South Africa needs a national food security council to fend off starvation

By Nic JJ Olivier and Sheryl L Hendriks

For millions of poor households across Africa affected by lockdowns, the threat of contracting Covid-19 may be more distant than the very real fear of hunger. Many are indefinitely trapped in cramped homes with multiple household members, wondering how they will find the means to survive hunger.

“For millions… this has been a month of misery, of breadwinners not working, of families struggling to survive and of children going to bed and waking up hungry.” – President Cyril Ramaphosa, Message to the Nation, Freedom Day, 27 April 2020.

Did African governments simply forget about food security?

How is it that in countries across Africa, food security considerations were not initially considered as part of the precautionary actions taken in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Watching the trending stories across South Africa, Lesotho, Kenya and Madagascar, it appears that politicians – while racing to “flatten the curve” of the virus to avoid the collapse of health systems – have focused their attention almost exclusively on disaster management and security concerns at the neglect of food security. With the 2007/8 food price crisis a not-too-distant memory, the responses of governments to the Covid-19 crisis do not seem to have prioritised matters relating to ameliorating the impact of these measures on food security.

The situation people across the world find themselves in would have been inconceivable a couple of months ago. National lockdowns, such as those in Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe and city lockdowns in Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Nigeria and Ugandahave been hastily implemented by governments faced with a unique crisis. Governments in Africa have little to guide them in their pressured decisions to save lives, save seeing what countries in Asia and Europe have implemented since February this year.

The last pandemic of this scale (1918) predates the independence of African countries and the massive globalisation that drives the spread of the virus and its economic impacts. As stated by Macky Sall, president of the Republic of Senegal, the “Covid-19 pandemic, just like the threats to the environment and the scourge of terrorism, confirms the objective limits of the nation-state in responding to cross-border threats”.

Rapid decisions core to Covid-19 responses

Decision-making in times of crisis is challenging. In the race to save lives, trade-offs have to be made. The sudden onset of the pandemic, its rapid evolution, and the enormous needs to be addressed may have led to Africa’s leaders failing to consider the food security implications of their measures. The suddenness and previously unthinkable extent of the radical curtailments caught ordinary people by surprise too.

For millions of poor households across Africa, affected by the lockdowns, the threat of contracting the virus may be more distant than the very real fear of hunger. This is also true for South Africa with its pervasive presence of the triple challenge of deep poverty, persistent inequality and high levels of unemployment. Forced to remain at home by the intangible Covid-19 threat means an immediate loss of income in the short term for those who do have some form of income, with fears of redundancy and unemployment in the long term. And for those without any income (whether in the formal or the informal sector), the situation is at least as bleak as their dependence on a share of the limited income of family members has become a hollow memory.

Many are trapped in cramped homes or shelters with multiple household members for an indefinite period, wondering how they will find the means to survive hunger.

Following the increasing incidents of rioting, looting of stores and hijacking of trucks transporting food and the increasing attention to the plight of the hungry in public media four weeks into a five-week hard lockdown, President Ramaphosa has recently announced wide-ranging social protection (relief of social distress) interventions.

If the country had an operational national food security council prior to the onset of the lockdown, food security might well have been a central (and integrated) element of the emergency response plan.

Hunger in SA: The stark reality is getting worse, much worse

As indicated in our earlier Daily Maverick article, “How South Africa can feed its hungry children during the lockdown”, 11% of all South Africans experienced hunger prior to Covid-19. Four weeks into the lockdown, these already disturbing statistics have increased by leaps and bounds to alarming heights. The 27 April 2020 HSRC survey of the socio-behavioural impact of the 27 March lockdown on South Africans in high-density and rural settlements (up to 16 April 2020) found that 24% of all respondents surveyed had no money to buy food, and in some areas, it was even much worse – more than half of informal settlement residents (55%) and 66% of township residents.

