Locked-down farmers fear starvation

“I will die in my house,” Nomvuselelo Molefe says about the prospect of another extension to the lockdown.

Molefe, who speaks to the Mail & Guardian over the phone from KwaGade in Impendle — a small municipality in rural KwaZulu-Natal — punctuates her foreboding with breathless laughter.

The root of the 53-year-old poultry farmer’s fear: her family will run out of food.

There are the chickens, which Molefe usually sells to people waiting in line to collect their pensions. This supplements the money she gets from her husband’s social grant and the little she makes as part of the Community Works Programme.

But now, in the wake of the unprecedented national lockdown, people have little money to spare. “The people are crying. All the people in the community are crying,” Molefe says.

Molefe doesn’t have the money to feed her chickens. They will have to eat them. And once they are gone, there will be nothing left.

In rural communities such as KwaGade, the lockdown has eroded the small earnings people make to survive. And with informal food markets crippled — and transport to far-away shopping centres halted — many fear they will starve.

Earlier this month, Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Thoko Didiza announced a R1.2-billion Covid-19 disaster relief fund for small-scale farmers.

But advocacy groups and researchers say little has been done to address the already existing vulnerabilities of South Africa’s food system, which have been laid bare by the national lockdown.

Khanyo Ndlela, who was born and raised on a cattle farm in Impendle, says: “Right now we don’t have transport to buy groceries. Even our tuck-shops are closed and it is too far to go to the shops.”

Ndlela, who is part of a group of women farmers and farm dwellers called Qina Mbokodo, says the nearest supermarket is in Pietermaritzburg — an hour’s drive away. A taxi there and back costs R160.

The 36-year-old can make the hour-long walk to the next farm over, but she can only get a small selection of vegetables.

“I’ll be dead if the lockdown is extended,” Ndlela says, echoing Molefe’s fears.

“Because right now I am sick and tired of eating potatoes every day. Cabbage. Potato. Cabbage. Potato.”

In a webinar hosted by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies last week, director of the Association For Rural Advancement Laurel Oettle said that local food producers have been shut down precisely when they are needed most.

The Covid-19 pandemic “comes into a highly skewed and constrained environment, with disaster measures to contain its spread locking people down into old apartheid spaces without adequate access to food supplies,” she said.

According to Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), almost 20% of households were food insecure and 6.8-million South Africans experienced hunger.

StatsSA’s 2019 report on food security in the country noted that between 2006 and 2009, in the wake of the global economic crisis, the proportion of people living below the food poverty line rose from 28.4% to 33.5%. Households in the lowest income categories tend to be significantly more affected by economic shocks, like the one triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The lack of access to adequate food has had lasting effects: one in four children are affected by stunting, a sign of chronic malnutrition. According to the 2019 South African Child Gauge report, a quarter of children’s hospital deaths are associated with severe malnutrition and another quarter is linked to moderate acute malnutrition.

The StatsSA report points to the drop in the number of households involved in agriculture between 2011 and 2016 as having a negative impact on people’s access to adequate food.

In her presentation, Oettle added: “The historical and post-apartheid centralisation and consolidation of production, agricultural suppliers and food retailers means that South Africa’s agricultural and food economy is dominated by a small number of corporate conglomerates who squeeze out producers and small suppliers and retailers even in normal times.”

In the first week of the lockdown, many struggled to go out and buy groceries as public transport was limited. Outlining the initial lockdown regulations in March, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said: “We encourage them to walk to the local shops. Where we have to use a taxi, it should be under exceptional circumstances.”

Confusion over the fate of spaza shops and informal food traders made this untenable. The new regulations now clarify that spaza shops and informal fruit and vegetable sellers are allowed to operate, provided they have valid permits.

But, as Oettle pointed out, many community and subsistence farmers still do not know how to obtain the permits they need to tend to their crops and sell their produce.

Luyanda Molefe, who has no relation to Nomvuselelo, is a 19-year-old farmer in eNstupanengi village in Impendle. Her garden, where she grows spinach and other vegetables, is a 10-minute walk from her house.

Because she has not been able to get a permit, she is not able to sell her produce to members of the community, whom she says are “suffering” without access to big supermarkets.

Ncamsile Gwamanda is in a similar predicament.

She and the other members of her all-women co-operative are afraid to make the 10km walk from their homes to their garden because they are weary about being harassed by the authorities in uMshwathi municipality, north of Pietermaritzburg.

“If you are going to the garden, the police will ask you where you are going. They will tell you: ‘You must go back.’ It’s not easy.”

The co-operative sold their produce in the community and supplied the rest to nearby schools. Other shops in the area are closed because they also did not manage to get permits, Gwamanda says.

Last week, a group of civil society organisations, under the banner of the C19 People’s Coalition, wrote to Didiza offering a number of proposals for how the R1.2-billion relief fund should be administered.

These included broadening the eligibility criteria for who can apply to the fund so that household producers can access this relief through existing structures such as stokvels and co-operatives.

The letter also emphasises the critical role smallholder producers like Gwamanda play in the coming months, as the full effects of the economic crisis triggered by the lockdown play out.

“The provision of fresh produce to vulnerable communities is critical both from a nutritional diversity and health perspective, but also to sustain household and smallholder producer livelihoods through this crisis and in the period of economic reconstruction beyond.”

Gwamanda laughs softly when she recounts the daily menu in her nine-person household. She has managed to scrounge some mielie meal and amadumbe and imifino.

She says she knows the other women in the co-operative are struggling. They got together in the first place “because we had nothing”.

“We are missing it a lot,” Gwamanda says about the vegetable garden. “It is part of my life.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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