by Desiré Goliath
South Africa has the highest Gini co-efficient in the world, according to most recent World Bank statistics, and remains the most unequal country.
The Gini co-efficient measures the distribution of income across a population, as a gauge of economic inequality, measuring income distribution or, less commonly, wealth distribution among a population.
Inequality in South Africa has increased in recent years and the Covid pandemic has exacerbated a dire situation.
Since the hard lockdown in March last year, the unemployment rate has catapulted. It stands at an alarming 32.5%, according to Statistics SA’s latest data. It is probable that the real rate is considerably higher, leaving at least a third of South Africans, and their dependants, with a heavy burden to meet even their very basic needs.
Even those lucky enough to have retained their income do not necessarily fare much better when it comes to feeding themselves or their families. Since March 1 this year, the National Minimum Wage (NMW) stands at R21.69 an hour – a monthly total of R3 470.40.
While the NMW is legislated by the National Department of Employment and Labour, and the policy framework of the NMW Act of 2018 dictates that no employee should be paid below that level, the reality is often different. Several, less formal sectors are falling outside the legislation. In addition, minimum wage earners often do not enjoy full-time employment.
Simultaneously, January 2021’s Household Affordability Index indicates that basic food items, such as bread, sugar, beans, rice and flour have seen alarming price hikes, between 31% and 68%. The latest data puts the price of an average South African food basket of basic food items at R4 051.20, significantly higher than the NMW.
This paints a bleak picture. With more than a third of South Africans unemployed and about 60% of those employed earning around the minimum wage level, the gravity of the food crisis becomes brutally evident.
According to Statistics SA, approximately 55.5% of the population live in poverty at the national upper poverty line, regarded as R992, while 25% experience food poverty, pegged at R585. The government’s Child Support Grant of R450 is lower than this figure, while its Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant amounts to an even lower R350.
From the above data, it is clear that more than half South Africa’s population cannot adequately meet their most fundamental, basic needs, meaning that they will always be at a significant disadvantage when it comes to fulfilling higher-evel needs, such as education, health and employment.
Early into the national lockdown last year, it became obvious that a potential greater threat than the pandemic, was a looming hunger crisis. On the back of a buckled economy and vast economic disparity, South Africa had a mammoth task on its hands.
To mark World Hunger Day last year, Community Chest published Challenging False Narratives in a Global Crisis: Reflections on Human Rights, Inequality and Securing Food Systems, in partnership with the Southern Africa Food Lab.
The publication reflected the impact of Covid-19 on hunger and food security. Academic, business and community experts from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and the US contributed their research and expertise, as they focused on human rights, equality and securing food systems.
The contributions offered fresh insights and recommendations to address food accessibility and affordability in both urban and rural vulnerable communities.
While finding solutions to the complex challenges of structural inequalities and fault lines in our country were longer-term missions, there was an urgent need to respond immediately to the hunger crisis.
Community Chest expanded its mandate into immediate food and humanitarian relief action. We harnessed existing and new donor connections and partnerships and facilitated meeting community needs via our extensive and trusted community networks, ranging from local government, religious bodies, community NGOs, established charities and key civil society role players.
The crisis intervention has subsequently evolved into a fully-fledged Community Chest Food Relief Programme, with the dual purpose of serving immediate nutritional needs, while focusing on longer-term sustainability and access to greater food security.
Four elements constitute the programme. Food Hubs support feeding schemes and community-based soup kitchens. Food Vouchers allow beneficiaries to select food items at their retailer according to their personal needs. Dignity Shops provide people the chance to shop and only pay what they can afford. The Donations Drive-Thru is a fund-raising event to collect food and humanitarian aid for communities in need.
In addition, Community Chest collaborates with donor partners to bring sustainable food gardens to schools and communities, thereby ensuring greater agency in creating solutions.
A just, fair, more equitable and inclusive food system is critical to the future of our population and the prosperity of our country. Sustained access to good, healthy nutrition is a fundamental human right that needs to be honoured and implemented with all stakeholder hands on deck.
* Desiré Goliath is a humanitarian, social justice activist and public relations and communications manager at Community Chest.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.