A film telling the inspiring story of South African women seeking food justice
This is a film about resilience – three generations of older women in a village in South Africa who came together in the dying days of apartheid to create a community garden. In the midst of severe drought and political turmoil, older women with limited access to land and little political voice joined together, beyond the household, beyond their kin, to make something new. They named their garden Hleketani – “thinking” in the local xiTsonga language – a place where women gather to think about how to effect change. The garden provides affordable vegetables to local people, nourishes those living with HIV/AIDS, and offers land, community, and opportunity for women. In short, the garden has helped restore the lives of people pushed to the edge. Filmed against the backdrop of a new drought gripping southern Africa, The Thinking Garden tells the remarkable story of what can happen when older women take matters into their own hands, and shows how local action in food production can give even the most vulnerable people a measure of control over their food and their futures.
As part of a lecture series on Decolonizing Settler Societies, Dr. Vibert gives a presentation on the history of apartheid and dispossession in Jopi Village, South Africa and the lasting legacies from that history.
*This lecture was originally presented to an undergraduate seminar class in the History Department at the University of Victoria
South Africa’s already extreme inequality, along racialised axes of income, wealth, and opportunity, has been exacerbated by the global pandemic. The vulnerability of many people’s livelihoods, and the food insecurity that is a key marker of that vulnerability, have been brought into sharp relief.
As Tessa Dooms of Global Governance Futures observes, South Africa’s five-stage lockdown was delivered in ways suited to “middle-class suburbia.” Measures appropriate in well-resourced communities are neither feasible nor humane in informal settlements and poor rural communities. Now more than ever, she argues, the state needs to make targeted practical interventions “that govern the two sides of South Africa.”
South Africa’s strictest lockdown measures (Level 5) were in place from late March to early May; having “flattened the curve,” the country moved to Level 4 (still sharp restrictions) through May and Level 3 in June. The country is now at Level 1 “alert,” while remaining in the top 10 countries in the world for confirmed cases and top 15 for COVID deaths. The country’s national economy will likely contract by 8 percent this year and take at least four years to recover. The UN Development Program estimates that one-third of middle-class households will slip from that status, and that “women, particularly in the poorest female-headed households, disproportionately bear the brunt of the impact of COVID-19.”
Social impacts of the lockdown at household level are illustrated by conversations with a range of community members in the villages of N’wamitwa, Limpopo Province, in May and June, when the country continued in lockdown.*
Family and neighbourly support networks have always been crucial to local wellbeing in these communities. Those networks are “destroyed” by pandemic lockdown, in the words of Josephine M of Jopi village. “We can’t check on our relatives, we can’t go to church, people lost their jobs because their companies have closed. … This thing has destroyed things at my home, my community, my relatives, and my country.”
Gotfrey R of Nkambako says he understands and respects the lockdown for public health reasons. But it comes at a very high cost.
“This is the village. If you don’t have food, [normally] you could go to the neighbours and ask, or to your relatives. That is not happening because rules were set for the country. We are not able to share the little that we have as family, relatives and neighbours. A person has to stay at home and mind their own food. And when it’s finished, the kids look at you, and you get hurt and cry.”
Traditional Authority board member M. C. Baloyi also highlights the impacts on crucial mutuality networks. “In our communities, rural areas, we are used to supporting one another. ... The spirit of UBUNTU is always there. But you now cannot see that happening because people are prohibited from supporting one another.” One of the casualties is stockvels, the savings, credit, and purchasing clubs that so many rely on to grow their savings and stretch their limited funds. “Most of our communities are used to stockvel .. and those meetings are not held anymore. Most families are relying on that to earn a living.” Now people are unable to save to pay their costs and grow their meagre funds. “That becomes a very serious headache for those who do not have income” and rely on these social and investment circles for material support.
Rose N’s household in Nkambako has been kept afloat by her adult son, whose job continues. He has helped her buy maize meal to feed her school-age children. “If my son wasn’t helping because he is still working, I don’t where will I be.”
Rose describes the narrowing of the diet that came with her loss of income (she is a bartender and stitches for a craft cooperative). Rose curbed her tea drinking because “I feel like when I drink tea I am eating the bread for my children.” She limited her own meals to “pap and sauce” (maize porridge and sauce) to protect some diversity in the children’s meals. “Now I’m just cooking beans. We are not used to this way of eating. We are suffering.”
Rose registered her family for food parcels from the municipality, but they never materialized. “They keep saying we will get [a parcel] on a certain date. But since lockdown the only other help I got was from church; they gave me a food parcel because they could see that I am poor.”
