Stark warnings of a looming global food crisis spark fear as millions of people will likely descend into hunger in the coming months.
As the New York Times put it, for the global food supply “there are few worse countries to be in conflict than Russia and Ukraine.” Nearly 50 nations, many low-income and numerous in Africa, depend on these two countries for much of their wheat, as well as other grains and cooking oils.
For households chronically at risk of food insecurity, the Russian invasion is the latest in a long series of pressures.
The proportion of the global population at moderate or severe risk of hunger has been rising since 2015 as a result of the combined impacts of the climate crisis, conflict and more recently COVID-19.
The women I do research with in N'wamitwa, South Africa, have been staring down food crises and working to mitigate the effects for years. Many of these women are counted among “the poorest of the poor.” This means they live on less than US$1.90 a day (the World Bank’s money metric for extreme poverty) and fall below their country’s lowest poverty line, insufficient income to meet minimum food needs.
Despite being “poorest of the poor,” these women are not sitting on their hands waiting for assistance. Like resource-poor people all over the world, they are busy devising strategies and enacting tactics to meet the latest challenge of food shortages and surging prices.
Keeping households afloat
Thirty years ago, these women established a co-operative farm in the midst of a catastrophic regional drought — we made a film together about the ongoing value of Hleketani Community Garden to their households.
The pandemic “destroyed things at my home, my community, and my country. We could not visit our neighbours, could not check on our relatives,” says founding farmer Josephine Mathebula. “The farm fed us.”
Another crucial strategy these women pursue is savings clubs, known in South Africa as stokvels. As Caroline Shenaz Hossein, a global development and political science researcher, argues, these savings clubs are “at the very core of what we know as the solidarity social economy.”
They are a key example of the diverse, ethical economic practices — including co-operatives and other forms of mutual aid — that help keep poor households and communities afloat.
South African stokvels are community generated, self-run savings clubs where members pay a monthly fixed sum and take turns collecting the funds accumulated. Clubs multiplied during the 1990s and 2000s, bolstered by growing confidence among Black and brown South Africans after achieving democracy, and in the face of urgent needs during the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Stokvels are much more than a piggy bank for enforced savings. Strict rules about contributions, borrowing and interest (specific to each group) aim to instil financial discipline and autonomy. Club names like Titirheleni (work for yourself) speak to such goals.
Women in these rural communities say the clubs are rooted in customary practices of shared labour and reciprocal assistance. Farmer Sara Mookamedi notes that club members “help each other, like a family” — albeit one that kicks members out if they fall foul of the rules.
The value of savings clubs
All 27 women who work at Hleketani Garden are members of savings clubs. Some belong to as many as six or eight distinct groups. While members save for everything from children’s post-secondary education to water tanks to funeral expenses, “grocery savings is the number 1 priority” according to Basani Ngobeni, a resident of the village and my longtime research collaborator.
Members of grocery savings clubs sock away funds all year for bulk purchases of dry goods, with some contributing 100 rand (US$6.50) per month, others much more.
In December, they hire a truck and travel to a wholesale warehouse in the city 40 kilometres away to fill their massive order. Clubs prioritize items that are expensive at retail price or hard to find in the village — things like flour, canned fish and sanitary products. The grocery haul a member takes home is in line with their payments throughout the year.
With the cost of a basic basket of foods for low-income households rising 10 per cent in South Africa over the past year — even before events in Ukraine — many South Africans face major challenges in securing sufficient, healthy food for their families. The savings clubs are a lifeboat.
Crisis is nothing new in many communities across the Global South. These communities have been shaped by colonialism, by trade and agricultural policies that undermine local flourishing, by conflict and by the impacts of a climate emergency they did not create. Crisis is a given for resource-poor households globally, but — in the absence of supportive policies — so are these careful strategies of self-provisioning and mutual aid.
The early view that the continent of Africa had been “spared,” relative to the Global North, in the coronavirus pandemic appears to be debunked by emerging data. While known infection rates and death rates are lower, many countries – including South Africa – have entered a third wave, and with global inequities in vaccine access deeply entrenched, ongoing impacts are likely to be felt for a long time to come.*
The growth and spread of new variants of COVID-19 in the absence of vaccination is a major concern across the continent, and by extension the world. As the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, recently said, “It is crucial that we swiftly get vaccines into the arms of Africans at high risk of falling seriously ill and dying.” Troublesome Beta and Delta variants are circulating in many African countries, and in light of low testing levels in some regions, the emergence of other variants may go undetected until they become widespread.
