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By Nkanyiso Gumede

The South African government’s bias towards the corporate food system during hard lockdown left many South Africans vulnerable to hunger and food insecurity, and resulted in lost income. Most South Africans rely on supermarkets for food. Most of the food in the supermarkets is sourced from large-scale commercial farmers. Meanwhile, the country’s many smallholder farmers have limited access to such markets; and a significant number of those who do are unwilling to supply such markets, since they literally cannot afford to accept the low prices for their produce which are set by the buyers in these cases.

However, despite their vulnerability in this regard, smallholders were further marginalised under Covid-19 when the South African government prioritised support for the formal food system in its response to the pandemic. In large part, this was the result of the severe restrictions imposed on informal traders, who buy much of the livestock and vegetables produced by smallholder farmers. These informal traders, who source their stock from retailers and formal fresh produce markets, as well as from smallholder farmers, were effectively prevented from doing business under the hard lockdown implemented by the government from March 2020.

Image by: Nduduzo Majozi and Nkanyiso Gumede

For Gidinga Makeleni, a commercially oriented smallholder farmer from Ozwathini in KwaZulu-Natal, the first hurdle he faced once lockdown was imposed was sourcing a travel permit. The ban on bakkie traders who had previously bought his pigs, chickens and vegetables, meant he had to continue to feed his livestock until he could find a new market for them. This meant travelling into town to buy more feed for them, which meant securing permission to travel. However, this was to prove anything but straightforward: “I remember going to the police station with the hope that I will get the permit, but when I got there, I was told they do not know anything about the issuing of permits,” said Makeleni. “My ward councillor also did not know.” All of which left Makeleni with little choice: “I then took a risk, and drove to purchase feed for my livestock. Fortunately, I never came across any law enforcement agent, otherwise I would have been arrested.”

Of course, feeding livestock which was ready for market meant losing money. Meanwhile, Makeleni’s efforts to turn a profit from his produce were also frustrated. A local school-feeding programme which had previously bought his vegetables was discontinued, as the schools across the country closed under the national lockdown. The harvest which had been produced by Makeleni and other local farmers was left to rot on the ground or be fed to livestock, as a result of a lack of access to alternative markets.

As income was lost, Makeleni and the other farmers in his area fell behind in servicing monthly accounts which paid for clothing and other items. Contributions to savings clubs and burial societies went unmet. Some dipped into their savings to stay afloat. Meanwhile, many of the farmers in need such as Makeleni and his neighbouring smallholder farmer Danayi Msimbithi received no support from the government’s smallholder relief programme.

Image by: Nduduzo Majozi and Nkanyiso Gumede

Msimbithi, who normally makes a living producing green mealies which she sells to bakkie traders, said: “We are a group of more than 200 farmers in our association but only about 10 received the relief voucher of about R50,000 each. We are happy for them, but the government must try to simplify the process moving forward. There was a lot of documentation that was required. “Since we are in the rural areas, it is very costly to go to town to get these documents or have them certified. Their requirements are exclusionary. That has to be fixed.”

According to Msimbithi, the few who received the relief support vouchers during the first phase expressed some dissatisfaction with the aid on offer, which they described as prescriptive. They said they could only use it to obtain certain products from particular shops, which were in distant towns. The farmers had to pay for transport to redeem relief vouchers on products which, in some cases, they did not really require. Msimbithi said there had clearly been a lack of consultation on what farmers actually needed. She was, however, full of praise for the application process for the Presidential Employment Stimulus initiative, which aimed to provide smallholder farmers with input support. To apply for this, all the farmers had to do was punch in a USSD code on their cellphones and provide the required information.

Three practical lessons may be drawn from the experiences of these smallholders. First, government procurement, such as through school-feeding schemes, can be directed to help ensure reliable and constant access to markets for smallholder farmers and a guaranteed return on their investment in agriculture. Second, the application process for government relief programmes should be simplified to ensure that such support can be accessed by all who are eligible. In addition, the form of support on offer should meet the actual needs of the farmers. Third, proper coordination between the different spheres of government and with those on the ground, as well as the timely dissemination of accurate information to the public on the government efforts, are required to ensure that effective support is delivered.

In this regard, it is to be hoped that, as a result of the pandemic and in recognition of the importance of the informal food and trading system, which both supports smallholder livelihoods and provides broader benefits to the economy as a whole, the government will make every effort to support this sector properly in future.

The material referenced in this article is drawn from fieldwork conducted by the author and Nduduzu Majozi, a PhD candidate at PLAAS. A special thanks to him.

The research that informed this article is part of the African food systems and Covid-19 project supported by the IDRC. To learn more about this project, visit its page here: