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Hunger and destitution in a post-pandemic world

Opinionista • Paul Hoffman • 18 June 2020

The longer-term problem of 55% (and climbing rapidly) of the population living in poverty is not yet being addressed but ought to be given serious and urgent attention by policymakers, philanthropists and all who are interested in living in peace that is secure.

Try as we might, the effects of the pandemic cannot be wished away. Its healthcare impact is severe; the death toll steadily and ever more rapidly mounts, as do infections. Its duration is predicted to be ever longer, despite the resumption of super-rugby in faraway New Zealand, an isolated and sparsely populated pair of islands. The economic effects of lockdowns everywhere are devastating in terms of job losses and businesses going to the wall or downsizing or reinventing themselves in some or other survival mode involving retrenchments and scaling down of operations.

The UN Secretary General is concerned. He is reported as saying:

“Our food systems are failing, and the Covid-19 pandemic is making things worse,” the UN chief said in a statement accompanying a report by the world body.

“More than 820 million people are hungry,” he said. “Some 144 million children under the age of five are stunted – more than one in five children worldwide.”

He warned that “this year, some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the Covid-19 crisis.

“The number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will rapidly expand,” he said.

“Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults.”

It is estimated by Judge Dennis Davis that the tax loss in 2020 will be R300-billion with GDP in decline by -7%. Others say -14%. His reported suggestions for reform do not address the urgent needs of the hungry, the malnourished and the starving, those whom destitution is touching directly.

Guterres called for better protection for workers in the food sector, for humanitarian aid deliveries to be safeguarded and for support for food producers and distributors to avoid interruptions to the supply chain.

He also wanted more emphasis placed on nutritional programmes, including aid to children who lack access to school meals.

There is little doubt that the ranks of the hungry and destitute will be swelled in Africa and South Africa; it is happening already with ECD facilities still closed and schools only partially opened. These factors limit access to the only proper meal many children receive. Restrictions on informal work opportunities and retrenchments of many formally employed workers have swelled the number of people in SA living in poverty. This enforced idleness is the experience universally in economies in which the informally employed eke out a living in the good times and fall by the wayside as a side-effect of the pandemic when times are tough.

It is estimated by Judge Dennis Davis that the tax loss in 2020 will be R300-billion with GDP in decline by -7%. Others say -14%. His reported suggestions for reform do not address the urgent needs of the hungry, the malnourished and the starving, those whom destitution is touching directly.

Short-term fixes have been put in place by government – UIF payouts, grants and soft loans are all available in the short term. The longer-term problem of 55% (and climbing rapidly) of the population living in poverty is not yet being addressed but ought to be given serious and urgent attention by policymakers, philanthropists and all who are interested in living in peace that is secure.

It has famously been said that all that stands between mankind and anarchy is nine meals. Too many poorer people, the sick, the marginalised, the jobless and those recently prejudiced in their earning capacity by the lockdown government put in place, are facing an uncertain future when it comes to putting food, let alone nine meals, on the table for their families. This truth needs to be spoken to power in the context of constructive lobbying for the best form of redress available.

It is constitutionally and indubitably the obligation of government to supply food and nutrition to those unable to make a plan themselves. This duty flows from the founding value of the Constitution to “ensure accountability and responsiveness” to the needs of the people. The Bill of Rights creates a duty to “respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights” guaranteed to all in the Bill of Rights. These rights include food for adults and basic nutrition for children (whose best interests are regarded as paramount).

At the same time as Prof Glenda Gray is noticing an increase in malnutrition in children, SA is throwing away some 30% of the food that is produced, and continues to be produced in the land.

While the national government is bound by these precepts it is actually pursuing an agenda set by Minister Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma that has nothing to do with them and is, in fact, inconsistent with the principles and values, tenets and duties of the Constitution which does set out the way to that “better life for all”. 

