There is no legislation on the right to food. Which means there’s no specific duties that fall on local government to take on the mandate of food security.
It’s something of an understatement to say that the coronavirus has caught governments of all sizes, and at all levels, off guard.
Ashley Haywood can testify to that. A few years ago, Haywood, a student at the School of Government at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), was conducting research in the Witzenberg Municipality, now a hotspot of COVID-19 infections, on the role of local government in improving food security among poorer communities there. As part of his fieldwork, he had brought together local ‘experts’, including government officials, small-business owners, clinic nurses and community activists, all familiar with some of the most pressing concerns in their communities. The aim was to get the participants to think of possible futures for their region and towns, and how that would shape the future of their food system.
Not once did a wide-spread and far-reaching pandemic come to mind, recalls Haywood, whose PhD studies have been delayed because of the nation-wide lockdown. “We didn’t even think of a situation like COVID-19,” says Haywood. “At the time, the perceptions towards negative scenarios was unthinkable or too far-fetched, like, Armageddon kind of stuff.”
But while it’s no apocalypse just yet, COVID-19 and governments’ responses have nonetheless cast a harsh spotlight on the depth of food insecurity in the country, and our capacity to mitigate it in times of crisis . According to a 2019 report by Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), some 6.8 million South Africans were already experiencing some level of hunger and food insecurity in 2017.
One reason for this is that government has framed food insecurity largely as a matter of food production. With that in mind, the focus has been on safeguarding and developing agriculture, making it a function of national and provincial governments.
But there’s also growing consensus that food insecurity in South Africa is about access [to], and the affordability of food. This is no less true during lockdown, especially as food insecurity is likely to escalate as many have lost their jobs and livelihoods, the cost of food increases due to inefficiencies and wastage along food supply chains; and opportunities for dietary diversity are reduced. Food, however, has remained in sufficient supply, at least for the moment. “Commercial and subsistence farmers have largely had success in bringing in harvests, with enough local crops available, such as maize, to avert a major supply crisis in the short term,” Professor Julian May, director of the Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS) at UWC, said recently.
But if food insecurity is also about access and utilisation, local government is as much a part of the solution as national and provincial government, Professor Jaap de Visser of the Dullah Omar Institute at UWC and the CoE-FS has insisted. By virtue of its Constitutional mandate – such as the direct regulation of informal food traders – local government has a huge hand in controlling and enabling access to food, De Visser has argued. Local government also determines how land is utilised by large retailers. “There are many points where local government powers intersect with what is required to realise the right of access to food,” he has written.
But there is a strong sense that local government has by and large taken a hands-off approach to food insecurity. Instead, they have chosen to defer responsibility to national and provincial governments, and placed the enforcement of lockdown regulations in the hands of the national police services, including those affecting access to food.
They’ve done so in part because the right to food, while enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, has not been legislated in the same way that right to housing or water and sanitation have been for instance, explains Dr Shehaam Johnstone, who recently obtained her PhD under the supervision of De Visser. “So essentially local government is saying, hold on, there’s no legislation on the right to food,” says Johnstone. “Which means there’s no specific duties that fall on us, and as there’s no funding that comes with these responsibilities, so how can you expect us to take on the mandate of food security.”
But that may mean that an opportunity is lost, a factor that highlights the importance of a place-based approach to managing the impact of COVID-19. “Local government is best placed to tackle food security because they are right at the coalface of the issue in communities, and ward councillors and the like have a better understanding of where and what the needs of their communities are,” says Haywood, whose work was supported by the CoE-FS.
That is no less true in times of national disaster – as in the case of the COVID-19 lockdown – as it is in ‘normal’ times, says De Visser. And the fact that the lockdown is a national government prerogative in no way diminishes local government’s constitutional leverage and powers, he points out. “There are greater limitations, but it’s not as if all bets are off,” he notes.
National government has, for example, during the lockdown delegated the distribution of food parcels to communities in need. It has even committed funding to assist in the provisioning of food. “So you see a sort of shifting of the mandate,” says De Visser. “Where initially we didn’t really see local government as primarily responsible for food provisioning, now that has changed somewhat in response to the realities on the ground.”
Says Johnstone: “Local government’s capacity to improve food security is underestimated, even by local government itself.” It remains to be seen if the lessons of the lockdown make their way its way into the government rule book in a post-COVID world.