Mthavini M in Nkambako, 80, describes the downward spiral in her household’s food supplies. She stopped going shopping for food in town when health workers warned about contagion, and when runs on urban shops during restricted hours made shopping impossible. “We are not able to get enough food because we are not able to go to the shops. You eat twice a day because if you say you want to eat three times a day, where will you get the food? Maize meal [gets] finished at the local shops quickly.”
At first her farm income was hit because some were continuing to shop in town while others were reluctant to leave their homes for fear of “this monster” (COVID-19). As more people in the village observed lockdown, at times harshly enforced by police, “they want spinach … and now there’s nothing left because everyone runs to the farm.” Farmers were given permits to leave their homes for work, because “if we farmers say we are afraid to come out of our houses [to the farm], people were going to die of hunger.”
Bus driver Jackson Matsimbi describes the shift from being able to “control the situation around food” to food poverty under lockdown. “If you don’t have money [to shop], you stay at home. … You have to eat pap in the morning and evening, instead of breakfast, lunch and supper. Pap.” Two meals instead of three, pap with few accompaniments. Children stuck at home from school create added strain, since they would normally eat a hot meal at school at midday, and again at after-school care.
Another father, Gotfrey R, notes that “we have started to respect food. What pains me the most is not me, but my kids. My kids are used to a certain way of eating … but when this situation arrived, things became heavy to a point where I wasn’t coping” because his children could not eat as usual. “We have to reduce the amount eaten [during the day] and save for evening.”
At the time of the interview Gotfrey had not received the government assistance he applied for, nor any food parcels. “I hear that people are getting them [food parcels], but I personally did not get any help so far.”
Traditional Authority board member M. C. Baloyi notes the special challenges for the poorest people. Government emergency funds, added to the social grants that support so many unemployed and low-income households, were difficult to access for those who did not have cellphones or the ability to purchase data. Those who did manage to apply generally found delivery very slow.
Major structural reforms are clearly needed to address deepening inequalities and vulnerabilities in South Africa, vulnerabilities laid bare by the pandemic. Land reform is one structural intervention that could have major impacts in these rural areas. As Ben Cousins argues, land reform is essential “to help address inherited historical injustices, especially those resulting from land dispossession of the black majority.” Pro-poor land reform will restore land to individuals and communities who lost their homes and land due to colonial and apartheid-era forced removals. It will create secure rights to land held by the black majority, helping to create viable and dignified livelihoods in rural areas. Cousins continues, “When South Africa eventually emerges from the fog of the COVID-19 crisis, structural reform, including land reform, will be high on the political agenda as never before.”
Rose agrees. While lockdown has been difficult, she worries about what comes next. “After lockdown, who is going to give us food? There are no jobs, where are we going to work? … You can see how our economy is. Where are we going to start and end? Where? It can never be the same.”
***All interviews were conducted by Basani Ngobeni in the villages of N’wamitwa, in person where permitted and otherwise by telephone. Basani administered a food security questionnaire prepared by the Four Stories About Food Sovereignty research team.
Other sources include
Ben Cousins, “Study Shows Land Redistribution Can Create New Jobs in Agriculture in South Africa.” The Conversation 3 June 2020.
“Beyond ‘Stay Safe’: Covid-19 and Inequality in South Africa.” A Conversation with Tessa Dooms. Global Policy 8 July 2020.
South African History Online. "The Natives Land Act of 1913."
United Nations Development Programme. “South Africa’s GDP could plunge 8 percent this year.” 31 August 2020.
Ayakha Melithafa is not as famous as Greta Thunberg, but she may soon be. Ayakha is one of sixteen youth from around the world, including Greta, bringing a complaint before the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child. Their claim: climate change is a crisis for children’s rights.
The Committee monitors implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. If the Committee finds that signatories have infringed those rights by “knowingly causing and perpetuating the climate crisis,” as the youth petition charges, then signatory states will be urged to act to protect children’s rights. The petition specifically names Brazil, Germany, France, Argentina, and Turkey, but South Africa, Canada, and every other state that has ratified the Convention may feel a moral obligation to respond. (The U.S. signed but did not ratify the Convention.)
Ayakha, 17, goes to school in Cape Town while her mother and siblings live in the Eastern Cape. Her mother is a small-scale farmer and, like the women at Hleketani Garden, has been living the impacts of climate change for several years. Drought set in in the Eastern Cape in 2014. More recently, international headlines blared as the city of Cape Town counted down toward “Day Zero,” when urban reservoirs would run dry. Rural regions, where thousands of small farmers grow food for their households and local communities, got few headlines.
Ayakha, who told her story to The Mail and Guardian, says her mother and other small farmers “really don’t know when the rains will come. … My mom knows when to plant which vegetable. She knows how the weather will be.” Not anymore.
