Category Archives: South Africa

Social impacts of COVID-19 in rural South Africa

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.”

Kliptown, Soweto. Hard to social distance. Quartz

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.

Grocery club, Nkambako. 2018

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.

Agriculture and emissions

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.

Conventional / agroecological cycles

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.

We wanted freedom and we got democracy

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);

Youth unemployment over 50%

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.

Justice Raymond Zondo, head of inquiry into state capture, 2018

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.

Urban ‘informal’ settlement

“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.

Youth farmers 2011

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.

Mtsengas outside their fenced family compound

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.

South African and Canadian youth learn at Xistavi youth program

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.

Sources include:

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

 

Children of climate crisis

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.

Small farm, Eastern Cape (Desmond Latham/IPS)

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.

Moonrise over January and Lydia’s farm

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.