Durban - THE province of KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa at large could be on the brink of experiencing food riots with the alarming rise in the price of staple items.
The latest food basket data released by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group (PMBEJD) this week showed a notable increase in the prices of essentials such as flour, cooking oil and other important items.
This comes as June fuel price increases kicked in yesterday. Despite the extension of the reduction of the General Fuel Levy of R1.50, the price of different grades of petrol (93 and 95 unleaded) increased by R2.43 a litre and R2.33 a litre respectively, and all grades of diesel increased by between R1.07 and R1.10 a litre.
The advocacy group and an economist have said the Russia/Ukraine conflict had a massive impact on food prices, and called on the South African government to get its house in order.
PMBEJD programme co-ordinator Mervyn Abrahams said that while there was no tangible evidence of what sparked the riots last July, there were increasing levels of frustration owing to rising living costs, including food.
“There is a direct correlation between household food security and societal stability, and with increasing household food insecurity the risk of social instability has increased significantly,” Abrahams told The Mercury.
He added that long supply lines made South Africans vulnerable to food insecurity at both global and local levels.
“Covid-19 and now the Russia/ Ukraine conflict (pandemics and geopolitical tensions, both potential features of our future), including local climatic disasters (recent flooding in KZN) and social unrest (July 2021 and daily protests) that disrupt logistics and production, suggest we need to seriously re-think our levels of exposure to global commodity price movements and speculation, and in the long run food supply chains that impact negatively on household food security,” Abrahams said.
He stressed that the country needed to build national capacity and reserves as an immediate and long-term mitigation strategy, including investing more in local agricultural input capacity, and for small-scale farmers to produce food closer to where it was consumed.
Abrahams said core foods were bought first as they ensured that families did not go hungry while ensuring that meals could be cooked. The advocacy group noted that when the price of core foods increased, there was less money to secure other important mostly nutritionally rich foods, which were essential for health and well-being.
“The data shows that the core foods contribute 54% of the total cost of the Household Food Basket. At an average cost of R2 478.42 in May 2022, these foods are relatively very expensive in relation to the total money available in the household purse to secure food.
“The high cost of core staple foods results in a lot of proper nutritious food being removed off family plates. This has a negative impact on overall household health and well-being, and child development,” he said.
The data initially looked at food prices in Pietermaritzburg, but has over the years included major cities like Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg.
In May 2022, the average cost of the Household Food Basket was R4 609.89. It increased by R66.96 from R4 542.93 in April 2022. In a year-on-year comparison, the cost increased by R472.78 (11.4%), from R4 137.11 in May 2021.
Political economist Professor Irrshad Kaseeram of the University of Zululand, said while the Russia-Ukraine war had a devastating impact on food supply, it provided an opportune moment for South Africa to be more self-sufficient.
“We need to develop intra-country partnerships and make use of vast hectares of land to our benefit in the country and our neighbours, so that problems in Europe do not affect us,” said the academic.
Kaseeram noted that when South Africa was isolated because of apartheid, the country had been forced to develop its capacity in many areas, including agriculture.
“The previous government identified strategic areas that would sustain it, and invested in them, thereby building sufficient capacity. That is how the current government should look at addressing the current climate,” Kaseeram said.
He emphasised the importance of the country getting its house in order, highlighting good governance, financing and planning as key areas that the government needed to focus on.
Commenting on the impact of fuel prices on the price of food, AgriSA said a targeted intervention to increase the diesel rebate to the agricultural sector would help to buffer the cost pressures that affect food prices.
“The consequences of rising fuel prices have already been acutely felt in the agricultural sector, where fuel is one of several input costs that have been rising sharply, placing significant pressure on a number of agricultural commodity sectors. And while farmers have little control over food prices beyond the farm gate, increasing input prices have already been felt by consumers who are facing the result of these cost pressures, with higher food prices, at the till.”