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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Let them eat cake: hunger and food riots in South Africa

Economists and social activists have said South Africans should condemn the government’s “let them eat cake” policy that does not allocate a cent to address the devastating economic impact of the over the top lockdown.

Adding that the insane austerity policy that will withdraw R265 billion from economy in the medium-term [three years] and in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, is the reason behind the rioting and social unrest the country saw over the last week.

Isobel Frye, director of The Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII) – an independent not-for-profit research think tank which focuses on generating new knowledge, information and analysis in the field of poverty and inequality studies – said: “People are rioting because they are hungry, they are completely despondent and they have nothing to lose.”

“We cannot criminalise people who are hungry.

READ: South Africa’s youth unemployment crisis – a ticking time bomb

“The most vulnerable working-age adults are not formally employed, and are at the greatest risk of hardship during the lockdown especially those who are now sitting at home on ‘no work no pay’,” said Frye.

Adding that some people have lost jobs again when Level 4 started, “and with the R350 Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRD) no longer available, they have no alternative but to go to soup kitchens”.

The jailing of former president Jacob Zuma is believed to have sparked the rampant looting and violent scenes that have played out in the past few days.

Zuma was arrested without trial after being found in contempt of court. The former president is sentenced to 15 months in prison for his repeated refusal to participate in the Zondo Commission’s proceedings.

President Cyril Ramaphosa labelled what followed as an “insurrection,” with protests led by the former president’s supporters spiralling into full-blown riots in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces.

In response to on-going social tensions, three leading social justice organisations coordinated an urgent meeting last Friday to forge a multi-pronged national demand for the unconditional commitment to a universal basic income grant (BIG) in South Africa of R1268 per person per month to be introduced within 12 months with the immediate reintroduction of the R350 Special Covid Grant and the R500 monthly Caregivers grant.

READ: Youth unemployment: A catastrophe

Frye asked: “At what point does inequality pose a threat to stability, and will this crisis prompt the government to ensure that poverty is addressed as a matter of urgency? Will we ever achieve a decent standard of living in South Africa?”

The termination of the R350 Social Relief of Distress grant in April, together with ongoing job losses, has resulted in scores of people relying on local soup kitchens for their only meal of the day.

Duma Gqubule, economist and founding director at the Centre for Economic Development and Transformation said “why are we surprised”.

“We have unemployment of 74.7% for youth, 47.9% for Black Africans, 51.5% for Black African women and 50% in Limpopo and Eastern Cape. Then government cuts R36 billion from social grants, ends the Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRD) of R350 a month and implements an over the top lockdown without humanitarian support,” said Gqubule.

Gqubule said if you ignore the politics and look at The Presidency through an economic lens it has been a disaster.

READ: Ramaphosa has no plausible strategy for reducing youth unemployment

“The part I do not understand is that there is no plan to get us out of the crisis. Does the president really think a security response plus austerity can get us out of this crisis?

“Let us not let President get away with his idea of dehumanising food parcels. Only way out of the crisis is basic income grant,” said Gqubule.

Adding that an SRD grant must start in August at food poverty line of R585. Then BIG must start next year.

He said this net cost after all taxes it will generate will be R90 billion.

“Government has wrongly decided that this is only a security crisis.

“But the National Treasury has cut R39 billion from police budget over three years. It will retrench 18000 cops. It has cut R15 billion from the defence budget. The president must address the political and economic grievances and not waste our time,” he said.

Frye said the rule of law is not an intangible principle against this backdrop.

The rule of law must put bread on people’s tables, and be used to provide warmth, security and well-being, she said.

“The rule of law cannot be exclusively  about protecting people’s vested property. In this most unequal of countries the law needs to champion the fair distribution of the wealth in South Africa,” she added.

She said it is against this backdrop of continuing national unrest and the Covid-19 pandemic that the coalition of civil society organisations [about 40] will seek to draw attention to the plight of the 13 million people living in deepening starvation in South Africa, three million of whom are children.

Inequality and joblessness have turned South Africa into a pressure cooker

Analysts have also warned about the toxic, corrosive impact that economic inequality has on a country’s politics and society at large. “Over the long run, inequality has created a vicious circle,” said University of Oxford professor Diego Sánchez-Ancochea.

“Large income gaps between the poor and the wealthy have been one of the drivers of violence, one of the reasons that Latin America is the region with the highest homicide rate in the world.

“The violence is concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, creating anxiety and personal insecurity and discouraging inward investment, which might create jobs and improve services,” said Sánchez-Ancochea.

READ: Youth unemployment: Is the solution a change in mindset?

According to Statistics South Africa, unemployment – especially for the 18-to-25 age bracket – was already high before the pandemic, which is now hitting South Africa with a third wave.

Youth unemployment is at a record 74.7%, according to government statistics. Hunger has risen sharply. And now businesses that employed and fed thousands of people have been ransacked or burned.

Except for a heavily protected mall, few businesses in one of Johannesburg’s oldest townships, Alexandra, were spared. Even Lillian Dassie’s preschool was looted.

“No other African country has been hit nearly as hard,” said Gqubule.

Adding that he does not understand South Africa’s media obsession with Jacob Zuma.

“It is a diversion from the unfolding public health, humanitarian and economic crises and a government that is clueless on how to address them.

“With these numbers lockdown might last for two months with devastating impact for millions,” said Gqubule.

The killings, as well as the widespread destruction of small, uninsured businesses in townships, underscores the bitter irony of this wave of violence born of anger at inequality.

Most of its victims are the poor and dispossessed.

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