South Africa’s already extreme inequality, along racialised axes of income, wealth, and opportunity, has been exacerbated by the global pandemic. The precariousness of many people’s livelihoods, and the food insecurity that is a key marker of that vulnerability, have been brought into sharp relief.
As Tessa Dooms of Global Governance Futures observes, South Africa’s five-stage lockdown was delivered in ways suited to “middle-class suburbia.” Measures appropriate in well-resourced communities are neither feasible nor humane in informal settlements and poor rural communities. Now more than ever, she argues, the state needs to make targeted practical interventions that address the country’s severe inequalities.
South Africa’s strictest lockdown measures (Level 5) were in place from late March to early May; having “flattened the curve,” the country moved to Level 4 (still sharp restrictions) through May and Level 3 in June. The country is now at Level 1 “alert,” while remaining in the top 15 countries in the world for confirmed COVID cases and deaths. The country’s national economy will likely contract by 8 percent this year and take at least four years to recover. The UN Development Program estimates that one-third of middle-class households will slip from that status, and stresses that “women, particularly in the poorest female-headed households, disproportionately bear the brunt of the impact of COVID-19.”
Social impacts of the lockdown at household level are illustrated by conversations with a range of community members in the villages of N’wamitwa, Limpopo Province, in May and June, when the country continued in lockdown.*
Family and neighbourly support networks have always been crucial to local wellbeing in these communities. Those networks are “destroyed” by pandemic lockdown, in the words of Josephine M of Jopi village. “We can’t check on our relatives, we can’t go to church, people lost their jobs because their companies have closed. … This thing has destroyed things at my home, my community, my relatives, and my country.”
Gotfrey R of Nkambako says he understands and respects the lockdown for public health reasons. But it comes at a very high cost.
“This is the village. If you don’t have food, [normally] you could go to the neighbours and ask, or to your relatives. That is not happening because rules were set for the country. We are not able to share the little that we have as family, relatives and neighbours. A person has to stay at home and mind their own food. And when it’s finished, the kids look at you, and you get hurt and cry.”
Traditional Authority board member M. C. Baloyi also highlights the impacts on crucial mutuality networks. “In our communities, rural areas, we are used to supporting one another. … The spirit of UBUNTU is always there. But you now cannot see that happening because people are prohibited from supporting one another.” One of the casualties is stockvels, the savings, credit, and purchasing clubs that so many rely on to grow their savings and stretch their limited funds. “Most of our communities are used to stockvel .. and those meetings are not held anymore. Most families are relying on that to earn a living.” Now people are unable to save, through their groups, to cover their costs and grow their meagre funds. “That becomes a very serious headache for those who do not have income” and rely on these social and investment circles for material support.
Rose N’s household in Nkambako has been kept afloat by her adult son, whose job continues. He has helped her buy maize meal to feed her school-age children. “If my son wasn’t helping because he is still working, I don’t where will I be.”
Rose describes the narrowing of the diet that came with her loss of income (she is a bartender and stitches for a craft cooperative). Rose curbed her tea drinking because “I feel like when I drink tea I am eating the bread for my children.” She limited her own meals to “pap and sauce” (maize porridge and sauce) to protect some diversity in the children’s meals. “Now I’m just cooking beans. We are not used to this way of eating. We are suffering.”
Rose registered her family for food parcels from the municipality, but they never materialized. “They keep saying we will get [a parcel] on a certain date. But since lockdown the only other help I got was from church; they gave me a food parcel because they could see that I am poor.”
Mthavini M, 80, a farmer in Nkambako, describes the downward spiral in her household’s food supplies. She stopped going shopping for food in town when health workers warned about contagion, and when runs on urban shops during restricted hours made shopping impossible. “We are not able to get enough food because we are not able to go to the shops. You eat twice a day because if you say you want to eat three times a day, where will you get the food? Maize meal [gets] finished at the local shops quickly.”
At first her farm income was hit because some were continuing to shop in town while others were reluctant to leave their homes for fear of “this monster” (COVID-19). As more people in the village observed lockdown, at times harshly enforced by police, “they want spinach … and now there’s nothing left because everyone runs to the farm.” Farmers were given permits to leave their homes for work, because “if we farmers say we are afraid to come out of our houses [to the farm], people were going to die of hunger.”
Bus driver Jackson Matsimbi describes the shift from being able to “control the situation around food” to food poverty under lockdown. “If you don’t have money [to shop], you stay at home. … You have to eat pap in the morning and evening, instead of breakfast, lunch and supper. Pap.” Two meals instead of three, pap with few accompaniments. Children stuck at home from school create added strain, since they are normally provided a hot meal at school at midday, and again at after-school care.
Gotfrey R notes that “we have started to respect food. What pains me the most is not me, but my kids. My kids are used to a certain way of eating … but when this situation arrived, things became heavy to a point where I wasn’t coping” because his children could not eat as usual. “We have to reduce the amount eaten [during the day] and save for evening.”
At the time of the interview Gotfrey had not received the government assistance he applied for, nor any food parcels. “I hear that people are getting them [food parcels], but I personally did not get any help so far.”
M. C. Baloyi notes the special challenges for the poorest people. Government emergency funds, added to the social grants that help support so many unemployed and low-income households, were difficult to access for those who did not have cellphones or the ability to purchase data. Those who did manage to apply generally found delivery very slow.
Major structural reforms are clearly needed to address deepening inequalities and vulnerabilities in South Africa, vulnerabilities laid bare by the pandemic. Land reform is one structural intervention that could have major impacts in these rural areas. As Prof. Ben Cousins argues, land reform is essential “to help address inherited historical injustices, especially those resulting from land dispossession of the black majority.” Pro-poor land reform will restore land to individuals and communities who lost their homes and land due to colonial and apartheid-era forced removals. It will create secure rights to land held by the black majority, helping to create viable and dignified livelihoods in rural areas. Cousins continues, “When South Africa eventually emerges from the fog of the COVID-19 crisis, structural reform, including land reform, will be high on the political agenda as never before.”
Rose agrees. While lockdown has been difficult, she worries about what comes next. “After lockdown, who is going to give us food? There are no jobs, where are we going to work? … You can see how our economy is. Where are we going to start and end? Where? It can never be the same.”
*All interviews were conducted by Basani Ngobeni in the villages of N’wamitwa, in person where permitted and otherwise by telephone. Basani administered a food security questionnaire prepared by the Four Stories About Food Sovereignty research team.
Originally posted Sept. 2020; updated Nov. 2020.
Other sources include
Ben Cousins, “Study Shows Land Redistribution Can Create New Jobs in Agriculture in South Africa.” The Conversation 3 June 2020.
“Beyond ‘Stay Safe’: Covid-19 and Inequality in South Africa.” A Conversation with Tessa Dooms. Global Policy 8 July 2020.
South African History Online. “The Natives Land Act of 1913.”
United Nations Development Programme. “South Africa’s GDP could plunge 8 percent this year.” 31 August 2020.
Industrial agriculture and food production account for nearly one third of greenhouse gas emissions. Let that figure settle in for a moment: 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by agriculture and the food industry.
To put the figure in perspective, even if we turned off the tap on fossil fuels immediately, “emissions from the global food system alone would make it impossible to limit heating to 1.5 degrees” and difficult to limit it to 2 degrees (Clark et al. 2020). Focusing efforts on emissions from electricity generation, transportation, and industry has brought results – but we cannot afford to dismiss the consequences of industrial agriculture as “just the cost of feeding the world.”
The IPCC report “Climate Change and Land” last year put the overall emissions figure from agriculture at 25% (and 50% for methane specifically). The report noted that incorporating the whole food chain, including fertilizer production, transport, and food processing, took the contribution to nearly 30% of greenhouse gases. More recent research published in Science this week pushes the figure to 30% without processing, transportation, packaging and so on. The IPCC report argued that a rapid transformation is needed toward sustainable land management. That would include processes like reforestation,rewilding (e.g., restoring wetlands and peat lands – which, like healthy soils, absorb and store greenhouse gases), and major reductions in land use for food animals and the grains that feed them.