Her mother’s livestock have also been hard hit. “I saw all these animals die,” Ayakha recounted. “A full-grown cow is about R16,000 [$1,450 CAD]. I saw my family lose all that money. My mom is supporting five children; she’s the only one working.”
With this hit to the family’s finances, Ayakha’s mother, along with so many other rural farmers, will struggle to provide for her children’s school needs. Such immediate impacts are obvious and keenly felt. Less obvious, but perhaps even more devastating, is the impact on the dream to send one’s children to university.
In Limpopo Province, at the other end of the country, January Mathebula speaks hauntingly of the declining fortunes of the vegetable farm he tends alongside his wife Lydia. The farm used to thrive and paid for their children to go to university, he explains. At the moment, it barely provides enough for the costs of their youngest daughter's subsistence, textbooks, and travel home from the University of Cape Town, where she is studying mathematics on a scholarship.
“We are waiting for the rain, then we can farm,” January says. “But what about now? What about now?”
Now, January and Lydia need money from the farm to support their daughter in Cape Town. Without rain, however, they don’t know whether or when that money will arrive. “Our children grow up on the money from the farm. What can we do?” Until recently they were also supporting their infant grandson, whose parents work in Johannesburg. Income from the farm’s cabbages and leafy greens is the family’s livelihood, and the food is the source of their health.
Farmers like January, Lydia, and Ayakha’s mother face an uncertain future as Southern Africa is wracked by drought, intense storms, growing pest pressures, and unpredictable seasons. Farmers in this region know how to innovate and adapt to drought in the short term – it has long been a regular feature of farming here. But droughts that last years, in combination with these additional pressures, are a new kind of crisis.
As Ayakha and her peers insist, it is a crisis with deep consequences for children.
A few years ago, climate scientists struck on the idea of explaining the impacts of climate change through food: show people how a warming planet, with its devastating droughts, floods, and other extreme events, will hit us at the kitchen table. The strategy grew out of a 2014 study by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warned of sharp declines in food production as the effects of climate crisis deepen.
This month the IPCC released a more urgent report: keeping global temperature rise to a liveable minimum demands a transformation in the way we produce food. Food production and agricultural activities, including forestry and food waste, account for almost one-quarter of greenhouse gas production. Incorporating the whole food chain, including fertilizer production, transport, and food processing, takes that contribution to nearly 30% of greenhouse gases. Half of methane emissions (one of the most harmful greenhouse gases) come from cattle and rice fields. Soil degradation and erosion, resulting in part from the destructive soil practices of industrial agriculture, threaten our future in profound and unacknowledged ways. Healthy, properly managed soils, meanwhile, can be a vital carbon sink.
The new IPCC report explains that land must be managed more sustainably if we are to make meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. Focusing on transportation, industry, and energy is not enough – we must address agriculture. Sustainable land management means reforestation,rewilding (including, e.g., restoration of peat lands - which, like healthy soils, absorb and store greenhouse gases) and major reductions in land use for food animals and the grains that feed them.
Which brings us back to the kitchen table:
Avoiding – or at least reducing – meat and dairy consumption is one of the most effective ways to reduce our personal carbon footprint. Eating beef twice a week (calculated as two fast-food patties, 75 g each: i.e., not much!) results in 600 kg of greenhouse gas emissions across a year. This is equivalent to driving a gas-fuelled car 2500 km. Producing those humble patties consumes 1700 m2 of land. Beef produces about six times the carbon emissions of chicken, and 150 times the emissions of beans. The newly-public ‘Beyond Meat’ burger is looking better all the time. For a succulent homemade veggie burger, try this black bean burger or one of these.
The women at Hleketani Community Garden, like most people in the Global South who eat little meat, have been eating a relatively low-carbon diet all their lives. Their plates are piled high with maize meal porridge, leafy greens, and other vegetables. Peanuts have been a key protein source for generations, and feature in this tasty staple dish from Tsonga kitchens. Happy meatless eating.
Spicy Spinach from Hleketani Garden (from Recipes from The Thinking Garden; order at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Saute a diced onion in oil.
Add and saute a crushed clove of garlic.
Stir in two bunches (450 g) of giant spinach or Swiss chard,
A squeeze of lemon juice,
½ c vegetable stock or water,
1 t (to taste) of South African Peri Peri Sauce or other sambal or chili sauce.
In a separate bowl mix 2 T peanut butter with ¼ c stock. Stir to a liquid consistency, then stir into spinach mixture. Heat through and serve.
*In N’wamitwa, freshly ground peanuts are used. The dish is served with vuswa, maize meal porridge. It's tasty with brown rice or any grain.