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.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, South Africa was experiencing a food crisis but this was deepened and made more visceral by the subsequent lockdown. Low-income households bore the brunt of this economic and social shock: 3 million jobs were lost; two in every five adults reported that their household lost its main source of income; existing government-funded feeding schemes (including the National School Nutrition Programme) closed; and government support, in the form of extended social grants, was slow to be paid out.

These manifestations of lockdown had a grave effect on food security: 47% of adults reported that their household ran out of money to buy food in April 2020 and, while these figures declined in May and June, they were still well above the pre-COVID levels. As the crisis progressed through the winter of 2020, the hope was that government could move from food parcels to providing assistance through grants and then economic recovery in a ‘relief to recovery’ pathway. What transpired, in reality, was something far more unsettling: food insecurity was in danger of being seen as part of the ‘new normal’ as Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) struggled to fill the gap in an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

CSOs are a vital but missing voice in food governance in the Western Cape. The CSO landscape is mainly dominated by CSOs working on meeting acute short-term needs. CSOs must be facilitated and supported to play an active role in food governance that goes beyond delivering emergency food aid to patch up a broken food system. This report recommends approaches to do this.

Centre of Excellence in Food Security · The role of civil society organisations in addressing food insecurity in South Africa

South Africa’s demographic profile is predominantly urban. As a result of our history, South Africa’s food system was largely an urban food system before the country’s demographic shift to being predominantly urban. It is therefore strange, that one of the key public goods, food, is absent from almost all urban planning and wider urban governance practices and strategic thinking.

Central to ensuring equitable developmental opportunities for all is access to safe, affordable and nutritious food. The current urban system does not provide equitable access, with many having to contend with unequal and unjust food system outcomes. Responding to this inequity is a responsibility of the state, particularly local government. Current project-driven responses will never facilitate redress. More robust and strategic actions are required.

Food Sensitive Planning and Urban Design is one area for such action. This paper draws on the work on a general transition to Urban Food Planning proposed by Rositsa Ilieva (Ilieva, 2016). While Ilieva’s work references mostly Northern planning shifts, the conceptual framework used offers both a practical way of seeing the challenge, but in doing so, also informs the structure of this paper. Ilieva suggests that there are four essential practices evident in food system planning. These include conceptual practice, analytical practice, organisational practice and the design practice.


The idea of a food charter has been proposed in several fora by diverse organisations and individuals for several years as one potentially effective tool for addressing food system challenges in South Africa. This working paper undertakes a critical inquiry into what a charter means, historically, both internationally and nationally, the subsequent proliferation of ‘food charters’ in the ‘global north’, South Africa’s special relationship with charters, and finally their connection or lack thereof to the various proposals to undertake a food charter locally. The paper unravels some of the influences as well as presumptions about what a food charter might mean in the South African context and opens a more nuanced conversation about what it might be able to achieve, who might legitimately drive such a process, why ‘food charters’ have been met with (vague) support from progressives on the one hand, and staunch opposition from many in government on the other.

Realising the right to food in South Africa requires more than an increase in food production. Increasing access to food is equally important, so this contribution adopts a ‘food systems approach’. It argues that food security is not just a national and/or provincial government concern but that the Constitution demands of municipalities to contribute to realising the right to food. Against the backdrop of a general introduction into the division of responsibilities between national, provincial and local government, it deploys two arguments to make this assertion. The first is located in the jurisprudence of the South African Constitutional Court on socio-economic rights. The second is located in the division of powers between national, provincial and local government. This contribution explores various linkages between a municipality’s constitutional powers and food security. Specific emphasis is placed on the municipality’s responsibility to regulate trade and markets as well as its responsibility to conduct spatial planning and land use management.

