By Nduduzo Majozi
Small-scale farmers, food processors and traders in KwaZulu-Natal recently came together to plan how they could recover from the double crisis of Covid-19 and an insurgency which swept across the province in July during a wave of mass looting.
Already reeling from the impacts of Covid-19 and the government’s response to the pandemic, which favoured large-scale farmers and big food processors and retailers, small-scale food-system actors received a second blow in July when unrest broke out across KwaZulu-Natal.
The looting of supermarkets and other stores prevented local farmers from obtaining essential supplies, such as animal feed. In addition, market access shrank as stock farmers found themselves unable to sell animals for ritual slaughter after traditional rites and ceremonies were cancelled or postponed during the unrest.
As James Vilakazi*, a local small-scale farmer, noted: “Winter is a bad month for grazing and since the grass is dry, we rely on purchasing feed from supermarkets. But the white owners of the few shops that were not looted refused to let us buy in their shops, saying that we (blacks) are the ones responsible for the looting in the first place.”
Such stigmatization, it was noted at the meeting, took place within the context of decades of prejudice against small-scale black farmers, which has seen them excluded from policy and legal processes and which has been leveraged to justify confiscating their means of production.
Meanwhile, the food system has remained dominated by a few large commercial players, as the Competition Commission reported last year. Indeed, under Covid-19, official responses actually entrenched this dominance.
In response, the participants at the meeting, which was held in uMgungundlovu district in Pietermaritzburg on 27 September, issued a call to “go local”, that is, for action to foster greater resilience in the food system by increasing local control over it. Under such a system, which would help to create jobs and sustain livelihoods, consumers would increasingly eat food produced quite close to their dining tables.
Meanwhile, after more than 18 months under Covid-19 and in the wake of the insurgency in July, the participants at the uMgungundlovu Food-Systems Dialogue which included small-scale farmers, informal food traders, food processors, former farm workers, fresh-produce wholesalers, civil society activists, researchers, and a local ward councillor, described the coping strategies that they had adopted to survive the dual crisis.
They described how they had launched a local marketing campaign, using handwritten posters made from old cardboard, in an effort to drum up business; and how they had leveraged local community networks, such as that of the Shembe Church, to distribute their produce locally when hawking on the streets was prohibited under the national government’s Covid-19 lockdown regulations.
In relation to production, participants at the meeting described how they had managed to “dry farm”, producing crops without or with only limited irrigation, and mulching by using material covers to conserve soil moisture. Others described how they had changed to organic farming, using compost from animal waste, after they were unable to access fertiliser inputs under Covid-19 and during the July unrest.
The participants at the meeting further noted the importance of the financial support that they had received from the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA) and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the area.
In response to the recent crises, the meeting highlighted the importance of forging and adopting recovery strategies to enhance the resilience of local food systems. As Siboniso Ngcobo* noted: “The state does not have solutions, we need to come up with solutions and propose them.”
In this regard, the participants called on the government to support their efforts to implement forms of farming that addressed the extremely cold conditions that they experienced in winter – for example, through the use of farming tunnels.
In this regard, meeting participants noted that appropriate official support could help them to diversify and make their farming practices more resilient.
The small-scale, informal producers also said that they needed their local municipality to provide a reliable, uninterrupted water-supply so that they could expand their operations and compete more effectively within the food system.
For example, Lindiwe Mofokeng,* a farmer from Ozwathini, said: “We do not have water; how can we be expected to perform like white established farmers? We do not get the necessary support. We do not have enough land; we are not getting support from the government.”
In this regard, the farmers at the meeting expressed their outrage at the slow pace of current land reform efforts and called for faster redistribution, in particular to address the demand for locally produced food which had become evident during the recent crises but which the small-scale farmers had been unable to meet from their relatively small plots.
Participants at the meeting also expressed concern about the great use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and agrochemicals in farming, which were seen as risking the health of consumers.
*Not their real names
Nduduzo Majozi is a PhD candidate at PLAAS.
This blog has been produced with the support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) which has funded a three-country study in Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa on “The impacts of Covid-19 responses on the political economy of African food systems”.
The research that informed this article is part of the African food systems and Covid-19 project supported by the IDRC. To learn more about this project, visit its page here: https://www.plaas.org.za/african-food-systems-and-covid-19/