various news publishers investigated the claims of concerned citizens about fake food. Large numbers of people called in to talk radio stations to tell of their experiences (some near death) after having been duped into buying fake food.
Some government departments responded and the Ekurhuleni municipality dispatched inspectors to spaza shops, who confirmed some were indeed selling expired goods. So a call went out for people to report any suspicious goods to the National Consumer Commission, with a warning: “It’s not going to be that effective to start your own social media campaign — next thing you will have vigilante enforcement.”
But it’s been a cold, hard winter in South Africa. Unemployment figures are escalating, value-added tax is up, food prices are up (and down) and transport costs are up. There’s not much to celebrate. But the cumulative effects of an ailing economy, poor governance and stubborn inequality rests especially heavy on the shoulders of the poor.
Although the campaign against fake food is warranted, woven into the fabric of the messages doing the rounds is one we have become all too familiar with in a democratic South Africa. It’s the narrative of “us versus them”. But there is no clear us and them, it is a constant swirl of differences — the middle class and the poor, poor South Africans and poor immigrants. The persecution of the weak and the vulnerable finds new iterations all the time.
In 2008, when gangs of young men, armed with crude weapons, marched through the streets, we watched with a sense of dread. The gravity of what we were witnessing sank home when we saw Ernesto Nhamuave, on hands and knees, ablaze in a sea of flames, in Ramaphosa on the East Rand.
In 2015, the nightmare returned, with a mass march in central Durban and the mobilisation of men from the historically compromised hostels playing key roles to define the period. Again, it was the butchering of Emmanuel Sithole on the streets of Alexandra, captured graphically on front pages, that jolted officials into necessary action.
All the time, we were aware the nightmare was there, whispered in WhatsApp messages or caught up among the thousands of hostilities we voice every day. For many of us watching, the right-minded South Africans privileged enough to be able to liberate ourselves more easily from such narrow, nationalistic thinking, the xenophobic actions stirred our consciences and drew our condemnation — “they” did not represent us.
But it is not enough to condemn the other. It is not enough to be comforted by a sense of innocence when we are confronted with the violence of the marginalised on the marginalised. It is not enough because our complicity in maintaining these distinctions is a violence itself. Until we confront inequality more robustly, these attacks will continue. Fake food is just a convenient excuse.