This working paper draws on the proceedings of a ‘National Workshop on School Feeding in South Africa’, convened in November 2017 by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security. Workshop participants engaged with unresolved debates in school feeding, notably its objectives and impacts, which include food security and nutrition, education access and outcomes, intergenerational poverty reduction, employment creation and support to local agriculture. In South Africa, the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) currently provides meals to over 9 million learners. The NSNP has two other pillars – Nutrition Education and Deworming, and Sustainable Food Production – but 96% of the budget goes to school feeding. School food gardens can increase children’s consumption of fruit and vegetables and function as ‘outdoor classrooms’, but less than half of NSNP schools have a food garden. No rigorous impact evaluation of the NSNP has yet been conducted, partly for methodological reasons – notably the challenge of identifying a control group – but a comparison of NSNP with an NGO-run in-school breakfast programme found that adding a second meal led to enhanced positive impacts on learners’ nutritional status, school attendance and learner performance. NGOs and public-private partnerships are making important contributions, either by expanding the coverage of school feeding or by piloting innovative modalities. South Africa can also learn from experiences in other countries, such as Brazil, Lesotho and Namibia, for instance with alternative models such as local procurement and ‘home-grown school feeding’.

It remains a great source of concern that, as richly endowed as the world is, each day millions of people go to sleep hungry and almost 870 million people, particularly in developing countries, are chronically undernourished. Also, every year, 6 million children die, directly or indirectly, from the consequences of undernourishment and malnutrition – that is, 1 child every 5 seconds. The international community at various forums in the last twenty years or so have committed to ending undernourishment in the world. The right to adequate food is guaranteed in a number of international and regional human rights instruments.

Despite these developments, many countries have not lived up to their obligations to realise this right. South Africa and India provide an interesting comparison. On one hand, South Africa has a progressive constitution that explicitly guarantees the right to food, while the Indian Constitution does not recognise the right to food as justiciable right. Yet the Indian courts have developed rich jurisprudence to hold the government accountable for failing to realise the right to food of the people. Indeed the courts have played key roles in ensuring the judicialisation of the right to adequate food in India in the wake of the fact that the Constitution does not expressly set out the right.

This report shows that South Africa can learn from the Indian experience by using litigation as a tool for holding the government accountable to its obligation under international and national laws. Besides litigating the right to food to hold the government accountable, it is noted that chapter 9 institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the Gender Equality Commission and the Public Protector all have important roles to play in holding the government accountable to the realisation of the right to food. This is because these institutions are constitutionally empowered to monitor and report on the measures and steps taken by the government towards the realisation of socioeconomic rights, including the right to food under the Constitution.

The report concludes by noting that civil society groups in South Africa will need to be more active in monitoring steps and measures adopted by the government to realise the right to food. It also notes that, where necessary, litigation can be employed as a useful strategy to hold the government to account for its obligation to realise the right to food.

By Julian May, October 2017

Food security and nutrition are receiving renewed attention in international and national policy agendas. This has been accompanied by a profusion of theoretical concepts borrowed from diverse disciplines and then employed to describe challenges to achieving food security and adequate nutrition. Complex eco-systems, wicked problems and public goods are among these.  In order to make a constructive contribution to policy debate, the underlying political economy of food security is interrogated to understand why food security problems may be indeterminate. This reveals food to be an outcome from a complex problem-determined food eco-system. The problems are ill-defined, the solutions uncertain and food itself is a commodity, predominantly privately produced and purchased. As a result, governments are compelled to take account of competing interests of actors within the food system when considering any intervention. Further, food security includes non-exclusive components such as food safety, social protection and food price stability and the right to food is enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Albeit impure, food security is then a public good requiring public sector action to ensure that it is universal, indivisible and interdependent with other human rights. Achieving this requires that collective action problems be resolved in order to achieve food security and nutrition.

According to most subjective and self-reported indicators, food security in South Africa is improving over time.  However, objectively measured anthropometric indicators record only a marginal improvement in children’s nutrition status since the early 1990s. This is despite the introduction in 1998 and subsequent expansion of the Child Support Grant, which now reaches over 11 million children in South Africa and has been found to increase food consumption and dietary diversity in poor households. How can this paradox be explained? This paper reviews the evidence on food security and child nutrition trends in South Africa and identifies several reasons why nutrition outcomes appear to be lagging behind improvements in other food security indicators.