A wide range of statistics paint a grim picture of global vaccine inequity. Only 0.3% of the more than 800 million doses administered by the end of April went to people in lower-income countries. While the US gives 3 million jabs per day, fewer than 40 million had been administered by May, in total, across 100 countries of the Global South. G7 countries outpace low-income countries in vaccination 73:1. While nearly two-thirds of Canadians are at least partially vaccinated, less than 1% of the population of low-income countries have received a dose. Canada has been widely seen as a “hoarder,” reserving up to five times as many doses as we need, while COVAX – the global mechanism for equitable vaccine access – is grossly undersupplied.
Two weeks ago COVAX put out an urgent call to rich-country governments, noting that it faces a second-quarter shortfall of nearly 200 million doses – mainly because of the need in recent months to prioritize delivery to South Asia as the catastrophe unfolds there. Donor nations must prioritize access to vaccines before such devastating surges occur. COVAX calls on the G7 and other wealthy nations to “urgently unlock new sources of doses, with deliveries starting in June, and funding so we can deliver.” COVAX has the infrastructure and expertise to manage this global effort. It needs the vaccines.
My friend Mixo M, a nurse from N’wamitwa who works at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg – the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere, and the inner-city hospital at the epicentre of Gauteng Province’s rising third wave – has not yet received her jab. Mixo’s situation as a worker truly on the frontline of South Africa’s pandemic is emblematic of inhumane, and dangerous, global supply inequities. (The country, which has vaccinated only 0.5%, has faced an array of local hurdles, including a dominant variant that didn't respond well to the Astra Zeneca vaccine the government initially prioritized and then sold off.) As Dr. Keitumetsi Sothoane of the same hospital puts it, “Our biggest worry as health care workers [is] the impact of the virus on our already understaffed, overburdened, overwhelmed, and resource-limited public health care system.” The longer the country waits to be vaccinated, the greater the strain on that system. Beyond public health, it is hard to fathom the potential long-term economic and social impacts of a protracted pandemic in a country that already ranks as the most unequal on earth.
This week’s G7 summit in England failed to take the resolute action needed to improve global vaccine access, mainly due to an unwillingness to confront the interests of Big Pharma. Oxfam UK issued a sharp rebuke at the close of the summit:
“[G7 leaders] say they want to vaccinate the world by the end of next year , but their actions show they care more about protecting the monopolies and patents of pharmaceutical giants.” Sharing a billion vaccines, as G7 nations have pledged to do, is an important step -- but the WHO says it needs 11 billion to reach its (lofty) goal of 70% global vaccination by this time next year. The G7 donations pledge “will only get us so far," Oxfam says. "[W]e need all G7 nations to follow the lead of the US, France and over 100 other nations in backing a waiver on intellectual property. By holding vaccine recipes hostage, the virus will continue raging out of control in developing countries and put millions of lives at risk.”
“Wanting” to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022, without action, is pretty words: most projections are that poor nations will wait until 2024 for full vaccination. Pharmaceutical companies hold the lucrative patents, blocking the ability of countries like South Africa to undertake their own, local production of vaccines and other medicines needed for the COVID response, or even to direct their own import programs. Much of the research that grounds vaccine development was publicly funded over many years, and governments transferred more than US$110 billion to pharmaceutical firms to finance urgent research and roll out of COVID vaccines. Yet the powerful companies – enabled by patents – monopolize production, keep prices high, and keep out-size profits flowing.
Pharmaceutical companies claim that Global South countries don’t have the skill or latest technologies needed to produce their own COVID-19 vaccine, a colonialist view that is simply wrong (as both India and South Africa have demonstrated). South Africa and India first requested a waiver of certain World Trade Organization intellectual property rights in October 2020, to enable countries to direct their own vaccine programs. More than two-thirds of World Trade Organization members have signed on to the waiver proposal. Canada has not signed on to this important step in removing barriers to wider, more equitable vaccine production and access.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz calls the patent waiver “a critical first step” to ensure optimal global access to vaccines and other therapeutics for COVID-19 – for the sake of both public health and economies. “There is no way to beat COVID-19,” he emphasizes, “without increasing vaccine production capacity. And some production must be in the Global South for a host of reasons, including that prompt suppression of new variants is how we avoid more deaths and quarantines.”