By following through on the obligations set out above “diligently and without delay” (also a constitutionally enshrined obligation) in an ethical manner with effective, efficient and economical public administration in place (as required by section 195 of the Constitution) it ought to be possible to devise a means of feeding the hungry masses during the lockdown, while the pandemic lingers and for the future in the country. Ours is a country, and indeed a world, that will be forever changed by the pandemic. It could be changed for the better if the right steps are taken now at the level of addressing the destitution it and our unfortunate national history have wrought.

At the same time as Prof Glenda Gray is noticing an increase in malnutrition in children, SA is throwing away some 30% of the food that is produced, and continues to be produced in the land.

The wastage is scandalous and should be urgently addressed. It has not gone unnoticed in the past and organisations such as foodforwardsa.org exist to bring together the hungry and the food at a cost of 85 cents per meal. It is estimated that this worthy charity, which operates in some but not all provinces, gets its hands on only 10% of the wasted food. Surely it is not beyond the wit of donors and government to take this operation and others like it to scale so that the waste is reduced and with it the hunger level in the land?

It is debatable whether the successful recycling of the 30% of food currently going to waste will be enough to feed all the hungry mouths. This will depend on the duration of the idleness of those currently unemployed and the degree to which their ranks are swelled by the ravages of the pandemic and the lockdown’s unintended economic consequences.

What is to be done if it is not viable for any reason to scale up the recycling of food sufficiently to eliminate hunger and destitution?

It needs to be noted that while hunger is a component of destitution it is not enough to only address hunger. The dignity of a job, a home, a functioning school, a good clinic and that “better life” would address destitution.

There are lessons to be learned from the Namibian experiment and duties to the swelling ranks of SA’s poor to be fulfilled now. An economic Codesa will come to nought if the nine meals are not served and anarchy visits the land before the conference is called, completed and acted on too.

The notion of a basic income grant has been discussed but never acted on in SA. Its cost and fears of abuse held back the Mbeki administration. In neighbouring Namibia, which has a similar history and very similar current inequalities, a pilot basic income grant scheme was implemented in the small town of Otjivero near Windhoek. A cyber-visit to www.bignam.org is instructive and is recommended to all who are concerned about poverty, inequality, joblessness and hunger in SA.

Whether a basic income grant scheme would be workable in SA is a difficult question to answer, but it is surely one that deserves serious consideration in the spirit of Ubuntu and for the purpose of improving the lot of the poor.

It is not helpful for the responsible minister, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, to indulge in revolutionary class suicidal ideation nor for EFF leader Julius Malema to regard the economy as “white” (it is not) and to suggest to those prepared to follow him that dying with their boots on in the struggle to destroy the mythical “white monopoly capital” is preferable to dying of hunger. In his warped world-view WMC is the soft target to take aim at while the crisis of the pandemic is so straining the system as to make it vulnerable. He has been compared to the hunter in Gucci boots who wants to kill only the white stripes of the zebra with his blunderbuss. The minister, NDZ, should know that a “class suicide” has never taken place and never will. It is just a theoretical rumination of a discredited ideologue.

There are lessons to be learned from the Namibian experiment and duties to the swelling ranks of SA’s poor to be fulfilled now. An economic Codesa will come to nought if the nine meals are not served and anarchy visits the land before the conference is called, completed and acted on too.

Insufficient urgency is being accorded to the problem; it is a growing problem and one that won’t go away any time soon. Not without massive and decisive intervention from those who have the relevant constitutional duties, aided and abetted by the local philanthropists, the WFP and other UN institutions. The urgency of the situation is manifest, the need for decisive action clear and the will to act can be generated. As behoves a good finance minister, Tito Mboweni has let it be known that he constantly ponders the topic of a basic income grant for SA. Strength to his arm: many lives and the prospects of many young children depend on a rapid response to the looming crisis. So does national security.

To those who say the basic income grant is unaffordable: Kindly consider clawing back the proceeds of the looting during the attempt at State Capture, there is an estimated R1.5-trillion waiting to be recovered. DM

Paul Hoffman is a director of Accountability Now.

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