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Confronting Corporate-Driven Food Systems in the Time of COVID-19: Contradictions and Potential in South Africa’s Civil Society

In PerspectiveWhile governments across southern Africa have been imposing State of Emergency-type COVID-19 regulations, a number of ‘people’s coalitions’ have emerged in several countries, including community structures, trade unions, informal workers’ organizations, civics, social movements, rural groups, and national and provincial NGOs across all social sectors.

In South Africa, the broader food justice movement[1] has been making crucial contributions to the ‘COVID-19 debates’, under the umbrella of the C-19 People’s Coalition (hereinafter referred to as C-19PC), proposing people-centred alternatives to the current corporate-controlled food system that characterizes South Africa[2].

The predominance of large commercial farms alongside landless rural workers, known as the dualist agrarian structure, resulted in the consolidation of the large-farm sector into corporate value chains. The combination of the inherited structure of the economy at the end of the apartheid era with neoliberal economic policies adopted by the post-apartheid governments after 1994 limits the possibility of a more progressive transformation of the economy and society.[3] Agricultural policies and the food sector are thus driven by a neoliberal compass. Today, 67 percent of all agricultural land belongs to ‘white’ commercial farmers in South Africa. The rest consists of ‘black’ communal lands, state land, and other uses.[4]

The inequality in the South African food system has been exposed during the implementation of the lockdown regulations. Since many people’s livelihood activities were made illegal and prohibited—to force the observance of so-called social distancing—the poor, especially those living in townships and villages, were starving. This has triggered public debates about alternatives to the current contradictory and exclusionary corporate model in South Africa. In fact, there is an ongoing global debate about the urgency to adopt food sovereignty to solve food insecurity.

Food sovereignty is the right of people to determine their own food and agricultural systems and their right to produce and consume healthy and culturally appropriate food. Local and national governments, international agencies, and cities are therefore called upon to support the shift “towards a sustainable food system”. The pandemic has made it clear why “we need to stop depending on corporations and big agribusiness for our food”. This is precisely what South Africa civil society is pushing for by engaging with the government through the Food Working Group of the C-19PC.

The C-19 People’s Coalition

Soon after the South African government declared COVID-19 to be a ‘national disaster’ on 15 March 2020, civil society organizations soon realized that the announced ‘national disaster’ would evolve into other stages and that the state could, in the name of fighting COVID-19, intensify its repressive apparatus. A meeting was therefore convened by the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education, an outstanding local organization based in Cape Town. Approximately 100 individuals from 50 organizations across sectors attended the meeting and rapidly the C-19 People’s Coalition was formed[5]. “We needed to get mobilized quickly as civil society to monitor government actions and prevent human rights violations.”[6]

As COVID-19 positive cases increased, the situation in South Africa evolved, and when the national lockdown was announced on 23 March 2020, more than 2,800 soldiers were deployed to assist the police with enforcing the lockdown regulations. In mid-April, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa[7] announced that he had deployed an additional number of 73,180 members of the military to the mission—almost all of the national army. Just after the lockdown came into force, disturbing reports about police firing rubber bullets at people queuing for food outside a supermarket in the city of Johannesburg exposed what civil society had anticipated.

South Africa’s response to the Covid-19 crisis is one that is rooted in social justice and democratic principles, and recognises our duty to prioritise those who are most vulnerable, who face the pandemic with hunger, weakened immune systems and poor access to housing, health care and social safety nets.[8]

The C-19PC currently has 18 thematic and provincial working groups. The working groups organize themselves and take different structures and dynamics. Each working group defines its activities autonomously, within the lines of the coalition’s action plan. The working groups are composed of activists associated with the organizations that endorsed the Coalition’s Action Plan.

One of the remarkable achievements of C-19PC was to influence a government decision regarding social relief grants for the poor. With the help of a relatively small number of professionals, mostly university researchers and economists, this agenda was pushed to the point that when the first 21 days of the national lockdown was extended, the government promised social grants and a R350 (about USD-$15) grant per month for six months for unemployed people. However, apart from being substantially below the poverty line, with the aggravating fact that food prices have been rising during the lockdown, not everyone seems to be receiving the grant.

The Government and the Smallholder Sector

Rural, urban, and peri-urban small-scale farmers contribute tremendously to local food supply but they need support, both in terms of policy and in agricultural inputs. Currently, policies prioritize promotion, support, and funding of the corporate sector. Small-scale farmers receive no funds and are not sufficiently supplied with seeds, irrigation systems, and access to markets.

This shows that the South African government does not recognize the role of civil society and small-scale farmers in negotiations about agriculture and food policies, although there now seem to be windows of opportunity for the food justice movement to influence policy for the benefit of the smallholder sector. The C-19PC Food Working Group managed to hold a few ‘lobbying’ online meetings with the minister of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development.[9] These were intended to influence the inclusion of small-scale farmers, “excluded from the first round of the relief fund, as they didn’t meet most of the requirements”[10] for the government disaster relief fund during the national lockdown. In early April 2020 the government announced a 1.2 billion rand COVID-19 disaster relief fund “for small-scale farmers”. However, there is no policy that looks at the small-scale sector more broadly. It is estimated that there are between two to three million small scale-farmers across South Africa, for whom the government has never properly accounted, since the executive does not seem to know where those small producers are, what they produce, how much land they have access to, and how they distribute their produce.

The Food Working Group has a longer-term proposal on local food systems in which they call for policy support for agroecological farming, localized means of food distribution, alternative markets, and more. The framing of the negotiations the C-19 PC is holding with the government is around “how the C19 pandemic has exposed the failure of the dominant corporate driven food system to respond to the food needs of poor people”.[11]

‘Radicalizing’ Demands

According to C-19PC activists, the COVID pandemic “is an opportunity to push for radical land reform and all other issues that are linked to the food system. [And therefore] this could be an opportunity for us to push for our own agenda (emphasis added)”, said Sithandiwe Yeni, who is based in the Western Cape (Cape Town). Laurel Oettlé, based in KwaZulu-Natal province, said “ [we are] trying to use this moment of crisis not just to respond to immediate needs on the ground but we see this as an opportunity for longer term change in the [food] policy environment”.[12]

According to a submission to amend the COVID-19 Agricultural Disaster Relief procedures and Criteria for Small Farmers which was sent to the Ministry of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development on 17 April 2020, the key demands of the C-19PC Food Working group can be summarized as follows:

(1) to support the development of local agroecological suppliers, particularly of diverse seed, seedlings, bio-fertilizers, and bio-pesticides for crop production. Here, small enterprises supplying to local producer bases could play a key role in this regard; (2) to find ways of stimulating localized markets building on the informal markets; street traders, spaza shops, open air farmers’ markets, and distribution points that already exist; (3) to undertake research to develop a scorecard or indicators of localized food system vulnerability/resilience to target post COVID-19 support, and to re-think the current model of food production and distribution as well as what post COVID-19 agrarian political economies should look like; (4) to support and strengthen local food production along agroecological lines, as well as local distribution systems using existing networks; (5) to discuss what will happen to government support to farmers after COVID-19 given that the relief on offer is a reshaped package that was on the table before COVID-19; (6) use and repurposing of existing infrastructure and resources such as training facilities, extension workers, agri-hubs, and others to support the development and maintenance of localized food economies that can respond to changing requirements in the aftermath of the crisis.

A Complex Civil Society Scene

The ‘Food Working Group’ is perhaps the most diverse group in the C-19PC, both in terms of its geographical reach—it has members in most provinces—and in terms of the sectors it covers. It is composed of five sub-working groups, namely ‘small-scale producers’, ‘informal economy’, monitoring ‘corporate food’, ‘right to food’ and ‘alternative local food systems’.

Looking specifically at the demands targeting food and agrarian policies in the context of the current pandemic crisis, I would argue that the South African civil society food and agrarian justice movement is deeply heterogenous, conflictual, and divergent. The ‘our own agenda’ in Yeni’s speech is an assumption that certain kinds of ideas and values are progressive enough to merit the acceptance of the various segments of civil society, namely small-scale producers, consumers, unemployed people, and the broader working class, even without a socially organized and politically articulated national movement with clearly-discussed proposals for alternatives to agrarian capitalism. This is a weak point with respect to the capacity of civil society to grab some windows of opportunity that now seem to be opening, with regard to influencing government policy, especially when the government seems to have realized that “[food] corporates clearly are not able to address the household food insecurity, because even though there are supermarkets everywhere, people are hungry because they cannot access food”.[13]

The food justice movement is characterized by a diverse and differentiated social base and constituency in terms of class, gender, race, experience, exposure, and opportunity. To be sure, small-scale food producers and poor consumers are not in the forefront of the process of articulating civil society demands to ‘disrupt’ the current food system and regime. Not because they are deliberately excluded but rather because of the structural social and economic conditions in which they live. For instance, since the C-19PC was created, organizing has been done remotely, online. This implies that only those who have access to data, with a computer or smartphone, could engage in discussions and decision-making processes. It is true that the C-19PC provided some data for financially-disadvantaged activists , but the politics of data distribution has been somehow contentious in the coalition.

