In April (2020) World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley warned that, due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the world is on the brink of a hunger pandemic that could lead to multiple famines within the next few months if immediate action is not taken. Experts fear, the number of people facing acute hunger could double by the end of 2020, especially in Africa. The global economic recession, as a consequence of the pandemic, combined with declining commodity prices and reduced levels of international aid, leaves countries with vast food shortages.
In Southern Africa, the measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 are negatively impacting on the distribution of food. Many countries in the region depend on food imports and suffer from partly closed down borders and rising prices.
But not only the border complications make access to food more difficult. Many prevention regulations prohibit the exercise of economic activities in the informal sector, which are normally guaranteeing food distribution, as are the informal small-scale cross border trade between Mozambique and South Africa, mainly practiced by local women traders.
The crack down on street vendors during lockdown is further negatively impacting on food security. Police forces in the region have demonstrated a worrying level of violence. In Zimbabwe, the police were recently reported beating up and arresting street vendors, confiscating and destroying fresh vegetables of small-scale farmers who were selling at an open market. In Mozambique, a police officer was exposed on social media for slapping a disabled elderly man trying to make his living on the street. And in South Africa disturbing reports about security forces firing rubber bullets at people queuing for food outside a super market in Johannesburg exposed the ugly face of state authority in our region.
So far, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has not been able to articulate a regional response in the fight against COVID-19. The regional giant, South Africa, is the only economy with a corporate sector, big enough to mobilize meaningful contributions to a COVID-19 response; although South Africa civil society organisations have raised concerns as to what cost such donations are made. The country has already received, from different internal and international sources, about 2,02 Billion Rands for its solidarity fund (108 Mio. US-Dollars). Countries like Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe are mainly relying on donor funding in the crisis, and on the good will of the IMF.
In April, Africa’s Ministers of Finance solicited for debt relief from bilateral, multilateral and commercial creditors in order to improve their fiscal position and create the fiscal room required for governments to combat the pandemic. Debt cancellation should be an instrument to consider, in order to help Southern African countries to fight COVID-19. But only with oversight mechanisms that guarantee that these resources are really directed to the health and food sector. Also, a universal basic income grant – financed by industrialized countries of the West to make up for their longstanding colonial debt should be considered.
Where there is no welfare state, community-based solidarity networks have always been the core of African responses to crisis, especially when it comes to distributing food and securing survival. The lockdowns at least partly weaken such safety nets by depriving individuals both of sources of livelihood as well as of opportunities for bonding’ argued recently Elísio Macamo. Instead of repressing people to get by in this complicated situation, the states should support and promote their solidarity actions.
To avoid a hunger pandemic in the region, Southern African states will have to review their approach to local solidarity networks and informal ways of coping with the crisis. They will have to review their budgets and redirect resources from non-priority operations, such as state travels, purchase of vehicles, allowances for government officials, among others, to local food production, especially crops with a short production cycle. And as a long term vision, states will have to broaden their view from food security to food sovereignty, which involves supporting local family farmers and the right of people to determine their own food and agricultural systems as well as their right to produce and consume healthy and culturally appropriate food, as peasants movements like Via Campesina have been demanding for decades. The time for change is now.
Boa Monjane is a Mozambican postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS, UWC) and fellow at the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-strategies of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation