CoE Articles

South Africa’s civil society has role to play in addressing food insecurity

Published May 7, 2019, by Mologadi Makwela

South Africa’s complex food insecurity problems need an injection of civil society action, according to emeritus professor David Sanders.

If government seems determined to depoliticise food security, it will take others to step into the breach. It’s here where South Africa can take a leaf out of civil society’s book.


If South Africa’s widespread and potentially devastating food insecurity challenges are to be tackled in any significant way, it will require concerted interventions not just by government, but also by civil society.

So said Professor David Sanders, emeritus professor at the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), in a presentation – titled Health, nutrition and food security in South Africa in a globalising world: Trends, drivers and challenges – delivered at a seminar hosted on 23 April by the University’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS). Increasingly, food security is being treated as if it’s a technical rather than a political issue, said Sanders, who also serves on the steering committee of the national Centre of Excellence in Food Security, based at UWC and the University of Pretoria.

Increasingly, attention and policies are focused on, especially, agricultural output, rather than on access and quality, he noted.

But the extent, characteristics and consequences of food security in South Africa would suggest that problems around access remain not just dire, but also structural. Life expectancy has increased but is not in keeping with the country’s wealth indicators, with the result that South Africa remains an “outlier” among nations on a similar economic footing.

Most of the leading causes of child under-five mortality in South Africa can be attributed to malnourishment. Close to 27% of South Africa’s children are stunted (ie being too short for their age). Although breastfeeding is strongly associated with improved cognitive development in early childhood, the practice has been eroded over time, with many women preferring to supplement or replace breastfeeding with formula.

Overall, some 26% of South African households experience some measure of food insecurity. At the same time, the rise of childhood obesity in the country can be linked to worrying rates of heart and endocrine diseases such as diabetes, as sugary and packaged foods become increasingly popular among South Africans. In addition, the growing footprint of “big food” has also been implicated in unhealthy eating.

Initial government policies such as 2002’s Integrated Food Security Strategy (IFSS) were bold – if sometimes flawed – attempts to develop a national strategy that could address food security in all its complexities, adopting multi-sectoral, interdepartmental approaches, explained Sanders. But since then, he added, it’s been widely recognised that there’s been a growing tension between rhetoric and practice. This is despite overwhelming evidence that the cause of hunger and malnutrition is not a technical one of shortcomings in agricultural production, but rather that large parts of the population are not able to access nutritious foods available because of historical and structural obstacles.


It’s obvious that food security requires a coordinated response, both immediate and direct, but also a longer-term structural response addressing the underlying structural determinants

Emeritus Professor David Sanders


If government seems determined to depoliticise food security, it will take others to step into the breach. It’s here where South Africa can take a leaf out of civil society’s book, notably the campaigns that forced government to roll out antiretroviral therapy (ART) in the mid-2000s, urged Sanders, who is also a founding and steering committee member of the People’s Health Movement – South Africa.

“Unless we raise awareness around these interlinked causes of food insecurity and develop some kind of social movement, I fear things will only get worse,” he said.

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