Why it’s not just poverty but unemployment that matters in South Africa

Posted in: India, Mexico, peer to peer, South Africa

By Guest Blogger Pradeep Baisakh | Programme Coordinator | Wada Na Todo Abhiyan

What is the percentage of families living below poverty line in South Africa? I asked to as many people as I met during my two weeks visit to the country in November 2014. Some answered and some did not. Initially I wondered how come people do not know the poverty figures in their country. The best answer I got from one senior social activist is: how much do you want it to be? I could appreciate!

On the other hand, nearly everyone spoke about the rate of unemployment in South Africa, particularly within the context of hunger, food insecurity, and inequality. In India, also hunger and food insecurity and inequality are major issues.

My perspective on the matter changed due to the interaction with several civil society members and researchers there. In India, we generally link hunger and food insecurity to the poverty figures. It is this percentage of families, which is broadly entitled to get subsidized food from the government under the Public Distribution System (Not withstanding the recent Food Security Act). Therefore, the poverty figure will give you the idea of people food insecure families. It is assumed that the families above poverty line do not live state of food insecurity.

On the other hand, in South Africa the social security mechanism works differently. The elderly and the children are protected under the social security net unlike the ‘family’ approach in India. There, unemployment is a big issue. Many people have absolutely nothing to do. Therefore, the figures of unemployment has a direct impact on their income and consequently on hunger.

The peer-to-peer visit of the participants of civil societies in seven BRICSAM countries (namely, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, India, China, South Africa, and Mexico) has the potential of providing the understanding of hunger and food insecurity and inequality in a cross-cultural and cross-national context.

We met several organizations there. Economic Justice Network (EJN), Right to Know campaign, Africa Monitor, meeting of course with South African Network on Inequality (SANI), the Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of Western Cape, Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII), visit to the Parliament, visit to the villages to see the organic farming so on and so forth. Each bit of interaction and visit was adding our understanding on South Africa and the work of civil society.

I shared our experience of food security and farm security from India. Martina Borghi, who works with El Barzon, a farmers’ organization based in Mexico, shared her perspective as well. The platform of cross learning seemed quite important for the colleagues from these three countries, e.g. South Africa, India and Mexico.


Meeting with Right to Know Campaign

Farm and Food security should be linked:

I was astounded to see the exorbitant food prices in South Africa. I tried to understand how and why it has happened. My discussion ended up the following understanding, which provides us an important learning for India.

“The farm sector in South Africa is taken over by big corporate. The food production, processing, and distribution has been monopolized by some. Small and marginal farmers are almost extinct. People do not produce anymore for self-consumption. This is the general trend. There could be exception. Organic farming is no more visible. GM food and cheap processed food have taken over the market. Mining based development has its own limitations. One of the reasons of rising unemployment is that destruction of small farmers. A large chunk of youth has nothing to do.As a result they just are engagened in criminal activities like snatching etc, narrated the civil society friends in SA. People have access to food, but to the food that is not quite healthy. Therefore, obesity is a major problem there.

On the other hand, in India the food security is linked to the farm security. The farmers’ produces are procured by the government in a pre-determined price and such procured paddy and maize are distributed to poor people through PDS. Despite limitations, it has its won advantages. One, nearly 60% of people are employed in farm sector. Two, as government promises to purchase from the farmers their product, it provides the much needed protection to the farmers. Third, it ensures subsidized food to the people. The food inflation is also tamed (Not withstanding the recent trend).

However, the earlier government and the current government in India are making all effort to dismantle the PDS system and substitute it by cash transfer. It has the potential to take away the protective cover from the farmers making way for complete corporatisation of farm sector. The learning for India from South Africa is: do not destroy the small and marginal farmers. Rather progressively protect them. Otherwise, India will face the same problem as of South Africa. The government’s policies have already started affecting the farmers in India, so much which is witnessed by large scale farm suicides and people leaving the farm sectors and migrating to cities to work in unprotected unorganized sectors.

Meeting with LAMOSA and visit to small scale farms

Meeting with LAMOSA and visit to small scale farms

Visit to meet the South Africa BRICS Sherpa:

There was a meeting of the Civil Society with the BRICS Sherpa Dr Anil Shooklal in Pretoria. It was an exciting meeting, which opened roads on engagement of the Indian CSOs to engage with the ambassadors of other BRICS country. The Sherpa is visiting India in January 2015 and has accepted our invitation to meet the CSOs in India. Hopefully this will help us to engage more with the other BRICS Sherpa and collectively influence the BRICS agenda from a CSOs view point.

Learning from Mexico:

The farm crisis in Mexico was shared to us by Martina. The gravity is no less than in India, which is fast going toward corporatisation of farm sector. Happy to know that there are CSOs working on agri sector (as activists) in Mexico. In India we do not find much such activist CSOs in agri sector though there are research organsiations. We have here farmers’ organization in India which take up their cause. But I think we need El Barzons in India.

I watched a video shared by Martina on the hunger and farm situation in Mexico. Short but brief, the video well narrates the crisis there. Shocked to know that it has 45% people living under poverty, though in India the figure would not be any less.

All in all, the engagement with the colleagues in other BRICSAM countries has opened doors cross –understanding and cross-learning and of course getting engaged in cross-country research and advocacy. We have now proposed Wada Na Todo Abhiyan to be part of the cross national study by SANI: Cross-Country Case Study on the Impact of Multinational Corporations on Food Productivity: The Case of Brazil, China, Mexico and South Africa.



1 Comments for : Why it’s not just poverty but unemployment that matters in South Africa
    • Amalin Patnaik
    • January 21, 2015

    Nice presentation of the learnings in Africa. There has to be geo-specific solutions for the different regions cited and a truly supportive government. Keep up the good work Pradeep!

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