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Publication Details

Reference
Greenberg, Stephen (2006) Urban food politics, welfare and resistance: a case study of the southern Johannesburg metro. CCS Grant Report : 1-32.

Summary
In 2004 construction began on the Trade Route Mall at the entrance to Lenasia. At a cost of nearly R400m, the mall’s owners seek to take advantage of the growing middle class presence in Lenasia, Eldorado Park and south Soweto. The mall is one of four new regional malls either in advanced planning stage or already completed in the region, the others being the Protea Gardens shopping centre, Jabulani Mall and, the most recent addition, the Maponya Mall near Nancefield. An estimated R3bn annually – three-quarters of Soweto’s estimated available consumer spending - leaks out of the region and into the Johannesburg CBD, and the new developments aim to capture 25-30% of that leakage (Business Day 17.08.05). The Trade Route Mall has more than 100 shops, with most of the big national retailers present, including food retailers Pick n’ Pay and Woolworths. These are top end food retailers, offering a good indication of the market niche the Mall is targeting.

Just two kilometres away lies the impoverished informal settlement of Thembelihle. Without electricity or any formal housing, the residents of this settlement have been forced to fight an ongoing battle against eviction by the state. Poverty is rife in Thembelihle. Many households cannot afford to feed their members a full meal every day. The makeshift clinic, built out of a trailer, is a focal point for residents. Next to the clinic is a small vegetable garden, run by Timothy Ndebele and his team of four. Since 1997 they have been planting vegetables and - in exchange for having access to the land - distributing a portion of the product to the sick and elderly who are regular visitors to the clinic.

The two-kilometre distance between the Trade Route Mall and Thembelihle is not an accurate reflection of the much wider gap between the formal economy and the survivalist economy that they represent. Using the extreme measure of poverty as those living on less than US$1 a day (about R186 a month), the World Bank reported that the number of South Africans living in poverty increased from 1.89 million (4.5% of the population) in 1996 to 4.31 million (9.1% of the population) in 2004 (Business Day 16.09.05). Poverty and food insecurity go hand in hand. According to the Department of Health in 1999 “approximately 14 million South Africans are vulnerable to food insecurity. Among these, women, children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. Among the ultra poor (the poorest 20% of households) the rate is 38%…One in four children under the age of six years (some 1.5 million) are stunted due to chronic malnutrition” (Ngijima 1999, 60). More recent surveys indicate that twenty percent of adults said they could not afford to eat the correct foods, rising to 25% for those over 50 years old, and 33% for those in the lowest income bracket and the unemployed. In Gauteng as a whole, 16% of people could not afford to eat the right foods, but this rose to 25% in Soweto (Business Day 21.09.05). In 2004, children went hungry at least some of the time in 26% of South African households with children (Business Day 18.10.05).

This is not a study about the extent of urban food production in Johannesburg or Gauteng, or even in Thembelihle, though such a study would be valuable. It is a study about the relationship between grassroots organisation and the potential for the growth of a radical politics around food access. The primary question this research attempted to answer was: what has prevented the politicisation of lack of access to food in South Africa’s informal settlements?

Activities around urban food production offer useful insights into broader processes of civil society formation and the relationships between civil society organisations and the state. The state plays a very important role in structuring civil society. This has consequences for the growth and maintenance of independent CSOs. With specific regard to food gardens, it is apparent that no public resources are forthcoming unless people organise themselves according to government criteria. This is the case even if these imposed forms are not necessarily the best from the point of view of participants. The criteria for inclusion in the official food gardens programme exclude those without secure access to land and water – precisely those who should be the primary beneficiaries of such a programme. The political relationship between grassroots civil society formations and local councillors are critical in determining the flow of public resources at the local level. This opens the door to patronage, and forces resource-poor organised constituencies to choose between voicing their discontent and waiting in hope of accessing some public resources. It is clear that local responses to lack of access to food are mainly survivalist and welfarist in orientation. However, especially in the case of collective gardens, there is an inherent critique of the limits of the current systems of politics and administration, and the seeds of transcendence in their self-driven collective activities.

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