The new Science report calls for five key strategies to dramatically reduce GHGs: (i) globally adopting a plant-rich diet [modeled as a diet rich in plant-based foods that contains moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, and meat, such as a Mediterranean diet]; (ii) adjusting global per capita caloric consumption to healthy levels [2100/ day on average, adjusted for various factors. By comparison, the current US average is 3600 – a 25% increase from fifty years ago]; (iii) optimising yields by closing yield gaps and improving crop genetics and agronomic practices; (iv) reducing food loss and waste by 50%; and (v) reducing the GHG intensity of foods.
The focus on atmosphere in this study leaves out other key consequences of agriculture – impacts on biodiversity, soils, and water, for instance, some of which will be exacerbated by the cures proposed. Some of the strategies are controversial (e.g., genetic modification; reliance on chemical inputs), and the emphasis on individual behaviour (diet, calories) is troubling. Some are impractical: How on earth to achieve a global diet averaging 2100 calories? Even if it were possible, would the daily calorie budget be subsidized for wealthy people and regions, by the lower average intake of the poor? This ‘strategy’ seems likely to reinforce existing inequities whereby those least responsible for the crisis subsidize the ongoing profligacy of those most at fault. Practicality aside, the picture is of a need for major change: there are numerous opportunities to reduce food-system emissions to levels that keep us within 1.5-2 degrees of heating but, as the report concludes, “time is of the essence.”
And so to agroecology. As argued by a group of scholars who produced a meta-analysis of literature on relative yields for conventional and organic agriculture, the shift is not optional: a food system relying on practices that systematically undermine its essential components – soil, water, air – is a food system in existential crisis. “To maintain the Earth’s capacity to produce food, it is imperative that we adopt sustainable and resilient agricultural practices as soon as possible” (Ponisio et al 2015).* The alternative, as all these reports insist, is fast coming into view.
The question that plagues agroecological farming is whether it is up to the job. Can agroecological methods feed the world? The assumption is that a growing global population requires the kinds of highly productive and efficient monocultures pioneered during the Green Revolution of the 1950s-70s. The assumption is flawed on many levels, one of which is the fact that those yield improvements persisted for a decade or two (depending on crop) and then plateaued – at about the time the social and ecological effects of the techniques began to come into focus. (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was an early harbinger; epidemic farmer indebtedness, farm loss, and in some places widespread farmer suicides came a little later). A growing body of evidence demonstrates that adoption of sustainable, agroecological methods of food production does not mean declines in yield. The analysis by Ponisio et al, for instance, shows that simple practices like crop rotation and intercropping dramatically reduce yield gaps of between 15 and 19% that have long been taken as given by conventional farming interests. The authors found such gaps to be common in cereal crops (which are the subject of most comparisons) – but they point out that the gaps are hardly surprising, “given the extensive efforts since the Green Revolution to increase cereal yields by breeding high-yielding cereal varieties adapted to work well with conventional inputs”: the level of research and development focused on conventionally-grown high-yield cereals eclipses the paltry sums invested in research into improving organic and other sustainable cereal production. As they note, “appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management systems could greatly reduce or eliminate the yield gap” for some crops and regions (Ponisio et al, 2015). Perhaps this is the gap most in need of attention.
Just as agriculture has been plagued in the post-WWII era by monocultures, it has also been plagued by a monofocus on yield. In a world where 30-40% of all food produced goes to waste, and where many people (for reasons both of wealth and poverty) consume far more calories than are needed or healthy, yield is not the limiting factor. The small-scale farmers of the Global South who, in a cruel irony, make up the largest proportion of the world’s malnourished, would benefit from yield improvements – but not improvements reliant on expensive external inputs (chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the hybrid seed that demands those treatments). They need support to experiment with locally-adapted agroecological methods – what Mphephu at Hleketani Garden calls “the ways of our mothers and grandmothers,” adapted to the new climate realities.
*The mathematical meta-analysis comprised 1071 organic versus conventional yield comparisons from 115 studies—over three times the number of observations of any of the previous analyses. The meta-dataset included studies from 38 countries and 52 crop species over a span of 35 years.
Sources include –
Altieri, Miguel and Clara I. Nicholls. “Agroecology and the reconstruction of a post-COVID-19 agriculture.” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 47:5, 2020.
Clark, M. et al. “Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5 and 2 degree climate change targets.” Science 6 Nov 2020: Vol. 370, Issue 6517.
IPCC. “Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems.” 2019.
Ponisio, Lauren, L. M’Gonigle et al. “Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap.” Proc. R. Soc. B.28220141396. 2015.
One of many powerful sentiments expressed at this year’s South African conference on Recognition, Reparation, and Reconciliation is “we wanted freedom, and we got democracy.” The frustrations of young people in particular, nearly a quarter century after the hard-won achievement of democracy, are deep and deeply warranted. There is no meaningful freedom for youth (here defined as under 35) who cannot find jobs, even if they were fortunate enough to finish high school and access some form of higher education. Nor is there meaningful freedom for older women who now earn a monthly income from the Old Persons Grant – only to exhaust every cent of it helping to support two or three generations of family members.
At the conference many commentators pointed out how South Africa’s experience of the past quarter century presages the catastrophe unfolding in so many other countries of the Global North and South. South Africa’s tight embrace of neoliberal (market-fundamentalist) economic strategies, with results including deepening inequalities of wealth and income (see French economist Thomas Piketty’s global analysis, with its special focus on SA);
its jobless urbanization and constricted growth; and its ecological disasters (Cape Town’s “zero water” spectre only one of many) anticipated processes that are now unfolding much more widely. Sarah Nuttall, director of Witwatersrand University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, observed that pain once seen as particular to South Africa is spreading in a “global after-life.”
Here I focus on the life stories of two South African youth, Dzunani and Nkhenso (names changed), to illustrate the nature of the challenges facing South African society – and, in some measure, many other liberal democracies today. Dzunani and Nkhenso both come from rural Limpopo Province; both were small children when Nelson Mandela won the presidency after decades of political struggle and imprisonment, and following several years of challenging and violent political transition across the country. Both are living the frustrations and disappointments that today define the “rainbow nation.”
Dzunani graduated from a decent rural high school in 2000. He has always been a hard worker – the phrase he uses to describe himself in preference to any other. His parents were hard workers, his father as a plumber in Johannesburg during the apartheid era, and his mother raising several children in the rural “homeland.” When Dzunani’s father fell ill and lost his job, his mother began to take on seasonal work at local (Afrikaner-owned) farms and later worked as a cleaner. The parents impressed on their son the importance of securing his own path through commitment and hard work. Like so many South Africans, they felt a surge of hope for their children when apartheid was dismantled and Mandela’s ANC came to power. The hope lasted well into the 2000s, South Africans being a generous lot and having learned patience through years of abject experience. Hope began to falter at the height of the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, a crisis neglected by the fledgling democracy under Mandela and infamously enflamed under his successor, President Mbeki.
Hope turned to outrage and despair with the flagrant abuses of democracy and economy enacted by Jacob Zuma’s presidency – abuses encapsulated in the phrase “state capture,” to express the degree to which private interests (especially but not only those of the Gupta family companies) “captured” the agenda of governance and the functions of the state, and subverted these to the interests of capital.
Back to Dzunani. His dream when he graduated from high school was to become an engineer. He was good at math, and could fix anything that came his way. His grades were not high enough to earn him a bursary to university (and his parents, like many who grew up under apartheid, had no idea of how to position their first-born for higher education). He spent many months going about the countryside and nearest town asking people “where do I go to find a job?” Dzunani landed a first job helping with construction projects around the communal territory where he lives. With a recommendation as a hard worker, he earned a marginally more secure position (because salaried) as a packer at a banana farm. But without seniority, he was let go when the farm cut back on labour. Worn out by lack of opportunity in the rural region, Dzunani headed to the city in 2004. His experience there was dire.
“I was telling myself that I would work at any job that I get. … But at Johannesburg I didn’t get a job. Just finding, finding, finding [looking, looking, looking], agggh, until I decided to come back again to home.” Dzunani experienced what so many learn in the city: in an economy of structural joblessness – an economy that spawns precarity and insecurity rather than decent employment – life in Johannesburg was unsustainable. He found work with an engineering company for a few weeks; they made promises of stable employment that never materialized. The company paid him a very small sum and let him go without notice. While in the city Dzunani camped on the floor of a cousin’s flat, but still he couldn’t afford to stay “because in Johannesburg they need money for food, money to pay the rent.” After many more months without work he returned to the village, where he could live rent-free in his parents’ compound.
