File picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)
File picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Covid-19 in SA: Food security challenges creating a gangster’s paradise

By Reneva Fourie Time of article published May 11, 2020

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The bold and timely decision by the South African government to institute a lockdown to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has placed the country’s response as amongst the best in the world. The lockdown provided invaluable time to enhance capacity in the health sector in preparation for the inevitable increase in demand for medical care, as infection figures continue to rise.

Likewise, the R500 billion Covid-19 financial support package presented to minimise the pandemic’s socio-economic impact and to ensure food security during the lockdown phase illustrates comprehensive disaster management planning.   

It is most unfortunate that, with regards to social services, including herein the aspect of food security, there has been a major mismatch between policy intent and implementation capacity. 

The systemic weaknesses residing in those who were assigned the responsibility to disseminate social services have resulted, not only in poor control and management of such resources, but, more importantly, in thousands of people not being able to access the well-intended support measures timeously, thereby often going hungry.

The failure to get food to the hungry has allowed for the consolidation of a gangster’s paradise. Some gang leaders have initiated Covid-19 ceasefires and prioritised stepping-in and ensuring that the hungry are being fed. Others focused on establishing dominance in the black-market sale of contraband, violently so in some areas, charging exorbitant prices (e.g. cigarettes at R800 a carton).

The constructive contribution of some gang leaders is not a new phenomenon. In the 1980s, for example, there had been instances when gang leaders agreed to truces to contain retaliatory murders; or had prioritised protecting communities and even political activists from the apartheid police. Hence, seeing gangs coming to the fore to fill the gaps left by policy implementation failures is not unexpected. 

In fact, the very endurability of gangs can be attributed to policy implementation failures in respect of apartheid spatial planning, historically; and employment creation, provision of secure housing and recreation facilities, and the empowerment of social support mechanisms, currently.

Gangs are highly organised, with broad networks, abundant resources, and their lines of command and control are clear and rigidly applied. Gang activities are ingratiated into the broader political economy of a given community, and even the country.  

Resources accumulated through illicit manufacturing and trade in drugs, weapons (and now alcohol and cigarettes); violence and corruption contribute to the livelihoods of gangsters and their families; and are also often used to sustain the material needs of the many unemployed in the community. It then becomes implicit, that being integral parts of a community, the need to run soup kitchens, to distribute food parcels, to purchase electricity amongst others become compelling, as gang leaders experience the depth of the suffering. 

But whether our gang-leaders have been transformed into local Pablo Escobars, or have retained their notorious ruthlessness, residents in their territories are trapped. 

Either way, the freedoms of residents in those areas are severely curtailed for their lives and livelihoods are dependent on the mercies and discretions of those who wield the power. 

The devastating ineptitude of those assigned by government to provide social services, particularly during this period of management of Covid-19, has increased the vulnerability of our people to the coercive and provisioner powers of gangs. 

Furthermore, failing to control the illicit economy and allowing predatory economic actors to become primary providers of food security may appease a current need but it undermines long-term safety, security and good governance. It also erodes government legitimacy and threatens access to sources of revenue. 

It is for this reason that a “no tolerance of incompetence” approach within government must be enforced. At a national level, the leadership capacity within the Department of Social Development should be augmented. 

Authority should be usurped from those Provinces that are unable to manage the efficient, timeous distribution of food parcels and transferred fully to capable entities. 

T he endless queueing for hours and the subjection to humiliating bureaucratic processes to demonstrate starvation must end. Everyone should have access to food. 

The food parcels should be delivered weekly to all households in low socio-economic areas, at their places of residence. And those who dare to mismanage the process or steal public funds should be arrested immediately, refused bail and receive strong sentences.  

The effective distribution of food parcels is, in the short-term, important to prevent poverty and hunger from driving people to crime. However, initiatives that allow the untapped energies, talents and skills of those who partake in criminal activities to migrate to legitimate means of earning a living are required. 

The legacy of apartheid, of which the Group Areas Act is but one facet, together with economic exploitation, have created dysfunctional habitats and generational deprivation of having basic, psychological and self-fulfilment needs, attended to. 

While addressing these conditions are within government’s broader development plan, public works programmes together with adequate shelter and a basic universal income should be prioritised interventions. In so doing, the broadening of our communities from the paradises of gangsters to the paradises of all, can begin.

* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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