Editorial: Food wars begin

We saw it this week: footage on TV and social media of Soweto residents looting foreign-owned spaza shops. It was ostensibly a protest against the proliferation of fake and expired foods that many, including the national health department, have accused these shops of selling.

But why then did the looters emerge from those stores with trolleys and bags full of goods that probably included the fake and expired foods they accuse these shop owners of selling?

A possible answer to this question is a phenomenon City Press has been reporting on for months: hunger.

Earlier this year poverty research organisation Pietermaritzburg Justice and Dignity Group warned it was only a matter of time before the poor and hungry revolted against the high cost of food.

Then, in July, the organisation’s lead researcher Julie Smith told City Press that price increases occasioned by the recent 1 percentage point increase in VAT meant the poor “buy less protein-rich foods, which are important for children, as they prioritise cheaper staple foods, such as mealiemeal, sugar and flour”.

Crucially, Smith said protests – including service delivery strikes – needed to be viewed as a complaint that people were not able to afford food. “These protests are not articulated that way because it is a huge shame and embarrassment that one cannot put food on the table,” Smith said.

Two weeks ago the organisation’s research found that poor families have been cutting down on buying proper nutritious food by as much as 26% and need another R1 062.38 a month to be able to afford it.

(The situation has been exacerbated by the VAT increase which Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane told the SA Revenue Service inquiry this week would not have happened if suspended commissioner Tom Moyane and his staff had done their jobs.)

The poor and the hungry are soft targets for unscrupulous manufacturers who think nothing about falsifying trusted brands and potentially poisoning the public. It must take an extra-callous criminal to fake a product like baby formula.

The first casualties of food insecurity are children, who suffer physical stunting from sustained malnutrition, perform poorly at school, and often pay a permanent price with their cognitive abilities and potential. We are losing an entire generation of children to hunger. And that is something this country can scarcely afford.