Dzunani finally had some luck in 2010. He happened to hear at a funeral of an externally-funded job-readiness project for youth that was coming to the local villages. He took his resumé to the office of the youth education project, and to his delight he was selected to participate in a six-week program called “Fit For Life, Fit For Work.” His cohort was then chosen to start a youth food security project, also externally funded – a vegetable farm that would provide Dzunani with salaried, stable work from 2011 to the end of 2017. Serendipity took Dzunani to the farm; hard work and commitment kept him there. Sixteen youth started at the farm in 2011. Retrenchments followed little by little as external funds began to dry up (various complex problems stood in the way of the farm becoming self-sustaining, not least competition from larger commercial farms and supermarkets). Dzunani remained until the end, clearly the most talented and devoted of farmers.
Dzunani told me several years ago about his transformation to farmer. With his colleagues he spent three months at an agricultural college learning a mix of conventional and agro-ecological farming methods. From time to time he was offered additional short courses in agro-ecological methods of pest control, soil management, and aquaculture. He soaked up the learning – and more profoundly, the daily experience of working in the soil – and became a farmer.
“I feel it. I feel like a farmer,” Dzunani says. “I pray every day, every night for thanks for giving me that opportunity to know this one, because it’s my career … I enjoy it and I like it to be my career.”
It was not an easy six years. The monthly salary never increased, despite sharply rising food and living costs. By the end of his time at the youth farm, Dzunani was spending nearly one-third of his salary on transport from his village to the farm site. Transport costs are often suffocating for rural workers and a major challenge for those in the cities, who generally live in poor neighbourhoods far from their place of work. He and his co-workers arranged a “taxi” (as small-van private transport is called) to carry them every day from a central pick-up point to the farm in a distant village. Even with that arrangement, transport costs were choking. A local white farmer heard this story and told me “they must make a plan” to reduce their costs – moving closer to the farm, for instance. That’s an impossible compromise for youth who live at very low cost on their parents’ compounds, contributing as they can to the shared costs of food, water, and other necessities. Moving to another village means purchasing or renting land (that is, if it’s even available in the over-crowded villages) and building a small house. These costs would eclipse monthly transport costs several times over. The suggestion of this “plan” makes clear the white farmer’s – and perhaps the government’s – utter lack of comprehension of social and economic realities in poor households.
Close to the bone as his circumstances were when he worked at the farm, unemployment was far worse. Dzunani shudders when he recalls his years of under- and unemployment. Waking in the morning with a knot in his gut as he faced another day with nothing to do, he remembers being blamed for thefts and other nuisances in his village.
“You wake up and you don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says. “It’s very hard, you wake up … The important thing is to work and get money for food. If you don’t work you don’t have food, soap for cleaning your body, clothing … Ayeesh, it’s very, very, very hard to wake up with nothing to do. If you don’t work, are you going to steal from the neighbours? Even if it’s not you, even then the neighbour says it’s you: you are not working, you are staying at home. Some others are going to school, others are at work, and you, you’re staying at home. Everything that is bad, [they say] it’s coming from you.”
With regular work, by contrast, “when I wake up in the morning … I’m happy because, in my heart, I’m telling myself ‘I’m going to work’.” Regular work enabled Dzunani to build two rooms on his parents’ compound for his wife and two children. It enabled him to help with school costs when the elder child started school a couple of years ago. His wife manages the child support grant for each child – US$28 per month per child that is crucial to enabling children to attend school (attendance is free, but uniforms, books, and transport cost money), and keeping them properly nourished.
Dzunani was the last of the youth farmers to be “released,” the mild local euphemism for dismissed, from the food security project. All the salaried workers were replaced by casual workers, mostly older people who live near the farm and can be called up when there’s planting or harvesting to be done. His dismissal is emblematic of a rising global shift from salaried work to casual precarity, a shift lamented by millennials in Canada as in the Global South. Since being let go, Dzunani has been moving around the countryside as before, “finding, finding, finding” work – piece work at construction, picking produce, whatever he can turn up. He’s cheered by the prospect of finding work closer to his heart – and, importantly, walking distance from his home – at Hleketani Community Garden, where the women have promised to call him when they need help with odd jobs. More powerfully, they have offered him a patch of irrigated ground where he can grow food for his family and, all going well, for sale. When he worked at the youth farm Dzunani’s dream was to one day have his own farm. He couldn’t afford the land. Perhaps this is a step in that direction.
Nkhenso’s story is different, though more in the details than the broad sweep. Several years younger than Dzunani, she was born at the start of the transition to democracy (1990, the year Mandela was released from prison). Nkhenso grew up in the same communal territory as Dzunani, under the same traditional leader, in a village down the road. Her father was in the picture on and off during her childhood, but stopped contributing and ultimately left the household when she was in high school. Her mother was left with Nkhenso and five younger children to raise. Nkhenso, who had been a good student, saw her chances of higher education evaporate.
Like Dzunani, Nkhenso had the good fortune to be chosen to participate in the Fit For Life program. She came to the attention of the program’s leaders as a smart young woman with enormous energy and strong language skills (her mother had taught her children English from a young age, and often insisted they speak English at home). These abilities have landed her occasional work as a research assistant and interpreter on university research projects. With the money she earns Nkhenso helped her mother extend the house from two to several rooms, helps pay for school uniforms and other school needs for her younger siblings, and helps support her own college studies in the city.
Nkhenso’s story is still being written. Serendipity and talent brought opportunities, as they did for Dzunani. But for vulnerable households in precarious circumstances, it is often one step forward, two steps back. Among many backward steps beyond their control, Nkhenso’s family has seen their stable life on the family compound brought to a crashing end by the return of the father.
Nkhenso’s father is able to claim the plot because it came through his family when the couple married. Although Nkhenso’s mother raised the family there on her own for many years, and might win the argument in court, she knows that she would likely face retribution if she sought to stay. She and the children have taken refuge on her family’s small plot in another village. The children now face all the challenges of starting again in new schools – while traumatized by the uprooting – while Nkhenso’s mother has had to leave behind a very supportive community of women and church colleagues. She visits as often as she can, but the cost of transport, and time away from her children, make it difficult to draw on those connections. She remains a member of various savings and credit clubs in the original village, connections that are vital to the constrained family economy. She is trying to recreate normalcy for her children at a time when her own emotional life is in turmoil.
The situation takes a toll on Nkhenso. Since the final family split and the move to her grandparents’ village a few months ago, Nkhenso has frequently come home from the city to deal with her siblings’ crises and the family’s material needs. She aches to see the resources she so lovingly invested in the family home squandered on a father who has done so little for his children. She aches to witness the pain of her mother. All this travel and turmoil draws Nkhenso away from the studies that might, in a just world, underwrite a different kind of future.
Writing from another context, the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante describes how the dream of a new day – with its faith in progress, improvement, growth, technology – is shown to be without foundation as the strains of late capitalism accumulate. In Ferrante’s bleak formulation, “the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.” Is the lesson of Southern Italy also the lesson of South Africa? Is there still time for a different ending? Nkhenso and Dzunani are committed to another step forward. May it be toward justice.
Originally published Dec. 2018. Updated June 2020.
Ferrante, Elena. 2015. The Story of the Lost Child. Europa.
Mbembe, Achille. “Revisiting ‘Historical Trauma’,” Keynote address at Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation Conference, Stellenbosch University, 8 December 2018. Unpublished.
Nuttall, Sarah. “Dark Light: Coming Out of Trauma,” Plenary address at Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation Conference, Stellenbosch University, 7 December 2018. Unpublished.
Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard.
Piketty, Thomas. 2015. Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. Nelson Mandela Foundation. Transcript at https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/transcript-of-nelson-mandela-annual-lecture-2015
Ayakha Melithafa is not as famous as Greta Thunberg, but she may soon be. Ayakha is one of sixteen youth from around the world, including Greta, bringing a complaint before the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child. Their claim: climate change is a crisis for children’s rights.
The Committee monitors implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. If the Committee finds that signatories have infringed those rights by “knowingly causing and perpetuating the climate crisis,” as the youth petition charges, then signatory states will be urged to act to protect children’s rights. The petition specifically names Brazil, Germany, France, Argentina, and Turkey, but South Africa, Canada, and every other state that has ratified the Convention may feel a moral obligation to respond. (The U.S. signed but did not ratify the Convention.)
