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Impact of Europe’s crisis on Africa: ’Use Tunisian lesson wisely and learn from history’

FILE - Impact of Europe’s crisis on Africa: ’Use Tunisian lesson wisely and learn from history,’ says the writer. In this file photo, Tunisians and supporters hold a Tunisian national flag during a demonstration on Paris streets on January 15, 2011. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP)

FILE - Impact of Europe’s crisis on Africa: ’Use Tunisian lesson wisely and learn from history,’ says the writer. In this file photo, Tunisians and supporters hold a Tunisian national flag during a demonstration on Paris streets on January 15, 2011. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP)

Published Mar 6, 2022

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OPINION: The world described the Tunisian revolution rather poetically as the ‘Jasmine Revolution’. This term was angrily rejected by Tunisian revolutionary forces... If South Africa continues to ignore the growing misery of the poor, change will come, and its birthing will be brutal and bloody, writes Isobel Frye.

The Tunisian Revolution of 2011 was sparked by the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in late 2010. Bouazizi epitomised the frustrations of millions of people caused by poverty and hunger sharpened by high unemployment and inflation, widespread state corruption and a lack of political freedoms.

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In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a tremor is running across Africa that threatens to ignite new revolts and protests caused by fears of increasing food and fuel prices. Here at home, poor South Africans were dealt a blow last week as the Minister of Finance announced below inflation increases for the historically pitiful social grants. Fuel, food prices and electricity increases will deepen the crippling levels of extreme poverty and hunger.

Let us learn from history and put in place, in time, the safety nets that will prevent another social, economic and political free fall.

Globally, the two biggest cost items for poor households are food and transport. These are both directly affected by the war up north.

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Global fuel prices have already rocketed as immediate and medium-term access to Russia’s oil is threatened by the war and talks of imminent sanctions against Russia. Food imports are under immediate threat too. This affects Africa as a continent, but also South Africa directly.

More expensive fuel has seen the cost of private and public transport increase already in South Africa.

Increases in fuel prices have a knock-on effect along the whole consumption chain as raw materials and final products and produce must be transported from point of production to point of retail and consumption, and people need transport to work and school.

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Unlike fuel costs, food is the only household budget item that people can control. An increase in prices leads to a reduction in food consumption by the poor, resulting in increased hunger, malnutrition and physical wasting.

Africa is heavily dependent on imported wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Egypt imports 90% of its wheat from these two countries, and many other countries are also food importers from these countries, although to a lesser scale, including Kenya and South Africa.

Ironically, at the same time as it faces great food insecurity and rising costs for its population, Africa is generating high levels of wealth as the commodities boom continues. Gold is the eternal go-to purchase in the face of political and economic uncertainty, and other metals are being stockpiled with the daily escalation of conflict and the responses by the West.

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Africa’s dependence on the rest of the world for food and fuel demonstrates a vulnerable continent. Against this, it is tragic how little of the extractive profits are benefiting the millions of ordinary people caught in this crisis, the collateral damage.

However, this crisis created way beyond our borders and our control, can be used to catalyse systemic change and growth.

African dependency highlights the need for African countries to focus on embedding the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. Focusing on renewable energy generation will reduce our oil dependency. Beyond the generation of energy, we can also produce our own inputs and products, creating millions of decent jobs.

South Africa and the region also need to produce more food. In 2020, while 21% of South Africans were food constrained, only 17,5% of households were involved in food production for self-consumption. People need access to agrarian inputs but also access to money to support the trade of self-produced goods.

Social grants received real decreases in the 2022/23 national budget allocations last month. Grants make up the primary source of income for just under 30% of households- rising to 45% in the Eastern Cape. While headline inflation was 5,7% in January 2022, for households in the poorest income decile (the poorest 10% of South Africans), inflation was 6,7%. This is largely due to the high inflation for food. Electricity will also increase above inflation, and this will all be exacerbated by the impact of the northern invasion.

South Africa faces another critical period as price increases shrink the already scarce resources of poor households. Successful social security systems built on cash grants across the world have a dual function. Permanent social security systems have an ex -ante stabilising effect on society which also ensures resilience in the face of any crisis. Social security is also used to provide humanitarian relief.

With a regular guaranteed income, South Africans could build up livelihood systems that enable them to save for times of crisis. Most South Africans eke an existence from hand to mouth, unable to save, unable to produce and unable to exchange their surplus, which would rebuild our economy from the bottom up. We need to insure against future turmoil by ensuring access to a universal system of decent social security through a decent universal Basic Income. Change, not charity.

The world described the Tunisian revolution rather poetically as the ‘Jasmine Revolution’. This term was angrily rejected by Tunisian revolutionary forces who said theirs was a regime change by an angry people. If South Africa continues to ignore the growing misery of the poor, change will come, and its birthing will be brutal and bloody. Let us use this lesson wisely.

* Isobel Frye is the Director of the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute.

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

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