Freedom from hunger is a universal basic human right

Various binding global, African and regional (SADC) instruments recognise the right of everybody to be free from hunger and compel states (including South Africa) to take steps to realise this universal basic human right. In addition, South Africa has committed itself to meet all the goals as set out in key instruments such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the 2014 AU Malabo Declaration. SDG 2 (Zero hunger) aims to, by 2030 (a) end hunger and ensure access by all to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round: and (b) end all forms of malnutrition.All African countries have committed to ending hunger in Africa by 2025, including eliminating all child undernutrition (by bringing down stunting to 10% and underweight to 5%), and halving poverty by 50% by 2025.

This is echoed in South Africa’s Constitution which guarantees everybody’s right to sufficient food (section 27(1)(b) – albeit subject to the availability of state resources); the absolute right of children to basic nutrition (section 28(1)(c)), and the absolute right of detained persons to adequate nutrition (section 35(2(e)). The Constitution compels the state to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of the section 27(1)(b) right to sufficient food.

In other words, in situations such as Covid-19 – where there is a high probability, or a certainty, of a significant increase in the number of people who will experience hunger – it may be expected of the state to proactively make arrangements for the availability of the necessary resources (including food parcels) and the implementation of appropriate beneficiary identification and distribution systems.

The pivotal role of national food security councils

The Malabo-Montpellier Panel’s report, “Nourished: How Africa can build a future free of hunger and malnutrition” reviewed the progress of African countries in reducing hunger and undernutrition in the Millennium Development era (2000-2016). The panel found that one of the key elements present in the seven most successful countries (Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal and Togo) was the existence of high-level accountability and co-ordination structures overseeing food security policy and programme implementation.

In each of these seven African countries, a National Council on Food Security plays a pivotal role in providing leadership and co-ordination of the various sectoral responsibilities related to food security and engagement of stakeholders such as United Nations agencies, donors, development partners (including NGOs) and the private sector.

For example, in Cameroon, the Interdepartmental Committee for Food Security, chaired by the secretary-general of the prime minister’s office, brings together 19 ministries. Rwanda’s food security is overseen from the office of the prime minister through an Inter-Ministerial Co-ordination Committee. Likewise, Senegal’s Cellule de Lutte Contre la Malnutrition (CLM) is situated in the prime minister’s office and includes a national co-ordination office responsible for food security and nutrition-related programmes and project management.

These seven African countries have ensured, through the establishment and operationalisation of their food security councils, the effective functioning of well-co-ordinated multi-sectoral entities that are both proactive and responsive to sudden external events (be it drought, other natural disasters or Covid-19 lockdowns).  These councils also successfully serve a vitally important inclusive consultative and consensus-building role, involving all stakeholders (including, among others, civil society and the private sector).

In a recently completed study on food security and nutrition in Malawi it was found that the establishment of an overarching, presidency-led, food security and nutrition co-ordination council is an absolute requirement to deal effectively with its internal food insecurity realities and meet its global and African undertakings.

A council for South Africa on the table for a very long time

The idea of a Food Security Council is not new to the South African government.

The need for the co-ordination of food security and nutrition was already explicitly spelled out in the 1997Food Security Policy for South Africa: A Discussion Document (where the establishment of an interdisciplinary unit in government was mooted). The 2002 Integrated Food Security Strategy for South Africa proposed the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee of core ministers (responsible for food security and nutrition) to provide political leadership, reporting to the Ministers’ Social Sector Cluster chaired by the minister of health.

The 2014 National Policy on Food and Nutrition Security for the Republic of South Africa (approved by Cabinet in September 2013) mandated two national government departments (the then Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Department of Social Development) to be in charge of the implementation thereof. The principle of partnership between the public, private and civil society sectors is entrenched in the policy. As regards co-ordination, it stated that a “National Food and Nutrition Advisory Committee (chaired by the Deputy President)” would be established, “comprised of recognised experts from organised agriculture, food security and consumer bodies, as well as climate change and environmental practitioners and representatives of organised communities”. It also indicated that similar advisory structures might be established at the provincial and municipal levels. In addition, the policy (in line with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s recommendation) foresees the possible drafting and enactment of a Food and Nutrition Security Act for South Africa in order to give statutory force to the above-mentioned co-ordination and advisory structures; it also envisages a Green and White Paper process to prepare for such legislation.