Ayakha, 17, goes to school in Cape Town while her mother and siblings live in the Eastern Cape. Her mother is a small-scale farmer and, like the women at Hleketani Garden, has been living the impacts of climate change for several years. Drought set in in the Eastern Cape in 2014. More recently, international headlines blared as the city of Cape Town counted down toward “Day Zero,” when urban reservoirs would run dry. Rural regions, where thousands of small farmers grow food for their households and local communities, got few headlines.
Ayakha, who told her story to The Mail and Guardian, says her mother and other small farmers “really don’t know when the rains will come. … My mom knows when to plant which vegetable. She knows how the weather will be.” Not anymore.
Her mother’s livestock have also been hard hit. “I saw all these animals die,” Ayakha recounted. “A full-grown cow is about R16,000 [$1,450 CAD]. I saw my family lose all that money. My mom is supporting five children; she’s the only one working.”
With this hit to the family’s finances, Ayakha’s mother, along with so many other rural farmers, will struggle to provide for her children’s school needs. Such immediate impacts are obvious and keenly felt. Less obvious, but perhaps even more devastating, is the impact on the dream to send one’s children to university.
In Limpopo Province, at the other end of the country, January Mathebula speaks hauntingly of the declining fortunes of the vegetable farm he tends alongside his wife Lydia. The farm used to thrive and paid for their children to go to university, he explains. At the moment, it barely provides enough for the costs of their youngest daughter’s subsistence, textbooks, and travel home from the University of Cape Town, where she is studying mathematics on a scholarship.
“We are waiting for the rain, then we can farm,” January says. “But what about now? What about now?”
Now, January and Lydia need money from the farm to support their daughter in Cape Town. Without rain, however, they don’t know whether or when that money will arrive. “Our children grow up on the money from the farm. What can we do?” Until recently they were also supporting their infant grandson, whose parents work in Johannesburg. Income from the farm’s cabbages and leafy greens is the family’s livelihood, and the food is the source of their health.
Farmers like January, Lydia, and Ayakha’s mother face an uncertain future as Southern Africa is wracked by drought, intense storms, growing pest pressures, and unpredictable seasons. Farmers in this region know how to innovate and adapt to drought in the short term – it has long been a regular feature of farming here. But droughts that last years, in combination with these additional pressures, are a new kind of crisis.
As Ayakha and her peers insist, it is a crisis with deep consequences for children.
A few years ago, climate scientists struck on the idea of explaining the impacts of climate change through food: show people how a warming planet, with its devastating droughts, floods, and other extreme events, will hit us at the kitchen table. The strategy grew out of a 2014 study by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warned of sharp declines in food production as the effects of climate crisis deepen.
This month the IPCC released a more urgent report: keeping global temperature rise to a liveable minimum demands a transformation in the way we produce food. Food production and agricultural activities, including forestry and food waste, account for almost one-quarter of greenhouse gas production. Incorporating the whole food chain, including fertilizer production, transport, and food processing, takes that contribution to nearly 30% of greenhouse gases. Half of methane emissions (one of the most harmful greenhouse gases) come from cattle and rice fields. Soil degradation and erosion, resulting in part from the destructive soil practices of industrial agriculture, threaten our future in profound and unacknowledged ways. Healthy, properly managed soils, meanwhile, can be a vital carbon sink.
The new IPCC report explains that land must be managed more sustainably if we are to make meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. Focusing on transportation, industry, and energy is not enough – we must address agriculture. Sustainable land management means reforestation,rewilding (including, e.g., restoration of peat lands – which, like healthy soils, absorb and store greenhouse gases) and major reductions in land use for food animals and the grains that feed them.
Which brings us back to the kitchen table:
Avoiding – or at least reducing – meat and dairy consumption is one of the most effective ways to reduce our personal carbon footprint. Eating beef twice a week (calculated as two fast-food patties, 75 g each: i.e., not much!) results in 600 kg of greenhouse gas emissions across a year. This is equivalent to driving a gas-fuelled car 2500 km. Producing those humble patties consumes 1700 m2 of land. Beef produces about six times the carbon emissions of chicken, and 150 times the emissions of beans. The newly-public (and over-packaged) ‘Beyond Meat’ burger is looking better all the time. For a succulent homemade veggie burger, try this black bean burger or one of these.
The women at Hleketani Community Garden, like most people in the Global South who eat little meat, have been eating a relatively low-carbon diet all their lives. Their plates are piled high with maize meal porridge, leafy greens and other vegetables, all locally grown. Peanuts have been a key protein source for generations, and feature in this tasty staple dish from Tsonga kitchens. Happy meatless eating.
Spicy Spinach from Hleketani Garden (from Recipes from The Thinking Garden; order at email@example.com)
Saute a diced onion in oil.
Add and saute a crushed clove of garlic.
Stir in two bunches (450 g) of giant spinach or Swiss chard,
A squeeze of lemon juice,
½ c vegetable stock or water,
1 t (to taste) of South African Peri Peri Sauce or other sambal or chili sauce.
In a separate bowl mix 2 T peanut butter with ¼ c stock. Stir to a liquid consistency, then stir into spinach mixture. Heat through and serve.
*In N’wamitwa, freshly ground peanuts are used. The dish is served with vuswa, maize meal porridge. It’s tasty with brown rice or any grain.
The film The Thinking Garden, which tells the story of Hleketani Community Garden in South Africa, was selected by the Canadian Embassy in Jordan as Canada’s entry in the UN Women Film Festival in Amman in 2018. The embassy graciously hosted me for a week of festival screenings as well as screenings at the film commission and in UNHCR refugee camps. These encounters resulted in the inclusion of Jordan — in particular Palestinian and Syrian refugee communities in Jordan — as one of the “four stories” about food sovereignty that our new transnational research network is exploring. (For more, see www.fourstoriesaboutfood.org/)
Women’s Film Week in Jordan was a thrilling week for our film. The screening at Zaatari refugee camp was a highlight. Zaatari, a few kilometres from the Syrian border, remains home to more than 80,000 Syrians. Many in the camp come from rural areas of southern Syria, near Daraa, and many had been farmers. After watching the film they wanted to talk about their farming lives – what crops they grew, how large their farms had been; I heard the phrase ‘self-sufficient’ repeated many times. That’s one of so many things they’ve lost, living behind the razor wire of a refugee camp. An older woman named Dalal came forward and told us that she was like the women in the film: she didn’t have a husband in her later years in Syria, and raised her children with her vegetables. The film shows that women can do it on their own, she said, like she had done. I was very touched by the way the story of the women’s farm spoke to people’s hearts.
The encounter with Syrians in Zaatari camp was especially meaningful for me since I’m part of a community group that sponsored a displaced Syrian family to build a new life in our city. Getting to know this family — and especially Mira (names changed), the mother who has become a close friend — has taught me a few things. As an historian who has spent years studying Western representations of other-than-Western societies, it’s embarrassing to admit that it has taken me until middle age to puncture some of my own hardened biases.
I credit Mira with my re-education. Mira arrived in Canada with her husband and children three years ago, part of a government- and community-sponsored influx of more than 33,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war. There have been many surprises as our friendship developed. Once Mira’s English skills allowed deep conversation (my Arabic doesn’t extend beyond polite greetings), our exchanges on parenting, spirituality, and gender identities pushed my thinking in new directions.
It’s unfortunate that the burden of explanation falls on Mira. She has had enough on her plate – making a home for a family that had been living in exile for five years; studying English; building a community for herself and her children; working at catering to supplement the income from her husband’s night-time janitorial work; teaching Arabic to youngsters at the mosque and to a local schoolteacher; tending relationships with family members scattered across the globe – that she does not need the extra work of explaining her culture to an ignorant onlooker. But Mira takes up the role willingly, and I take advantage of her enthusiasm.
Mira is uncommonly fond of her dishwasher. She calls it her daughter. I cringe at the implication, but she laughs and explains that Abbas, her husband, has always been her dishwasher. His job now is to pack and unpack the machine; she appreciates his eye for quality control. The boys haven’t yet absorbed Abbas’s habits of helpfulness, which go well beyond dish washing, although middle son Ahmed shows promise. Sports and social media preoccupy the boys, but Mira is hopeful they will learn to be caring partners on their father’s model. My cultural stereotypes about “Muslim men” did not prepare me for Mira and Abbas’s household partnership.
