Changing South Africa’s Food Narrative

by Ali Conn, Special Projects Manager

“Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food” — Hippocrates

The arrival of C-19 to South African shores has hit the economy in innumerable ways. One of the most important and prevalent is the sheer number of people that go to bed hungry every night. According to The Citizen (22 April 2021), more than 40% of South Africans are now affected by hunger on a daily basis. But the food crisis is not new; C-19 merely lifted the veil on its truly tragic facade.

This figure becomes an even less comfortable pill to swallow when it’s considered that South Africa actually has a net surplus of food. More than a third of all food produced — more than 10 million tons — goes to waste in the country each year. This begs the questions, why then are South Africans facing such a radical food crisis? And can this crisis be averted? The answer to the former is complicated, and the answer to the latter is — yes!

The Importance of Nutrition

Good nutrition means your body gets all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals it needs to work at its best; without the need for heavy caloric intake and refined sugars to maintain energy throughout the day. A holistic approach to nutrition is important because without it people face the risk of disease (eg diabetes, which is at epidemic proportions in S.A), immune deficiencies, energy spikes, weight issues, learning disabilities and more. Nutrition is key to healthy development, and it’s not found in many of the staples that millions of South Africans rely on, such as maize meal and soft drinks.

In 2019, SA was confronted with an uncomfortable headline, as it quietly claimed the title of “unhealthiest country in the world”. This is according to the Indigo Wellness Index, (IWI) which tracks the health and wellness status of 191 countries globally. The Index takes into account 10 key measures: life expectancy, blood pressure, blood glucose (diabetes risk), obesity, depression, happiness, alcohol use, tobacco use, inactivity (too little exercise), and government spending on healthcare. Looking at these key measures, it’s obvious that most of them (barring alcohol use, tobacco and government spending) are directly food-related problems. More specifically: nutrition-related problems.

One in four children (more than 25%) in SA grows up stunted, meaning that they do not have the adequate nutrients for healthy development and growth. One in eight is overweight. The problem isn’t necessarily that suburban households are eating too much fast food, but instead the figures reflect the dire fact that the majority of our population are still living in poverty, with 49.2% of the population over the age of 18 falling below the upper-bound poverty line (Stats SA Living Conditions Survey 2014). Limited access to affordable, nutritious food often means that a 2l soft drink and loaf of bread and other sugary starches may be the only source of energy on a daily basis.

It’s no wonder South Africa’s standing on the IWI is so dismal; even when compared to fast-food-loving countries like America, where obesity is rife due to more than 36% of adults (Barbecue Lab, 2021) consuming fast food on any given day.

Further aggravating the nutrition debacle is South Africa’s shocking use of glyphosates in agriculture and industry. These chemicals are a non-selective herbicide (affecting a broad spectrum of plants indiscriminately). The presence of glyphosates has been shown to reduce nutritional density in fruits and vegetables. In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the IARC (International Association for Research on Cancer) announced that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Many countries have banned its use, including France, Indiaand Portugal. Currently in South Africa, there is no regulation on how much glyphosate farmers can use on their crops, and nowhere are South Africans informed of how much glyphosate they’re ingesting on a daily basis through their foods. This needs to change.

A Public Predicament

In her book An Empty Plate, agricultural economist Dr Tracy Ledger suggests that “the government’s attempts at addressing the problem of unaffordable food have focused on the wrong elements… For instance, instead of making food more affordable, it has sought to increase people’s incomes to match food prices”. Extraordinarily high food prices and low income is nothing that citizens are able to resolve on their own — legislation is required. An interesting yet worrying fact is that even SA’s farmers are struggling to get by in the current climate. Many are not earning enough to pay their labourers, and in turn the farm labourers are struggling to purchase enough food for their families. As Ledger writes, “farmers cannot afford to pay a decent wage because they get such a low price for their produce, [and] farm workers go hungry because food is so expensive”.

Now you may be asking why the government doesn’t simply lower the food prices? The gist of it is that the government has officially relinquished its right to intervene in the food pricing structures…

Historical Context

Between 1948 and 1994, the apartheid government faced ever-increasing sanctions against its oppressive rule. As such, the country was eventually forced into isolation from the international community. Being cut-off from international trade, the apartheid government focused on ensuring that the country become self-sufficient in its production of food. To ensure scalability and control of the food chain, the agricultural sector was stringently regulated. As writer Rebecca Davis states, “farmers were thus given enormous support, with agricultural prices fixed by the government for decades”. This helped the government keep track of where food prices were too high and needed revision, and where food supply might be out of whack. Farmers were guaranteed a price per item of produce they sold on to retailers, and similarly stores were limited to a maximum mark-up on this produce. Nowadays, there’s no accountability on this front and it’s a free-for-all in pricing structures, as corporations call the shots.

