S’bu Zikode: Food Sovereignty from the Perspective of the Urban Poor

Peoples Dispatch
Abahlali baseMjondolo president S’bu Zikode speaking to members of the movement. Photo: Abahlali baseMjondolo

Presentation by S’bu Zikode to the United Nations Food Systems Summit: A Critical dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food on 16 September 2021

On the occasion of World Food Day and the 25-year anniversary of the struggle for food sovereignty, we share a speech given by the president of South Africa’s shackdwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, S’bu Zikode to United Nations Food Systems Summit: A Critical dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food on September 16, 2021.

Food sovereignty from the perspective of the urban poor

May I express my appreciation to the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and all organizers of this important discussion. I greet the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Mr Michael Fakhri, and all fellow speakers and participants.

Current statistics show that almost two million people in South Africa suffer ‘perpetual hunger’, many more suffer periods without food. Around the world vast numbers of people go hungry. 

It is morally wrong and unjust for people to starve in the most productive economy in human history. There are more than enough resources to feed, house and educate every human being. There are enough resources to abolish poverty. But these resources are not used to meet people’s needs, instead they are used to control poor countries, communities and families.

In South Africa what shack dwellers continue to be told is that the hunger and the substandard living conditions in which we struggle to survive, or that force migrants to move, are a result of our own poor choices in life. In reality the problem is that there are no jobs for most of the poor and those few who are employed are exploited and under-paid. Those of us who are self-employed in the streets of our cities to earn an honest living are attacked and have our food confiscated by the metro police. Those of us who occupy vacant and unused urban lands to build homes close to opportunities for livelihoods are evicted and even killed with impunity. It is a very serious problem that when land occupations are criminalized the right to the city is limited to those who have money.

Millions of families in South Africa rely on state grants but they are not enough for a viable and dignified life. Many families go to bed without a meal. We know that keeping the communities hungry and poor is enjoyed by some politicians who use this tragedy as a controlling mechanism.

We also know that when people receive their grants they mostly go straight to the supermarkets to buy food. The supermarkets suck money out of poor communities and make the rich even richer. It was recently reported that the largest shareholder in Shoprite will receive a payment of R342 million. This is completely immoral, especially in a country with mass unemployment, mass impoverishment and mass starvation.

Almost 50% of South Africa’s population is unemployed with over 70% of youth being unemployed. Hunger and starvation are an order of day. In July this year South Africa saw the biggest food riot that we have ever seen in the history of this country, and one of the biggest in the world. The food riots were used as cover by corrupt politicians but the fact is that most of the people who participated in the riots were not supporters of Jacob Zuma and were looking for food. More than 350 people were killed during the riots. After the riots the police and the army went door to door in poor communities seizing food at gunpoint. They killed at least one person, Zamekile Shangase, a person who had held an elected position of leadership in one of our branches.

The food riots sent a clear message to the government and corporates that as long as people live in poverty there can never be peace and stability. Today the UN and corporations should draw an important lesson on the recent development in South Africa. Without justice there will be no peace.

The Covid-19 pandemic made this situation even worse with national lock downs restrictions. During the hard lockdown people who were already poor and living precarious lives were forced to stay at home with no income. This created anxiety and frustration in some families. Gender-based violence and other social ills such as rape increased during national lock down. It was very difficult for people to adhere to important health measures. How do you keep social distance when you are forced to live in a highly congested environment? How do you constantly wash your hands when you live in a shack settlement that has been left without water?

As a result of abandonment by the state Abahlali have had to occupy vacant and unused land to build homes for our families, to start cooperatives for community gardens, to run mini cooperative shops, share childcare and create political schools, and places for poetry, music and dance.

It has been through these kinds of experiences that we have demonstrated that self-organized and democratically managed forms of food sovereignty can eradicate hunger, and even poverty, if the state will allow it. It would be even better if the state will support it.

We have achieved land reform from below, built community halls and creches for our children without the support of the state. However, we have had to organize and resist to remain on these pieces of land that are often not large enough to also produce food for our families. Lives of sons and daughters of our movement have been taken, women and men have been killed. The recent killing of Zamekile by the police in Lamontville in Durban is another painful experience of poor people being killed with impunity. Her children are orphans today with nobody to raise them with a mother’s love.

We have done incredible things on our own against severe repression from the state. However, our lives would be much better if the state gave us the space to organize ourselves freely or even supported us to organize and build our collective power. To deal with the question of hunger we need urban land, support to farm that land in the form of seeds, irrigation, tools, organic fertilizer and so on. We also need a system of markets where poor people can sell food to each other and keep their money moving among the poor.

We face two forces that oppress us. One is the corrupt politicians that always want to control us to make money from our poverty. But we are also oppressed by corporate power manifesting itself in different forms during brutal evictions of communities and no accountability. Some state organs are being used by corporates who then hide behind the police to displace communities from the land. The way that corrupt politicians and corporates have captured the state has created poverty and misery. This has been well articulated in evidence presented at the State Capture Commission known as the Zondo Commission in South Africa.

We can only overcome food crises when the social value of land is put before its commercial value. Land must be decommodified and the poor supported to build cooperate urban gardens and farms, and to sell to each other through a system of local markets. The food system needs to be taken back from the supermarkets. This will also have the benefit of making healthy forms of food available to the majority. As an immediate measure in the crisis the huge profits being made by the supermarkets can be very heavily taxed to help to pay for all this. But the supermarkets that remain after building a system of grassroots food sovereignty need to be handed over to their workers and managed democratically, buying most of their food from small scale community gardening and farming projects.

It is important to understand that there cannot be a capitalist solution to the crisis of hunger and that there cannot be a solution to the crisis without building the democratic power of the oppressed from below.

Our movement makes the following demands:

  1. There must be a rapid release of land for housing and community farming and an end to evictions.
  2. Urban farming cooperatives must be supported with seeds, fertilizer, tools and land.
  3. A system of local markets must be established and supported so that poor people can sell to each other.
  4. The informal economy needs to be supported and the confiscation of goods for making an honest living must no longer be criminalized.
  5. There needs to be serious and massive program of job creation.
  6. Government must provide a viable basic income grant for the unemployed until they find a decent job and exit the system.
  7. There must be provision of a reasonable COVID-19 relief grant for people in distress during this time.
  8. The governance of our cities must be democratized and people supported to build democratic forms of popular power from below.