One day at the lake with our children Mira tells me about a women’s party she’s looking forward to on the weekend. Women and children only, and preening is mandatory. They’ll have their hair done, dress for show, eat baklawa, listen to music. As a female friend, I’m used to seeing Mira without her headscarf – her home dress is much like mine, running to jeans and slouchy sweaters. Hearing about the women’s party, I have to ask: aren’t the hijab and abaya (headscarf and long coat) she wears in public confining?
Her public clothing is a statement of her religious devotion, Mira explains. Religious belief is not an aspect of her identity that can be tucked away out of sight, to be trotted out on holy days or special occasions. Her faith is as core to her identity as her family history, motherhood, and ethnicity, and she is proud to express her faith through her dress. Beyond clothing, faith is symbolized and signified in everything she does, from feeding her family to supporting community members in need, from praying several times a day to uttering “God willing” when she speaks of future plans.
While religious faith is publicly affirmed through dress, it is also intensely personal. When I was preparing for a work trip to Jordan recently, I asked Mira to show me how to wear a headscarf – not because I planned to pose as a Muslim woman, but in case I needed head covering to visit a mosque or other site. She was puzzled.
“Why would you wear a hijab?” she asked. I worried about offending people. Yes, she said, I would need to cover my hair in a mosque, but that was a simple matter of tossing on a scarf before entering. Otherwise my clothes were fine.
“There’s no need for a headscarf. It’s very open. You’re not Muslim, so you don’t need a headscarf.”
Visits to Jordan have confirmed Mira’s view. In Jordan the full spectrum of religious, less-religious, secular and cultural attire is on display in the streets, often in a single social group. A dominant image is of a group of women, clearly family, walking into an ice cream shop. Grandmother wore a light scarf over her hair, a fashionable jacket and pants; mother was in hijab and abaya; one daughter wore a patterned hijab while her sister was in tight jeans, dark hair gleaming against her blouse. Most deliciously jarring of my expectations were the young people at the table next to me at lunch at Haret Jdoudna, a storied restaurant in Madaba. They were a raucous foursome of twenty-somethings enjoying a weekend visit. The women laughed and talked together in that way of closest friends. They all shared shisha, tobacco vaporized over a water pipe.
The surprise was the women’s dress. One wore a tidy hijab, loose sweater, and skirt – relatively conservative attire, you might say. The other was dressed, as I put it to my companion, “like a Barbie doll.” Bleached hair, false eyelashes, acrylic nails, thick makeup. In a final affront to my expectations, she had kicked off her shoes and perched barefoot and cross-legged on her chair. This woman would have stood out in a Bohemian café in my west-coast city. Here she was, in the ancient city of Madaba, sharing intimacies with a woman whose religious credentials were inscribed on her clothing. How could these two women be friends?
“Their clothes speak to their relationship with God,” my friend said. “They have nothing to do with their friendship.” As one UK Muslim woman put it, her own modest style of dress is her way of showing that “God has made me intrinsically beautiful”; she doesn’t rely on strangers’ or onlookers’ assessments. But neither does she judge sisters who choose to dress differently. Her religion teaches that the heart is the true measure of human value — not outward symbols.
No doubt there are plenty of devout Muslims who, for cultural or religious reasons, would look askance at the choices of the woman I described as a Barbie doll – just as I, in my middle-class prudishness, turn up my nose at what I take to be the sexualized dress of my teenager’s friends. Certainly there are contexts where this young woman would be punished for perceived offences to God. Meanwhile, women in my culture who dress like her often find themselves censured and blamed when they “provoke” unwanted sexual attention.
Mira’s choice of clothing is a spiritual statement, an act of modesty and worship that she believes brings her closer to God. The same can be said for the young women in niqabs (full veils) who drew me into their selfies after a film screening in Jordan. Faceless, dehumanized? This was not my perception of these women as they laughed and jockeyed for position in the camera frame. The key word is choice. In some households, in some regions, men make these choices for women. That is unfortunate. Is it any more acceptable, though, for secular authorities in some countries in the West to seek to constrain the freedoms of religious women by outlawing head coverings and veils? I challenge those authorities to pull up a chair and talk with Muslim women.
When I ask the women at Hleketani Community Garden what the garden has done for them, the answer is immediate: “It heals us.” They break into a call-and-response song: “Where do we heal? At the farm!”
In this post I’ll consider, as much as possible through the farmers’ own words, the nature of the historical trauma they experienced under apartheid; the political – resistant – response they developed; and the forms of healing that the farm continues to offer 26 years after its founding.
Hleketani Garden was founded by several dozen women in 1992, in the throes of the tumultuous transition from apartheid to democracy, and in the midst of a severe regional drought. In other writings I analyse the farm as a case study in social economy – a collaborative, grassroots enterprise with a social remit, whose purposes go far beyond material benefits to generating a community of cooperation and mutual help. These kinds of initiatives are proliferating across the globe – small, constrained, but meaningful acts of self-determination in an era of increasingly precarious livelihoods, soaring inequalities, and ecological devastation.
Under apartheid Jopi village was in the so-called homeland of Gazankulu, which was envisioned as a rural enclave for women, children, and elderly people of Tsonga ethnicity – their men were the labour force in the mines and cities. This rural-urban binary is misleading: people and resources circulated among these spaces, within and in infraction of the strict spatial regulations of apartheid. Yet rural space was, under apartheid, a space apart. Prior to 1970, when the people of what became the village of Jopi were forcibly removed from the countryside and placed in a cramped new space they would call “the lines” in reference to its tight grid pattern, the countryside was a heavily female domain. The twenty-seven women from the farm recall their lives in the countryside – a place they insistently refer to as “our home” – as healthy, traditional, unencumbered. No doubt there is some nostalgia here; some retrospective reanalysis in light of the historical trauma entailed in their removal from the countryside. Yet their stories of life in the countryside are of a piece:
“Back then there was enough rain, there was water in the rivers. Everyone ate from the big gardens. Children learned to plough [grow food] from their mothers and grandmothers” (Sara); “We had to cook with a big pot” to accommodate the produce of their vast gardens. “At the countryside we had space for sorghum, we had space for maize, we had space for squashes. … It was a healthy life” (Dinah).
The women don’t recall much direct intervention in their lives from the apartheid state before 1970. Sara recalls that “the only thing white people would do is come and arrest you when you didn’t pay the permit for your dog or your bicycle.” Substantial service had to be paid to the hosi (traditional chief), but the apartheid state felt distant. The major exception was the impact of the migrant labour system – a system that was a product of British colonialism, and that carried over and took on particular manifestations under apartheid. Its effects were deeply felt across families and kin groups. The men lived in workers’ hostels and women were not allowed to visit. “Distance made a very big gap between husband and wife,” the women say. Husbands were away most of the time, only entitled to holidays from work for – at best – 21 days at Christmas and a shorter break at Easter. Some got home only once every few years. Many of the women recall being afraid of these virtual strangers. Daina’s words are poignant: “you had children with a person you had no relationship with.”
Their rural lives changed in 1970, when households were “chased” from the countryside to the lines. Formally, this enforced move was part of “rural betterment” planning, a process aimed at improving rural economies to ensure they could support and reproduce the segregated African population (e.g., through infrastructure projects like dams; conserving soils and trees). “Betterment” was infused with the belief that black people inhabited a backward and wasteful subsistence economy. Chiefs found themselves agents of policies rooted in a logic and set of priorities alien to their society, and which (as historian Peter Delius shows) “most rural residents saw as profoundly invasive and destructive.” The forced move to the lines was part of what scholar Cherryl Walker calls the “unruly multiplicity” of actual land dispossessions. The women view it as forced removal. They acknowledge certain benefits – their children would now go to school, girls included; new rules protected many kinds of trees. But the dominant memory is of a profound, collective trauma. From their vantage point nearly half a century later, the removal from the countryside was a tear in the social fabric from which their communities have not recovered. As Mphephu puts it, “They didn’t better anything. They destroyed our lives.” Across seven years of interviewing, the women consistently cite the move to the lines as the root cause of many present problems, including chronic food insecurity. And it brought home the harsh realities of apartheid: the government “started controlling us when we moved to the lines,” Sara says.
