Unrest in South Africa: food security and supply chain responses
When South Africa’s most recent spate of civil unrest, triggered when former President Jacob Zuma handed himself over to the Correctional Services facility in Estcourt in KwaZulu Natal, was at its height, the international media were unanimous on one issue – the looting and burning had fatally disrupted supply chains and this was destined to cause massive food insecurity and disruption of supply chains in the affected parts of the country.
Five days after the unrest broke out, Bloomberg headlined its report ‘Food shortage set to grip South Africa after rioter rampage’. Reuters argued that ‘South Africa unrest (has) hit farming (and) threatens food supply’. The BBC used the headline ‘I’m struggling to find food’ on one of its South African reports. What played out practice did demonstrate the impact on food security, particularly for poor households in Durban, the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and southern Johannesburg. In the peri-urban areas of KwaZulu-Natal including Hammarsdale and Cato Ridge, staples like bread and milk, when they became available once the unrest had subsided, were available at about double the normal price (products were sourced from urban centres and sold at significant mark-ups). The Durban Fresh Produce market was closed for less than a week. When it reopened, prices had blipped upwards on fears of shortages but have returned to pre-unrest levels. The destruction of retail outlets and shopping malls has been particularly severe.
According to President Ramaphosa’s figures, over 200 people died, 161 malls and shopping centres were looted as were a similar number of liquor outlets. The N3 highway between Durban and Johannesburg was closed for five days (11th-16th July) after 23 trucks were torched at Mooi River in the opening episode of the outbreak. This highway serves as an important trade route to neighbouring countries. The disruption to trade was extensive. The N3 corridor carries 60 percent of South Africa’s trade. South Africa is a massive food exporter and is currently enjoying a bumper harvest season. The impact was particularly on domestic supply chains and time-critical exporters like the citrus industry, during the closure of this important highway.
The efforts of food security NGOs and foundations has been appropriately praised for their outreach efforts in the immediate aftermath. Local farmers and agricultural organisations also responded almost immediately. The KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu) has been distributing 25 kilogramme packages of essentials, each designed to support a family of four for a month. Senwes, based in North West Province, immediately donated thirty-three tonnes of maize meal. The full list of emergency donors reads like a Who’s Who of South African corporates and business organisations.
The crisis demonstrated the resilience of organisational networks around South Africa’s food and logistics industries. Kwanalu, for instance, was able to distribute emergency rations because its information network was able to provide information as to who was in need and where. Immediate relief could thus target the dairy towns of Creighton, Donnybrook, Ixopo, Highflats, Bulwer, Impendle and Harding.
Corporates were involved in the hands-on distribution of emergency charity too. Shoprite has a mobile store concept – Usave Ekasi – which consists of a shop in a container on the back of a truck. These were immediately deployed in southern Johannesburg, Durban and the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Pick ‘n Pay sent convoys from depots in Johannesburg to KwaZulu-Natal as soon as the N3 was reopened.
In the rest of the country, the supply chains of the major supermarket groups were not seriously affected; the problem became a matter of how to get food to the affected areas. South Africa fresh produce value chains are dominated by contract buying on the part of the big supermarket chains (Pick ‘n Pay, Shoprite-Checkers, Spar and Woolworths).
South African food retailers source at least 70 percent of their fresh produce from contracted agribusiness suppliers and the struggle to get small farmers into commercial value chains in on-going. Getting small farmers into the supply chains is an ongoing industrial and broader development concern.
There can, however, be no complacency about future food security. The on-going Covid-19 crisis has hit household incomes and jobs, especially in poorer communities, and the damage it has done to livelihoods is still playing out. The destruction of productive plants in the unrest can only exacerbate the situation. Nevertheless, it seems apparent that food supply issues caused by the unrest are being addressed. The measure of resilience that has been demonstrated is remarkable in a developing country.
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