Working Papers

Investigating the South African food insecurity paradox: A systematic review of food system governance in South Africa

Published 15 December 2021, by Daniel Adeoluwa Adeniyi, Bruno Losch, Camilla Adelle

Publication: Food Security Working Paper #009

South Africa presents a paradox of a country which is nationally food secure, with a wealth of institutions and targeted food policies, a strong research system and developed social welfare programmes, but where under- and over-nutrition persist. This paradox has major consequences for the people and the economy, and the importance of food and nutrition insecurity has resulted in massive research investment and analyses over the last decades. This was a major incentive for engaging in a systematic literature review with the objectives of providing a synthesis of what is known with regard to food system governance in South Africa, highlighting the main governance challenges, and identifying persistent knowledge gaps.

The review highlights the central role of the national government in food system governance, while provinces are mainly in a position of implementing national policies, with few exceptions, and municipalities do not have any specific mandate related to food issues and lack resources for effective initiatives, with the exception of major metros. Other actors contribute to food system governance, but they are characterised by major asymmetries: in the private sector, a core group of actors holds solid positions in farming, processing and retail, and sideline the multitude of other stakeholders; very diverse civil society organisations, who are significant contributors in the food system, have limited impact due to their fragility.

Surprisingly, due to the major consequences of the food insecurity paradox, past and current research show that a diagnosis exists. It focuses on major food system governance issues which are related to: a priority given to food production and food supply, in spite of a recognition of the cross-sectoral dimension of food security; policy fragmentation between departments and programmes, and weak coordination mechanisms, which results in policy incoherence; and a partial and inadequate stakeholder engagement due to the domination of top-down approaches and a ‘tick-the-box’ type of participation.

Many solutions to these governance challenges have already been identified and proposed. These include the need for a legislative framework to actualise existing rights (and particularly the right to food enshrined in the Constitution), adequate coordination mechanisms with a dedicated agency, better stakeholders’ engagement through a larger role to be given to local governments.

The status quo that currently exists within food system governance, however, leads to questions about the willingness of the state for change and its possible abdication in governing the food system. This abdication is rooted in the characteristics of the post-apartheid South African political economy. The choice to fully deregulate the agri-food sector has resulted in the rising economic power of the private sector, its oligopolisation and financialisation, and a de facto private food system governance. The corporate sector is major determinant of prices and pricing, imposes its own food standards to producers and consumers, influences urban spatial planning and, as such, shapes the food environment, weights on the framing of the problems and the design of solutions, and positions itself as an indispensable partner of policy interventions.

To address this situation of continuing food and nutrition insecurity which contradicts constitutional rights and the objectives of the National Development Plan (NDP), new knowledge and the dissemination of existing knowledge are necessary for an informed public debate and a better food democracy. It relates to an effective investigation of the ‘agri-food complex’, notably corporate share ownership and situations of straddling between private and public spheres. A better understanding of what prevents consumer awareness of the ills of the food system is also critical for an improved civil society engagement.

This improved knowledge has to be supported by an effective institutionalisation of dialogue between stakeholders which must escape top-down practices, foster inclusiveness, transparency and mutual accountability, and strengthen the position of civil society organisations. A better civil society engagement will be facilitated by the adoption of a place-based approach to food system governance which is key for a progressive move towards a polycentric, adaptive, and collaborative governance of the food system.

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