Memories of removal are vivid and charged. “The government came with donkey carts, we loaded our things, they said ‘we’re showing you your land.’” These are the words of Daniel, the husband of farmer Mphephu. He was at work in a mine on the Rand when the dispossession occurred. “I’ve got nothing to say. Not one of our family remained there. I can’t find words” to express the losses – loss of land, of home, of the graves of the ancestors. The forced and inhumane nature of the move still stirs anger. “It was heavy,” he says. “We were not in control … They never consulted us. It was an order,” and it was very clear there was no recourse. “Who were you going to complain to?” he asks bitterly. “This was not happening in Jopi only; it was happening across South Africa.” Here he links the tragedy of his kin to that of the community and the nation. The women’s tones are similarly sharp in discussing these events. “There was nowhere you could go and ask,” Mijaji says. “The only thing we heard is that there’s new stands and we have to go. Women were not allowed to attend the meeting” where their indhunas (headmen) passed on the order, so they heard even less than the men.
After being “chased out” (ku caciwa) of their homes, given little chance to prepare, people arrived at the lines – the village site – to find few arrangements had been made for the sudden influx. “The only thing they gave us was stand numbers,” Mphephu says. “They should have made reservoirs” and other preparations. She and others, several of whom were pregnant, remember making bricks to build houses (a task requiring fetching extra supplies of water from the river). There were long days of work in an inhospitable space; Mamayila remembers working all day to build the houses, and then cooking after dark. A particular trauma for her was losing a baby and not being able to mark his grave. In the countryside the family would plant a tree to mark the burial site of a loved one. In the village they were expected to pay for a grave marker, and she had no money to do so. She is still disturbed by not knowing where that child rests in the cemetery. A more general trauma came when the local chief, Gagesha, was imprisoned. He had resisted the removals, arguing to the homeland government that at the very least proper preparations needed to be made before his people were torn from their farms. The government locked him up and appointed his more compliant cousin as chief.
“I lost everything I knew, the trees and the land,” Dinah says of the displacement. “Now the space of ploughing is very small. … We can’t forget sorghum,” the indigenous grain they no longer have space or labour to grow. Mamayila says it’s “very painful [va va ngopfu] to remember the way we were situated. It was so nice. You had enough land to have your garden, donkeys, cattle kraal, one side for goats, one side for pigs.” Today we have “maybe a cattle-kraal size,” says Sara. Land dispossession is at the heart of the trauma. “Pain comes in this way,” Daina explains. “This is my compound; right there the mango tree is somebody else’s compound.” Over the years the women have often conjured chickens as a metaphor for overcrowding in the village: “If my chicken tries to pass [the property line], it stirs up a fight between neighbours” (Daina); “If the chicken says it’s moving, it’s going next door” (Mphephu). As a group they settle on the phrase “you can’t find a place to spit” (ku pfumala vuphelo bya marha) as the most apt way to describe the lines. They implicate crowding in many of the health crises they face today. High blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, asthma, stroke, and circulatory problems are all called “diseases of the lines,” becoming widespread because “there is no air between us” (Sara). Josephine is curt: “the one who signed that paper” calling for the move to the lines is responsible for these diseases.
These recollections shouldn’t be written off as nostalgia, nor the challenges blamed on population growth. Compounds in the betterment villages are very small, an estimated 850 square metres on average, and the arable portion smaller still. Water was a limiting factor from day one, and growing demand and neglected infrastructure make water a critical concern today. Overgrazing, erosion, and other effects of overcrowding and climate change further diminish agricultural potential.
The women do not draw such a straight line between the move to the village and the crisis of HIV/AIDS; rather, HIV, for these older women, is related to cultural losses that accompanied the loss of their healthy lifestyle in the countryside. “We lost our culture and tradition when we were chased here,” Mhlava says. Daina points out that “so many cultural [practices] are not happening, because we’re sitting on top of each other” with no privacy. Elder generations used to be the main influence on children’s behaviour, including through initiation rituals; now it’s the neighbours and television, Sara complains. Then she returns to material explanations. “It’s because of hunger,” she says. Impoverished girls look for boyfriends because they hope they will give them money. Mthavini insists that what she names as a decline in morals, alongside a rise in criminality, is “happening because we are poor. Our kids aren’t working,” and the grandparents’ grants aren’t enough to meet their needs.
The women have a sharp critique of the growth of individualism and acquisitiveness, and again they implicate the lines. (They also understand that these are global trends: television both relays and helps constitute the problem, they point out.) The word they favour to describe this cultural shift is jealousy (used in the English). They allow that there could be jealousy in the countryside – people might be jealous if their neighbours reaped a better harvest, for instance. But in the cramped quarters of the village, with its many layers of scarcity, jealousy reaches fever pitch. “We’re burning,” Sara says. Being so close together means seeing everything the neighbours have, and endlessly comparing. Mthavini remembers an early Christmas in the village when she kept her children indoors all day, despite stifling heat, to protect them from the sting of not having the new clothes and special food that some children were enjoying. Rosina laments the demise of the communal ethic of the countryside, where households shared with neighbours in need without question. “Now people eat food and some they put in the dustbin, without asking their neighbours if they have eaten.”
The shift to the lines meant “all we could do was work for white farmers,” Mijaji says. “Pick tomatoes. We didn’t know that [later] the good government would come, give us a farm in our village to plant tomatoes and grow.” That grant of land and borehole well, provided by the hosi and the departments of health and agriculture in 1992 (transition era), changed their lives. “The farm makes us forget what we had in the countryside,” Mhlava says. The forgetting heals. “The farm is our hospital.” This six-hectare garden is the first place they have felt “at home” since the countryside. Mamayila puts it poetically: “Our hearts are back to teenagers. Our hands are so strong. Only our legs are painful.” She picks up a stick and acts the part of an old woman hunched over a cane: “In the morning I will have to drag myself out of bed, walk with my walking stick, and think about my home.” Several say they would be buried at the farm if given the choice, underscoring its role as home.
The founding of the garden was grounded in women’s resistance to their predicament, resistance enacted through their communal tradition. “One finger cannot feed us,” they say. “We had to work together.” The strategy is driven by their determination to resist the deepening challenges of hunger, poverty, and unemployment in their households and community; and to “make something for ourselves” as women. By a number of measures, the farm has been a success. In material terms, as Daina puts it, “Our people are being saved, their lives are being saved. There is no more kwashi because of this farm.” (Kwashi, for kwashiorkor, is the local catch-all phrase for malnutrition.) In commercial terms its success has been very modest, but only the agricultural extension officer measures success in those terms. The farm’s impact on fragile household economies is substantial. Women describe how the “seconds” (blemished vegetables) they take home from the farm twice a week free up scant household income for children’s school needs, other household needs, and savings clubs. Importantly, take-home vegetables free up cash to buy water, something many households have to do two or three times a week due to the dwindling and crumbling municipal supply. Even at the height of drought in 2015, when the farm was without irrigation after a major theft, they managed to provide their households with indigenous greens that they encouraged on the margins of the farm.
The farm enables the women to enact the communitarian ethic they revere from the countryside. They see themselves as a linchpin of the wider village community. In addition to making available nutritious, diverse, and affordable produce to a community 40 km from a supermarket, they donate their produce to families hosting funerals and to the very ill. The community is proud of “their farm,” the women say. For Florah (now retired), “[t]he reason I work here is not for the sake of [financial] benefit or the sake of my health. It’s for the community. We are supporting a very big community.” This rhetoric of community service, the gendered respectability that flows from this role, and the sense that they are able to feed the “big community” are fundamental to the women’s resilience and recovery from loss.
The women have built their own empowering community inside the fenced perimeter of the garden. When they walk through the gate in the morning they enter a space of healing: a refuge from abusive husbands, out-of-work adult children, or other stresses at home. They have built community across three generations; they have secured and elaborated positive social identities for rural women, in a context where this group remains one of the constituencies most likely to live in crushing poverty. Through their daily, monthly, and seasonal activities, working side by side in the heat and dust, the women of Hleketani Garden have managed to re-inhabit the social identity of productive farmers. They are healing themselves as farmers, as women, and as reproducers of households.
