Real hunger is a devastating reality

Studies show that many South Africans battle to put food on the table. Nomonde Mxhalisa writes about a project to help small farmers feed themselves and their communities.

My earliest memory of hunger is not my own but my mother’s.

I have my own often complicated relationship with food but I am, undeniably, a sweet summer child, born to plenty and warmth. My mother was not. My mother’s family lived in a dusty little town called Klipgat, in the now North West Province. It was there, as a little girl, that she experienced the hungriest time of her life.

She told me about how her father had lost his job and her mother could not find work in the homes of any of the white families nearby. The police had also recently raided the home­steads in their township and had uprooted and burnt fruit trees, destroyed vegetable gardens, seized and slaughtered chickens and goats and killed as many of the neighbourhood dogs as they could find. And so her family starved.

She told me that she remembered standing on their back stoep in the blazing heat and feeling so hungry that she got to her knees and tried to eat the gravel and sand in their backyard.

Hunger, real hunger, sustained hunger with no hope of ease, is one of the intimately devastating realities of the 21st century. Hunger is undeniably an intensely personal and political issue and has laid waste to many human civilisations from the dawn of time. It has driven conquest and war. It has birthed revolutions. Therefore it is absolutely critical that food security, and all the socioeconomic and environmental impacts, be at the top of our agenda.

A country is food secure when everyone has access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food. South Africa is considered a food secure state nationally. However, a recent study by Oxfam highlights the level of household food insecurity and malnutrition. It shows South Africa produces enough calories to feed every one of its 53 million people, yet the reality is that one in four people are hungry on a regular basis. Furthermore, more than half of our population live on the very edge of food insecurity and are at risk of going hungry.

Climate change has also begun to wreak havoc on the South African land­scape.

Our water resources, biodiversity, health, infrastructure and food security are all in peril and rapid and sustainable adaptation are necessary in order to ensure that our country and our people do not become the hapless victims of climate change.

This is where small farmers have a big role to play.

Calvin Makgaila is one of the graduates of the 17 Shaft Leadership and Agro-ecology Centre Project who lives the values encapsulated in the saying “motho ke motho ka batho babang” (a person is a person through others).

The project is a training programme created by the Soweto-based 17 Shaft Education and Conference Centre in partnership with the Southern African Food Lab, WWF South Africa (WWF-SA) and funding from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust. It seeks out South Africans in our most vulnerable and food insecure communities and trains them to become self-sufficient, agro-ecological farmers and leaders able to tackle hunger in their homes and among their people. The training uses language and methods that are familiar, impact­ful and effective. Among the topics covered are minimum soil disturbance, organic soil cover, diversified crop rotations and integrated land use planning.

Makgaila showed me the work he is doing with Izindaba Zokudla and the Sibahle Community Garden in Soweto. He is a passionate community member and emerging farmer constantly seeking new ways to use and share his newly gained skills.

“Not a single South African should go to bed hungry – not one,” he says. “We have the resources we need to feed every single one of our people, we just have to be conscious of the environment and the world and the society we live in and learn to use who and where we are to our own advantage.”

Since his graduation in August, he has initiated a food garden at a primary school on the University of Johannesburg Soweto Campus, established and maintained a food garden for his neighbours and taken over the rehabilitation and care of the Sibahle Community Garden that is used to feed patients of the Tladi Public Health Clinic.

He is also planning a workshop with interested community members and the elderly ladies who work the Sibahle Community Gar­den in order to share the agro-ecological farming methods he learnt during his training at 17 Shaft.

“Poverty is not just about waiting for the government to help us and save us but about ensuring that we are contributing to creating our own salvation – how we create job opportunities and how we help ourselves and each other,” he says.

The project began in 2016 with a group of carefully selected individuals in the Mopani district in Giyani, Lim­popo. Through their newly acquired skills, these trainees are now able to address a number of the environmental and social challenges their communities face and to teach others. A second phase has seen 45 people from across the country undergo the training. And the impacts are already visible.

Accord­ing to Scott Drimie, director of the Southern African Food Lab, two of the Mopani graduates have set up a training co-operative and are actively farming in an agro-ecological way, imparting their skills and approaches to their community. Another has established the Giyani Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) group, which is now regularly supplying organic markets in Johannesburg. And a third is working closely with a Food Lab manager to establish a new training facility in Mpumalanga called the Hoedspruit Hub, which is based on the principles embedded in 17 Shaft.

The spark of inspiration has also been ignited in Makgaili, who has big dreams.

“I want to be a leader in replenishing and growing the soil and reminding people that our actions are not about us today but will have an impact on all of those who come after we have gone.”

Mxhalisa is the communications and marketing officer for the WWF Nedbank Green Trust. 

This article was originally published in the Saturday Star on 14 October 2017.