“When the ANC came into power, however, government went to the opposite extreme to implement a pre-formulated policy of deregulating agricultural markets,”, states Davis. Now, this might have made sense at the time, as deregulation is used to stimulate economic activity as it eliminates restrictions for new businesses to enter the market, which increases competition and innovation. Market deregulation was implemented by the ANC government to kick start sectors for international trade; a move deemed essential due to years of stagnation under the apartheid government. There were downsides, according to Davis who writes, “deregulation had many negative consequences: increasing imports, lowering profitability and making it more difficult for small emerging farmers to enter the market. Without the old agricultural boards setting retail margins and carrying out regular inspections, the price of basic foodstuffs began to rise, in tandem with a drop in health and safety standards.”

In 1996, in line with its plan for deregulation, the ANC government ratified the 1996 Marketing of Agricultural Products Act which essentially “made it clear that government intervention in agricultural markets would become almost impossible”, Tracy Ledger notes.

As Davis notes, “it’s estimated that 97% of formal retail food sales in South Africa go through the so-called Big Four of supermarkets”. So, without regulated retail margins or controlled producer prices, the government has allowed retailers to compete only between each other, thereby granting them the authority to price foods to their will — and the government can do nothing about it… for now. As a nation, we need to adopt a more humanised approach to our food system. Enough, nutritious food is a basic human right in South Africa, never forget that.

Systemic Change Is Inevitable

South African culture might offer an answer… Our society isn’t commercially saturated with highly processed foods, and whilst retailers might call the shots on food prices — consumers ultimately call the shots in terms of what they want to eat (price-dependent). If South Africa is to effect the change that it needs, its citizens must drive this change, with help and support from government. Efforts to provide real equality in access to enough, affordable, nutritious food will not be brought about by government intervention alone. South Africans must initiate it from a grassroots level too. A few ways you can do this are:

  • Reduce food waste. Through working with organisations such as SA Harvest, we can reduce good, edible food from being thrown to landfill. More than one third of all the food we produce is currently thrown away but, through partnering with organisations working to change the narrative, we can go a long way to solving the problem. In a little over a year, SA Harvest has delivered more than 5million meals, primarily made up of perfectly edible food which would have otherwise landed in landfills, due to petty retail standards and many other reasons. We don’t need to produce more food, we only need to be better at utilising what we already have available.
  • Small-scale farming isn’t the solution, but it’s a start. Since the start of C-19, sales of farm boxes have exploded! Local farm-to-fork concepts are just a web address away. However, one must be cognisant of the fact that whilst these underprivileged farming communities need the income to survive — they need nutrition in their diets too. Many small scale farmers sell their fresh produce to urban spaces, and then head over to the local retailers to purchase less nutritious foods than they can produce themselves, simply because it’s cheaper to do so. Be careful not to take from the poor to give to the rich…
  • Policy change is essential. Lobbying for effective government intervention for food justice should be a significant, collaborative movement in South Africa. . Section 27(1)b of the Bill of Human Rights states plainly that: “Everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water”. This is not enough — it doesn’t speak to frequency, levels of nutrition, or anything of substance. Regardless of all this — it’s only words on paper until something is done and the right is fulfilled in reality.
  • Education. Educate yourself on the issues that South Africa faces, particularly in the food space. Promote organisations which are already working to change things — they might be better positioned to focus on key issues at hand. One of the most valuable resources on the topic of the food situation in South Africa is Tracy Ledger’s book, “An Empty Plate”. People interested in learning more about statistics in the food space can also visit Statistics South Africa and The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA). Otherwise keep up to date via the news and through reputable organisations such as SA Harvest.


According to the World Health Organisation, “people with adequate nutrition are more productive and can create opportunities to gradually break the cycles of poverty and hunger”. If we as South Africans are to develop as a country and as individuals, we need to focus on the dire food and nutrition problems that we face.

The largest terrestrial organism on the planet is a fungus called Armillaria solidipes, or honey fungus. These fungi grow in individual networks above and below ground, all connected by what’s known as a mycelium network. Our food system is like a mycelium network. It’s complex. It’s delicate. And tackling a single issue within the system won’t fix it all. But cooperation through communication is a great place to start. In working with organisations like SA Harvest, we can ensure transparency through data, reduce overlap in supplied aid, and open up the conversation to a wider audience. And ultimately ensure that all South Africans have access to enough, affordable, nutritious food on a daily basis. It’s our right!

Author: Ali Conn

Ali Conn grew up in Zimbabwe, lived in Mozambique, was educated in Limpopo and started his first social giving campaign at the age of 13! He has worked in kitchens, dive centers, on yachts and lived in Thailand all before acquiring his BSC in Psychology. Since graduating he has gone on to work in various capacities with some shows no one ever heard of like Survivor SA, X Factor UK, Britain’s Got Talent and Top Gear and even toured with a little known band called “The Rolling Stones.”

He lived and worked in Qatar for three years working with their leading production house, producing documentaries for Qatar’s national channel. After he returned to South Africa, he started his own food rescue project “Upcycle Project” and worked for the three years prior to joining SA Harvest as a director at a Cape Town company where he produced digital content campaigns for brands like Red Bull, Puma, Big Concerts, Afropunk & Woolworths. He now looks after Special Projects for SA Harvest.

SA Harvest is a leading food rescue and advocacy organisation on a mission to end hunger

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