But always, the power of local self-determination is circumscribed. The women’s successes, inspiring as they are, mustn’t blind us to ongoing structural oppressions. Their priorities clash with, and are often subjugated to, those of an agriculture department focused on profit maximization and marketization; a local and national economy that is still shaped by the legacies of racialized land ownership, and defined by poverty and precarity; a global political economy that privileges multinational agribusiness and supermarkets as sources of food; and a development assistance economy in which the activities of women like these are barely legible. The women have laboriously carved out precious space for self determination – precious, and precarious.
Delius, Peter. 2008. “Contested Terrain: Land Rights and Chiefly Power in Historical Perspective,” in Aninka Claassens and Ben Cousins, eds., Land, Power, and Custom: Controversies Generated by South Africa’s Communal Land Rights Act (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press).
Harries, Patrick. 1989. “Exclusion, Classification and Internal Colonialism: The Emergence of Ethnicity Among the Tsonga-Speakers of South Africa,” in The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, ed. Leroy Vail (London: James Currey).
Hay, Michelle. 2014. “A Tangled Past: Land Settlement, Removals and Restitution in Letaba District, 1900 – 2013.” Journal of Southern African Studies 40 (4).
Vibert, Elizabeth. 2016. “Gender, Resilience, and Resistance: South Africa’s Hleketani Garden,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 34 (2).
Walker, Cherryl. 2008. Landmarked: Land Claims and Land Restitution in South Africa (Johannesburg: Jacana).
Sara is quick to sum up the experience of Hleketani Community Garden with government funding opportunities: “It seems like they don’t want us to apply.”
In the past seven or eight years the women have attempted to apply to many programs, from the agriculture department to the lottery, from supermarkets to small ngo’s. It’s a harrowing tale. Usually they hear of opportunities through their agricultural extension officer, who’s been supportive with advice and encouragement over the years. He brings them an application form and one of the couple of women who reads English decodes it as best she can. As Sara says ruefully, “with our high-level education we can’t do the papers.” They enlist the help of two high-school teachers who have been generous with help in the past (they’ve tried many teachers, but most look over the complicated forms and tell the women “whoa whoa – you better take this to someone else”). They proceed through the forms only to find – again and again – that they’re missing this or that required piece of information. For at least three years their efforts were stymied by the refusal of a government office in Pretoria to send the farmers their non-profit registration number. The office insisted the number had long since been sent by post (it was never received), and staff were unwilling to help the farmers further.
Do they think the fact that they’re politically powerless, older rural women stands in their way? Certainly. “They don’t want us to apply.”
The farmers’ experience jives with the experience of women farmers in the Global South more broadly. Women, with lower levels of formal education, are far less likely to successfully access farm credit than men (women get less than 10 percent of the credit aimed at small farmers in Africa); women are much less likely to own or control land; they’re less likely to have access to agricultural education and training; they have less access to labour-saving tools and other inputs; and they have more trouble mobilizing labour when it’s needed. These factors have been exacerbated by external assistance programs that long saw “commercial farmer” as a male occupation. Add in their demanding roles as caregivers for children and other family members, women farmers – the majority of food producers in Africa – produce considerably less food per hectare than men. As the World Bank put it in a 2014 study, “If women worldwide had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30% and raise total agricultural output by 2.5-4%.” The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that those gains alone could raise more than 100 million people out of hunger and undernutrition.
In the Q&A following screenings of The Thinking Garden I’ve occasionally been asked “Is this farm sustainable?” The questioner usually means in economic terms, since it’s very clear from the film, and from the farm’s twenty five-year history, that it’s socially sustainable. The fact that the women can rarely afford chemical inputs and use water-conserving irrigation methods mean it’s on the sustainable end of the environmental spectrum.
I understand the question. I’m open about the fact that generous folks from back home have donated to Hleketani garden a number of times since I started talking and writing about it in 2012. Could the farm run without these donations? The answer I generally give is that they were running very well – albeit close to the bone, given their community priorities – until they were hit by repeated thefts and then slammed by drought. The women date the onset of regular thefts to about 2010. These are certainly linked to deepening unemployment and poverty. Happily, theft hasn’t been an issue since a nighttime security guard was hired two years ago (one use of funds from Canada). Drought, on the other hand, is an increasingly frequent threat. Drip irrigation is the saviour here.
What I haven’t said in response to the question about economic sustainability, until now, is that few farmers anywhere flourish without assistance. Farming at any scale is a risky operation. Governments recognize this fact and routinely provide credit, crop insurance, and a range of other supports. Big industrial farmers in the Global North have long enjoyed government support at levels that many view as excessive. In Canada, where farm subsidies aren’t particularly large by global standards, OECD figures show that between 1986 and 2010 subsidies to Canadian farmers varied between $6-$8 billion per year. Dairy, poultry, and egg producers are the biggest beneficiaries (with benefits tilted heavily toward the largest producers). Canadian farmers today have access to farm credit programs and various insurance programs to help them through crises like drought, pests, or spikes in the cost of inputs. Subsidies and indirect support from government accounted for, on average, 12 percent of gross farm income in Canada in 2014.
That’s a sizeable proportion of farmer income from subsidies, but well less than the 18 percent average for the OECD. Meanwhile, more than half the money farmers earn in Norway, Switzerland, Japan, and South Korea comes from government. US farmers pull in at least $20 billion in subsidies a year (some of the most infamous and globally unfair subsidies have been abolished in recent years, but the figure stands. Today most help comes in the form of income stabilization payments when crop prices fall). It’s important to underscore that what is subsidized is not the small or mid-size family farm. Subsidies have focused on vast industrial operations producing and marketing things like soybeans and corn. As author Michael Pollan puts it, “we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup [and ethanol] … not carrots.”
It seems “economic sustainability” in agriculture is a complicated question. In wealthier countries the biggest farmers receive assistance that, for many years, seriously distorted global production and hampered market access for farmers from the Global South.
Sub-Saharan African governments committed over a decade ago to allocate 10 percent of national budgets to agriculture with the aim of increasing food security and reducing poverty. So far fourteen countries have reached or exceeded the target. With exceptions (see Rwanda’s story in Sources, below), much of the increased expenditure has not reached smallholder farmers. Little has been targeted to women. Spending has focused on expensive inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or hybrid seeds bought from agribusiness companies. Small farmers often can’t afford these inputs, nor is the political will to assist them (or the agriculture sector more generally) much in evidence in countries like South Africa.
Women, as noted, have a particularly hard time getting their hands on support. “It seems like they don’t want us to apply.” In the context of government neglect and increasing local risks – hotter winters, growing pest pressures, more frequent drought, deepening unemployment and poverty – small, no-strings transfers have been crucial. Unlike a lot of government and agency support, the transfers come in the form of funds the women can invest as they see fit. So far that’s meant drip irrigation, security, and the addition of two younger farmers. So far, it’s working.
Action Aid (2013), Fair Shares: Is CAADP Working?
Gordon Conway, ‘Food for thought from the land of a thousand hills (Rwanda),’ The Conversation June 27, 2016
Mail and Guardian (2015), On Africa’s Farms – e-book
Barrie McKenna, Taxpayers oblivious to the cost of farm subsidies, Globe and Mail July 7, 2013
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Oxfam, Fight Hunger: Invest in Women Farmers
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Sara MM, Josephine M, and Mphephu M, interview May 2017
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E. Vibert and A. Perez Pinan, “The View from the Farm: Gendered Contradictions in Global Goal Setting,” (in review)
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Once a year I get to spend a month or so in rural South Africa, sitting in the shade listening to the life stories of older women. The privilege is not lost on me. I listen to the women’s stories, ruminate on their challenges. Then I come home to my middle-class house in my cosy seaside city and write about their lives.
Little by little I’m learning to accept the lessons these women teach. The one that keeps floating to the surface is resilience. Ordinarily ‘resilient’ is not the first word I’d use to describe myself. I might start at the other end of the spectrum, somewhere around sensitive, occasionally depressive. I’m learning.
An early lesson in resilience came in an African-style traffic jam. I’d driven Mphephu, Josephine, and Rosina on a fool’s errand to the market town. The women, who run a community vegetable farm, had a meeting with a businessman who was offering to deliver the farm’s paperwork to a government office in Pretoria. For a modest price he would get the papers under the nose of the civil servant with the power to register the farm as a cooperative. Without this man’s help the paperwork would collect dust on a desk – ‘for three years,’ Rosina predicted.