This observation is not intended at establishing hierarchies between the different sectors and segments of the C-19PC, but rather to question the extent to which the underprivileged and poor sectors of the coalition (or of the Food Working Group) appropriate the discourse and see their visions included in them. However it seems that career-driven NGO activists, urban middle-class activists, and academics occupy a rather privileged space in the C-19PC coalition and, as a matter of fact, in the Food Working Group as well. Moreover, there seem to be strong divisions within the food justice movement in how agrarian and food injustice should be resolved: either to constrain the corporate food regime or to smash it and build an alternative. Other conflicting views and approaches are also a reality in the Food Working Group. For instance, there was never a consensus regarding the food-parcel distribution policy, whereby some argued that the distribution of food vouchers is patronizing while others believed it was something to be celebrated.

Conclusion: Momentum to Build an Emancipatory Food Justice Movement

It does not seem that the food justice movement represents a strong political force, nor achieves enough political recognition compared to its industrial-based labour union counterparts. I would argue that the COVID-19 ‘momentum’ is an opportunity to birth something new. And the necessary ingredients are there: a vast rural and urban excluded and marginalized sector of landless people (or with no support for production); millions of unemployed people in rural and urban sectors; a vast sector of poor consumers who cannot always afford the prices charged in the supermarkets that dominate the marketing of agricultural products; and a dynamic segment of the middle class and intellectual sector who share progressive ideologies, and who can play the intelligentsia role.

There have been failed attempts to create nationwide land and agrarian movements in the past. Perhaps what should be different now is the adoption of a non-NGOized model movement, but one that is based on membership and that exercises internal democracy, such as in the trade unions.

[1] By ‘food justice movement’ I mean the diversity of groups and networks of producers, consumers,

and other activists who challenge corporate control of food production and distribution, aiming for a democratization and decentralization of the food sector, while pushing for localized food systems and the provision of healthy foods.

[2] This article is based on interviews with activists that co-convene different sub-groups of the ‘Food Working Group’ affiliated with the C-19 People’s Coalition, working in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, and the Western Cape provinces in South Africa. It is also based on my first-hand knowledge as an active participant in one of the C-19PC’s working groups, the Regional Solidarity Working Group, representing the Mozambican Civil Society Alliance. My participation in these civil society spaces is part of my commitment as a scholar-activist.

[3] A. Bennie, and A. Satgoor (2018), ‘Deepening the Just Transition Through Food Sovereignty and the Solidarity Economy’, The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp. 293–313; R. Hall, and B. Cousins (2018), ‘Exporting Contradictions: The Expansion of South African Agrarian Capital Within Africa’, Globalizations, vol. 15(1), Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, pp. 12–31.

[4] C. Walker, and A. Dubb (2013), ‘The Distribution of Land in South Africa: An Overview’, PLAAS Fact Check. Cape Town, available at: https://mronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/No120Fact20check20web.pdf .

[5] The coalition has rapidly established provincial structures and working groups on a range of fronts and, as of the end of May (2020), over 310 organizsations had endorsed its Plan of Action (https://c19peoplescoalition.org.za/poa/).

[6] Paula Assubuji, interview, 7 May 2020, Cape Town.

[7] Cyril Ramaphosa is the fourth president of post-apartheid South Africa after Nelson Mandela. He is known for defending the interests of big business, being a wealthy landed man himself. His name was implicated in the death of 34 mineworkers on 16 August 2012. Allegedly under his command, the South African Police Service opened fire on a crowd of striking mineworkers at Marikana, in the North West Province. The police killed 34 mineworkers and left 78 seriously injured (https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/marikana-massacre-16-august-2012).

[8] ‘More About the People’s Coalition’, C19 People’s Coalition, available at: https://c19peoplescoalition.org.za/more-about/.

[9] The reasons for such openness are unclear. This may signal some weakness of the state for wanting to now listen to a sector that it has ignored for long.

[10] Notes from meeting with Minister Didiza, DG, FAO, IFAD, and C19 People’s Coalition Food Working Group, held on 15 May 2020.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Both Yeni and Oettlé are conveners of the ‘Food Working Group’, affiliated to the C-19 People’s Coalition.

[13] Stha Yeni, interview, 23 May 2020, Cape Town.

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