According to a DAFF presentation on 27 July 2015, the establishment of the National Food and Nutrition Advisory Council (chaired by the deputy president) was part of the way forward in the finalisation of the Food and Nutrition Security Implementation Plan. In addition, it stated that the RSA Food and Nutrition Security legislation process had been initiated.

In its 22 March 2017 presentation to the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, DAFF reported on the development and implementation status of the National Food and Nutrition Security Plan 2017 – 2022.  The plan identifies six strategic objectives, of which Strategic Objective 1 (SO 1) deals with the establishment of the multisectoral FNS Council: “Establish a multisectoral FNS Council to oversee the alignment of policies, legislation and programmes; co-ordination and implementation of programmes and services which address FNS, and draft new policies and legislation where appropriate.” The immediate tasks of the council would “include reviewing recommendations of the various evaluations and advocating for the integration of policies, legislation and programmes to achieve coherence”. DAFF also reported that the Terms of Reference of the Council (using the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) as a model) had been finalised.

DAFF’s Annual Performance Plan for the 2018/19 fiscal year mentioned under Programme 3 (Food Security and Agrarian Reform) the existence of the National Food and Nutrition Security Committee [NFNSCC]; however, this is an inter-governmental entity, consisting of DAFF and the provincial departments of agriculture. This DAFF document does not contain any explicit reference to the establishment and operationalisation of the Advisory Council. In a similar vein, no specific mention of the Advisory Council was made by DAFF in its 2019 submissions to National Treasury in respect of its 2020/21 budget allocation.

Even DAFF’s Annual Performance Plan 2019/2020 does not contain any explicit reference to the establishment and operationalisation of the Advisory Council.  Strategic Objective 3.1 states that the Department aims to “lead and co-ordinate government food security initiatives”. The DAFF Quarter 2 Performance Report for 2019/20 also has no reference to the Advisory Council. This is also the case as regards the review of Government’s performance for the period 1994 to 2019, Towards a 25 Year Review.

Although the  May 2019 Final Report of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture acknowledges that both the state and the private sector are key role players in ensuring food security, it states that “there is poor alignment between these sectors strategically and operationally.” No explicit mention is made of the Advisory Council.

It seems that, based on the absence of any official communication and as far as can be ascertained, the process of establishing an interim National Advisory Food and Nutrition Council has stalled – for a period of 37 months after the above-mentioned 22 March 2017 explicit announcement by DAFF to the Portfolio Committee that the Terms of Reference of the Advisory Council had been finalised.

A council needed now more than ever due to Covid-19

Should such a council have been in existence before the Covid-19 pandemic, the deputy chair of this council would probably have been part of the National Command Council and members of the council would have been ready to serve on the team of experts set up to advise the National Command Council on food security matters. In all likelihood, the response plan and considerations of the National Command Council would have included responses, safety nets and provisions for ensuring that people and households do not go hungry during lockdown.

If such a council were in existence in South Africa when the Covid-19 pandemic started rearing its ugly head, it would have had up-to-date statistics on food insecurity. This would include food stocks and flows, demand and supply data, food production and distribution patterns, consumption patterns, markets and trade data as well as knowledge of who the hungry and food insecure are in South Africa, their demographic profiles and locations, the levels and depths of food insecurity, as well as an understanding of what makes them vulnerable.

Modelling of the potential impact of the lockdown and virus on food security could have happened simultaneously with the extensive evidence-based analysis happening in the health sector. Costing of interventions would have been possible under various scenarios, and partners would have already been around the table to support – and assist in implementing – appropriate interventions.

Never too late – urgent interim arrangements are possible

Fortunately, the legal framework and related administrative processes to establish an interim National Advisory Food Security and Nutrition Council as a very high priority do exist.