I was incensed when this fellow – whose business practice ran to holding meetings at curbside in the centre of town – admitted that he actually had no connections in the office that certifies cooperatives. I couldn’t understand the women’s response. They shook his hand politely, retrieved their money, and headed for my car. Errand complete. Weren’t they angry? Didn’t they want to tell him how they felt about wasting half a farming day on a fruitless trip to town?
‘It happens,’ Mphephu said. ‘Sometimes things work.’
On the way back to the farm we landed in the traffic jam. A young man in a police uniform made random, futile gestures while trucks and minivan taxis dodged around him. After sitting on the shoulder for the better part of an hour I’d had it. ‘Doesn’t anyone around here know how to direct traffic? It’s total chaos!’
Rosina reached over and patted my shoulder. ‘It’s ok, Lizzie. It will be alright.’ The farmers carried on with their conversation while I swallowed my First World pride.
The next spring, in 2014, I returned to the farm to find things in a bad state. Most of the irrigation infrastructure had been stolen months earlier. Pumps, pipes, taps – even the electrical cables had been pinched. There are many layers of disadvantage in these villages, many people in need. Someone needed the money, the women told me. Likely they came from another village. Maybe they were part of a gang.
Little time was spent discussing causes. The thefts had come at a fortunate time, if there can be a fortunate moment for massive theft. Southern summer rains were just around the corner. The farmers made a plan. With no irrigation they would have to forego beetroot, tomatoes, and the other exotics that have become their specialty. They went back to the traditional vegetables – maize, squash, and groundnuts sown from seed they save from year to year, indigenous guxe encouraged between the rows. Twenty farmers planted the full six hectares just in time for the rains. By the time I arrived they were harvesting the last of the groundnuts, carefully plucking every kernel from the soil. At 30 rand (C$3) for a coffee can full, nuts are a precious commodity.
To my fresh-from-Canada eyes the farm was a disaster. Desiccated maize stubble is not picturesque. Mildewed, picked-over squash vines do not suggest prosperity. Rosina set me straight, as is her way.
‘We got a full crop of maize,’ she said. ‘We will start again.’
Start again, as they’ve done so many times in the past twenty-five years. The women set up the farm in the midst of a drought in the early nineties, when their children and grandchildren were ill from malnutrition. Then, as now, they had to make a plan. If they got together, they reasoned, maybe they could get support from government or the local chief and build a well. Neighbours thought they were unrealistic, if not crazy. ‘Vegetables like tomatoes, onions, they were for the white people down by the river [with irrigation],’ Rosina said.
I don’t know the source of this kind of resilience. My partner may be on to something when he says the women don’t have the luxury of giving up. But that’s not enough. Many people around them have given up. In a place where half the population is officially out of work, giving up seems like a rational choice.
The farmers’ explanation is that working together makes them strong.
The farm is a community of women; it’s like a ‘big, a very big family.’ This is a message I find both hopeful and distressing. Of course working in a team can bring strength and its own pleasures. But it’s a model that has trouble gaining traction in our acquisitive, individualist society. We’re a culture of self-reliant individuals. We’re supposed to do it ourselves.
It dawns on me that this has been my challenge. For much of my working life I’ve been trying to prove myself as an autonomous individual. Alone, fragile. The women at the farm have taught me otherwise.
The people of Jopi village feel like canaries in a coal mine. The local metaphor features a snail collecting ashes. When I visited Jopi during the severe Southern African drought of 2014-2016, vegetable farmer Daina M told me that home food gardens in the village had produced “nothing, nothing at all” during the growing seasons. Scant rain came too late for the maize and groundnuts that are staples of the local diet.
Mhani (Mother) Daina and her neighbours, like the people in East Africa currently facing drought and famine, are daily living the consequences of the world’s addiction to growth and the resistance of powerful politicians and corporations to meaningful action on climate change. In Jopi village the extreme El Niño of 2015-16, combined with human-induced climate change, brought blistering heat and worsening drought. It is not a one-off event. In the brief six years I’ve been doing research in Jopi, farmers have described more frequent drought, more capricious rains (arriving later in the rainy season; arriving in sudden floods that wash away seeds; not arriving at all), and dry river beds. On a national level major reservoirs and other surface water resources are dangerously depleted, causing community-level shortages that fuel outrage and instability. Beyond the numbing statistics – tens of millions of Africans facing impoverishment and hunger as droughts undermine agriculture first in Southern Africa, now in East Africa and Nigeria – what does climate change mean in people’s daily lives?
In Jopi it means precarious access to water. Mhani Daina can’t afford her own well, so her household relies on the municipal water supply. Water is supposed to run through those pipes twice a week. Women, often spelled off by children or grandchildren, line up dutifully on the appointed days. Some have as many as fifteen or twenty plastic containers to fill (they use 20-30 litres per person per day: Canadians use ten times that). On a good day, when the water actually flows, it can trickle so slowly that people spend more than an hour filling their cans – after queuing. This is time that can’t be spent studying, playing, or working for pay.
There haven’t been many good days lately. Failed rains mean ground-water supplies and reservoirs are not replenished, and rural poverty and poor government planning exacerbate the effects of drought. Mhani Daina used to rely on her neighbour’s well for a back-up supply, but now there is barely enough for that family’s use. Household use includes cooking, drinking, and bathing; home gardens rely on rain.
Heat is the other challenge. When I’m in Jopi, usually in the Southern winter, Mhani Daina and fellow farmers at the women’s cooperative vegetable farm complain that “you can’t even tell it’s winter anymore”: temperatures regularly soar into the thirties under the winter sun. While much of the world worries about the dire effects of a two-degree rise in global temperature, inland regions of Southern Africa can expect a five-degree rise by 2050 unless global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced dramatically. High temperatures are wreaking havoc already. Pests that used to die off in cooler weather now flourish year round. Pumpkin leaves, a favourite local green, are shrivelled and unmarketable within an hour of watering. Indigenous plants provide useful alternatives in dry years but they too are susceptible to pests, and to invasive species. People who can little afford it are forced to turn to less nutritious store-bought food.
Mhani Daina and her co-workers find hope at their farm. They founded the vegetable project in another legendary drought period, 1992. “The farm chased kwashi from our village,” says farmer Mamayila M, referring to kwashiorkor and other forms of malnutrition. For twenty-five years, using water-conserving drip irrigation fed by a productive groundwater well, these farmers have been providing nutritious, reliable, and affordable food to people from Jopi and neighbouring villages. They grow “exotics” including tomatoes, onions, three varieties of spinach, sweet potatoes, green beans, and butternut squash following largely agro-ecological practices.[i] The women are intensely proud of their contribution to the community. Alice K says local children are “fresh” as a result of the farm’s vegetables. Florah M laments the poor nutrition in cheap store-bought food. “Even a five-year-old child can be old from eating that food,” she says.
Extension workers from the provincial agriculture ministry teach conventional growing methods, but the women generally can’t afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They adopt agro-ecological methods of necessity. They work to rebuild the soil with organic material, nourish their crops with chicken manure tea, and — in an early adaptation to climate change — have given up on pest-prone plants like cabbage. Cabbage is a favourite vegetable in the region, but the women of Jopi have helped the community cultivate a taste for spinach, which is both more nutritious and less attractive to pests.
In the context of climate change, this kind of sustainable local initiative is crucial – not just for people’s health, but for broader food security. Healthy local food systems support community development, providing food and jobs where people live. A growing body of research shows that agro-ecological methods produce food systems more resilient to the effects of climate change than conventional agriculture. For instance, soils rich in organic material are better able to retain moisture and less prone to wind erosion; decomposing organic matter feeds the soil far more sustainably than fossil fuel-based fertilisers; and encouraging growth of indigenous edibles among commercial crops helps protect biodiversity.
The consequences of climate change become less theoretical with every failed rainy season (or here in Canada, with unprecedented fire seasons, devastating floods, and year after year of record-breaking temperatures). People who are poor — living in areas particularly vulnerable to extremes, often without adequate housing or clean water, and susceptible to disease — are hardest hit. Farmers living in such areas are adapting and innovating as best they can. Those of us privileged to be insulated from these pressures need to make sure our actions support, rather than undermine, their efforts.
Sources include – [i] Olivier de Schutter, “The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food,” Final Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jan. 2014; Laura Silici, “Agroecology: What it is and what it has to offer,” IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) Issue Paper June 2014.