Seven months of lockdown has left millions of South Africans facing starvation and increasing dependence on social grants at a time when the government is scrambling to avert a financial crisis.
Price increases on stable foods, electricity and cooking oil have left even those South Africans fortunate to have a job with not enough money to see themselves through an average month.
On Wednesday the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity (PMEJD) project launched their expanded Household Affordability Index which now covers four cities and towns across South Africa, including Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Springbok, in the Northern Cape.
It provides is a snapshot of a South Africa deep in an economic and social crisis where the poor are facing the worst of it.
The organisation through the collection of food price data from supermarkets and butcheries in the four centres creates a Household Food Basket for the poor.
Price increases over the lockdown period has left even those fortunate South Africans who have a job with a short fall.
They found that a general worker on a minimum wage of R3653.76 would not afford the Household Food Basket of R3916,72.
“Over the past several months, our incomes have come down, and the cost of goods and services has gone up. Most South African households living on low incomes cannot get through the month on the level of income that comes into the home and cannot afford even the very basic goods and services they need,” said Julie Smith, a researcher at the PMEJD.
To cover this fall many have resorted to borrowing money from money lenders who do so, by offering high interest rates. .
In those several months, South Africa has also experienced dramatic job losses.
“StatsSA’s latest job statistics for quarter two of this year shows that 2,2 million South Africans lost their jobs and in the last quarter the expanded unemployment rate for black South Africans is 46%,” added Smith.
“A large proportion of black South African workers do not earn anything close to that would reasonably resemble a living wage.”
The study found that some of the main foods driving up the costs of the Household Food Basket are maize meal, rice, cake flour, sugar beans, cooking oil and potatoes.
This increase over the lockdown period on the Household Food Basket for Pietermaritzburg was R293,38, or 9,1%.
Also cutting into family incomes is the rising cost of electricity and transportation. The research found that women on average moved between four and five shops while shopping so as to find the cheapest goods.
Women were also more likely to sacrifice and go without, so they can feed their families. The Covid 19 crisis also meant that money had to be spent on hygiene products.
Manakhe Chiya, a data collector for the PMEJD, said that the lockdown had left people frustrated. “And they are angry, and the problem they say is who is going to listen to them,” she said.
With less money the concern is that families are not getting enough nutritious food, which could impact their health. “Our social grants that are so critically important are also so inadequate.,” said Smith.
On Thursday President Cyril Ramaphosa told Parliament that the government would be continuing with the special Covid 19 relief grant of R350 a month, for three more months.
Further research has shown that the special grant, though considered by many to be inadequate, had been important in stopping hunger.
The programme coordinator of the PMEJD Merwyn Abrahams said that a study by the University of Cape Town had found a drop of 27% of those going hungry in the Western Cape, after the introduction of top up grants.
“If the top up grant was taken away, 27% would emerge again in terms of household hunger and food insecurity. And if you take in consideration the R293 increase in the food basket., then over 30% of households will be plunged into household food insecurity,” he explained.
A National Income Dynamics Study-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey conducted by Stellenbosch University had found that 22% of respondents had reported that someone in their household had gone hungry in May and June. This figure dropped to 16%, with child hunger dropping to 11%.
Ultimately the researchers hope that the Household Affordability Index will be an early warning system that will provide insight into how the economy is doing and its impact.