A recent example of the establishment on an interim basis of an advisory council and the appointment of its members was the National Advisory Agri-parks Council (NAAC).  The NAAC was established by the then minister of the Department of Rural Development and Land with the concurrence of National Treasury. This included, among others, approval of its terms of reference, functions and responsibilities, composition, the appointment of members and their remuneration, operational expenses and related matters.

It is suggested that the Presidency should seriously consider the immediate establishment of the interim National Advisory Food Security and Nutrition Council (with the fast-tracked support of the Public Entities Governance Unit of National Treasury and the Department of Public Service and Administration).

It is further recommended that the interim National Advisory Council should consist of the following:

(a)   The president or deputy president (as chairperson);

(b)   Senior officials (of at least at chief director level) from core national government departments, such as the Presidency and the Departments of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform (DARDLR), Social Development (DSD), National Treasury (NT), Health (DoH) and Basic Education (DBE); and

(c)    Independent food security and nutrition experts, each qualified and appropriately experienced in one of the following domains: agriculture, food security, nutrition, health, food safety, education, policy, law, markets and trade, public administration, and monitoring and evaluation.

The interim Advisory Council should immediately after its establishment attend to the following matters: (a) as the first priority, the determination of the status of food security and nutrition in South Africa, and the formulation of emergency response initiatives to those who are the most needy; and (b) as a second priority, the development of an implementable countrywide programme to enhance food security and nutrition during the projected life of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Other core functions include, but are not limited to, the following:

(a)   The establishment and maintenance of a comprehensive database of all policies that impact on FSN;

(b)   The establishment and maintenance of a comprehensive database of all legislation that impacts on FSN;

(c)    The rationalisation of all existing policy and legal frameworks that impact on FSN;

(d)  The drafting and processing of a FSN Bill;

(e)   The execution of comparative research;

(f)     The overall co-ordination of all FSN programmes and projects as regards planning, funding and implementation, etc;

(g)   Mobilisation and tracking of investment and support;

(h)  Capacity development and training;

(i) Engagement with stakeholders and civil society;

(j)     The planning, implementation and maintenance of an appropriate comprehensive database of statistical information relating to FSN;

(k)   The planning and implementation of a comprehensive monitoring, evaluation, reporting and intervention structure and related systems as regards all matters relating to FSN;

(l)   The undertaking of mid-term and end-of-term evaluations, and of impact assessment;

(m) The adjustment of existing programmes in order to incorporate the findings of evaluations and to enhance impacts; and

(n)  The publication, on a quarterly basis, of the status of FSN in South Africa.

It is also suggested that the president should, as a high priority, instruct the relevant government department to initiate, on an urgent basis,  the process of drafting a comprehensive Food Security and Nutrition Bill, which would provide for the establishment of the Advisory Council as a statutory body (with legal personality) and which will also give legislative content to the constitutionally enshrined right to sufficient food and, in the case of children, right to basic nutrition

The interim National Advisory Food Security and Nutrition Council, with its key role in respect of the complex status quo as well as its future role regarding the policy, legislative, strategic, programme and institutional as well as monitoring levels, is an absolute prerequisite:

  • To deal timeously, effectively and in an integrated manner with the reality of deep hunger and pervasive malnutrition (which, on account of Covid-19, have seen dramatic increases); and
  • To enable South Africa to meet the global and African food security and nutrition goals that it has undertaken to realise (such as the SDGs and the 2014 Malabo Declaration commitments).

Finally, the speedy establishment of the interim National Advisory Food Security and Nutrition Council and the appointment of its members will assist government and provide an immeasurable service to all South Africans confronted with the devastating realities that Covid-19 has imposed on of all of us – and will continue to impose in the near to medium future. 

Prof Nic JJ Olivier is Extraordinary Professor in the Faculty of Law, North-West University. The opinions are those of the authors and in no way reflect the opinions of the institutions they are affiliated with. 

Prof Sheryl L Hendriks is head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development at the University of Pretoria.

This post originally appeared on The Daily Maverick on 11 May 2020.