Building trust and democratising decision-making across the food system

“Many revolutions have been started not because of philosophies, but because of hunger. In Zulu we say that hunger makes people angry. It is easy to whip people into action when they are hungry.”

This stark warning about the potential impact that the Covid-19 pandemic could have on South Africa was presented by Prof Thuli Madonsela, Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University (SU) during a webinar presented by the Southern African Food Lab. Hosted by Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of AgriSciences, the initiative has for the past decade brought diverse groupings and stakeholders together to seek creative responses to the problem of hunger in order to foster a thriving, just and sustainable food system.

Prof Madonsela was joined on the panel by Mr Kevin O’Brien, Group Sustainability and Risk Executive at The Spar Group Ltd to reflect on human rights, inequality and how to secure food systems. The webinar series was presented in collaboration with the Development and Alumni Relations Division of Stellenbosch University.

Both Prof Madonsela and Mr O’Brien focused on the need to build trust and to democratize decision making, along with the necessity of transparent, adaptive and collaborative governance to achieve cross-cutting coordination between different societal actors during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to Prof Madonsela, access to food is protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and in the South African Bill of Rights. 

She warned that it implies not only the provision of enough food so that people do not go hungry, but also efforts to ensure adequate nutrition. 

“Many diseases, such as kwashiorkor, are going to be experienced by increasing numbers of children. Parents get food just to fill the stomach, but this is not necessarily nutritious food,” she warned. 

South Africa is one of a few countries in the world with a specific commitment to social justice, which Prof Madonsela describes as the equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms, the just and fair distribution of all opportunities, privileges and burdens in societies or groups, and is about embracing everyone’s humanity.

“We need to think carefully about food security, and we need to beg government to democratize decision-making so that it can be all hands on deck,” said Prof Madonsela, who underlined the need for “multiple eyes” to ensure transparency in the process of issuing of tenders and to seek out wrongdoing in the distribution of food parcels, overpriced tenders and wrongful billing activities.

She mentioned that since the pandemic first hit South Africa in April, a Social Justice and Covid-19 Policy and Relief Monitoring Alliance (referred to as SCOPRA) was established to discuss policy and regulatory responses to the pandemic.

SCOPRA pointed out to government that food security is a human right, and that all policies and regulations passed should take it into account as it is part of government’s constitutional duties. SCOPRA also engaged with government on the need to democratize decision making, in particular because it is set out in the Disaster Management Act. 

They’d like to see government use data analytics to predict how all policies and regulations impact on food security, even if it is not directly about food. 

Decisions to close schools and stop food feeding schemes have had substantial implications for the food security of many children who relied on the one meal per day they received at school.

Government unfortunately did not follow the ideas about a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach to decision making, and had to be ordered by the courts to reinstate the school feeding schemes.

Prof Madonsela says SCOPRA anticipated that corruption would hamper food security efforts during the pandemic, and that there would be differences in competencies. 

“Again, a multi-stakeholder approach closes gaps in decision making and leverages social responsibility to make sure the right things are done.”

“Multiple eyes create transparency,” she says. “The glimmer of hope is that there are eyes, and that people are suing (the government).“ 

She warned that food security is about more than providing food to fight hunger, but also entails ensuring adequate nutrition. This can be hampered when food becomes unaffordable, and when there are challenges in transporting it to where it is needed. 

According to Prof Madonsela, the main problem in Stage 3 of lockdown is not the creation of food per se. This might, however, at some stage become a problem if people start abandoning farming because they cannot make a profit from their endeavours. 

“We either stand together, or we fall apart. As a nation we are falling apart. We need to talk,” says Prof Madonsela who advocated for a Covid-19 summit open to every business and organised by government. 

“We should bring everyone to the table to agree on the way forward.”

According to SPAR’s Kevin O’Brien, a world of crisis conversations must seek to proactively build trust and democratize decision-making across the food system more than ever before. 

He says Covid-19 has brought to the fore societal issues that were known to be fundamentally wrong, but to which we had turned a blind eye for years. 

“Now it has hit us like a train without a light in a tunnel,” he said. “It has exposed the deep fragility of our food system, our corporate culture, our societal faults and governmental weaknesses. Most of all it has exposed how weak our leadership is in business, society and government.”

He asked why countries and societies never before reacted in the same drastic fashion upon issues like malnutrition among children as they have done in response to Covid-19 and surmised that the reason is perhaps that Covid-19 hits close to home for all of us. 

According to O’Brien, leadership, purpose, trust, and collaboration should be meshed into the fabric of any society’s sustainable future. He believes South Africa’s complex and broken food system will need collaboration from all stakeholders to improve.

“The competitive, profit-driven ethos of traditional business often means that they struggle with the concept of the greater good, preferring self-interest as a driver,” said O’Brien, who acknowledges that  governments and community-based organisations also grapple with these issues.

He believes systems thinking and an obsession with rebuilding trust should be the basis of effective collaboration.

“Purpose lies at the heart of the change we need to make so that all people can live well in future. It’s about the why, not the how or the what,” said O’Brien.

“Poverty and every person’s right to nutritional food will never solved by CSI and charity,” he added.

He believes the issue of affordable nutritional food can only be addressed if organisations collaborate with other stakeholders, and sometimes even their competitors. He also sees no value in forming relationships with organisations and people who do not have similar purposes.

“The process will need to include acknowledgment by all stakeholders that their past actions have caused the current problems in our current broken food system,” he added.

O’Brien says that a report drafted in 2018 by the Southern Africa Food Lab and WWF-SA showed that South African businesses have an appetite to work together. One of the biggest challenges they face, however, is the “the elusiveness of government” to collaborate with private-owned enterprises. 

He ascribes this to a “justifiable lack of trust” between government and the business sector, due to the legacies of apartheid and the past 10 years in South Africa.

He says that the responsibility of local food-related businesses to pursue the common good has never been greater, and needs courageous, curious and activist leadership.

“Collective commitment to collaborate to reduce their environmental impact, to create employment and to pursue inclusive economies should be at the forefront of businesses’ minds,” he added.

“It is has been challenging to get my organisation (SPAR) to believe that it has a role to play in changing the course of our future by improving the impact we have on the environment, society, and the economic wellbeing of our people. Authenticity in our marketing approach needs to be carefully evaluated as we mature into a more purpose driven organisation. Our leadership should be more skilled in the art of collaboration and understanding effective systems thinking. Transparency, empowerment and innovation need to replace secrecy, hierarchy, control and obsessive planning.” 

Summing up the discussion, Dr Scott Drimie, Director of the Southern Africa Food Lab, asked, “What got us here? The underpinnings of a failing food system are hierarchies, control, planning, and exploitation by the state and private sector. We need a new, purpose-driven, transparent and inclusive approach going forward.”

View the recording of the full webinar here