For Southern Africans, glaring inequities in access to life-saving medical therapies raise disturbing memories. The world watched (or, more aptly, turned a blind eye) while HIV/AIDS completely overwhelmed the healthcare systems of countries across Southern Africa and ravaged a generation. The pandemic of HIV/AIDS peaked in Southern Africa in 2005-06, fully a decade after most Americans, Canadians, and others in the North had access to anti-retroviral medications that transformed HIV from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease. The speed of developing the new medications (which was impressive, though laggardly when compared to the lightning speed of COVID vaccine development) “was not matched by a similar speed in ensuring everyone could get access to the [medications], with treatment out of the reach of the global poor,” says Deborah Gold of the UK's National AIDS Trust. Pharmaceutical patents were a hurdle then too. It took dogged activism by civil society groups in Southern Africa – groups like South Africa’s Treatment Action Committee -- to finally prick the conscience of wealthy nations and institutions. These groups' voices, and the voices of African grandmothers who played such a central role in the AIDS response at community and household level, were amplified by Stephen Lewis, then-UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS and himself one of the most dogged figures working to marshal local and global resources in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.
Still today, grotesque inequities in access to HIV treatments persist. This is a mark of a major failure in global political will and resource provision.**
Deborah Gold speaks of striking parallels in official responses to HIV and to Sars-CoV-2. A nation-by-nation approach fuels vaccine nationalism and more inequity, and can hardly succeed against a virus coursing through the veins of the world. Among the similarities in response: “governments being too slow to respond; a marked impact on minority communities and a failure to understand why; a governmental response which has veered into overpolicing and victim-blaming, rather than taking every conceivable measure to help people stay safe and healthy.” The history of the global response to HIV teaches myriad lessons, many of them simple: the more people treated quickly, the better people’s health, the fewer who are able to pass on the virus, and the fewer who fall ill and become a burden on health care systems.
The coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for the global community to act like a community, considering the interests of all before (or at least alongside) the interests of each. Instead we seem to be treating vaccination like “a league table,” as Gold puts it, a competition to see which country gives the most jabs first, which company rakes in the biggest profits. Once again, the former colonies in the Global South are stuck in the waiting room.
*Africa, the continent, sits at just over 130,000 recorded COVID-19 deaths thus far, putting the continent sixth for death toll behind the US, Brazil, India, Mexico, and Peru. Numbers of dead are known to be underestimates in many countries, including these five.
**HIV/AIDS is far from a thing of the past. 38 million people currently live with HIV worldwide (35 million have died since the start). While new infections have fallen dramatically due to medical treatments, in 2020 1.5 million new cases of HIV were recorded, nearly 900,000 of them in Africa - where adolescent girls are hardest hit. Access to life-saving medication, which also suppresses transmission, continues to be a struggle for millions of poor and marginalized people worldwide, and pandemic shutdowns have deepened the challenge in ways that are not yet clear.
Sources include –
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe. Princeton University Press, 2000.
COVAX Joint Statement. “Call to Action to Equip COVAX to Deliver 2 Billion Doses in 2021.” World Health Organization, 27 May 2021.
Gold, Deborah. “’Vaccine Nationalism’ Echoes the Disastrous Mistakes Made with HIV.” The Guardian 2 Feb. 2021.
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.
One of many powerful sentiments expressed at this year’s South African conference on Recognition, Reparation, and Reconciliation is “we wanted freedom, and we got democracy.” The frustrations of young people in particular, nearly a quarter century after the hard-won achievement of democracy, are deep and deeply warranted. There is no meaningful freedom for youth (here defined as under 35) who cannot find jobs, even if they were fortunate enough to finish high school and access some form of higher education. Nor is there meaningful freedom for older women who now earn a monthly income from the Old Persons Grant – only to exhaust every cent of it helping to support two or three generations of family members.
At the conference many commentators pointed out how South Africa’s experience of the past quarter century presages the catastrophe unfolding in so many other countries of the Global North and South. South Africa’s tight embrace of neoliberal (market-fundamentalist) economic strategies, with results including deepening inequalities of wealth and income (see French economist Thomas Piketty’s global analysis, with its special focus on SA);
its jobless urbanization and constricted growth; and its ecological disasters (Cape Town’s “zero water” spectre only one of many) anticipated processes that are now unfolding much more widely. Sarah Nuttall, director of Witwatersrand University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, observed that pain once seen as particular to South Africa is spreading in a “global after-life.”
Here I focus on the life stories of two South African youth, Dzunani and Nkhenso (names changed), to illustrate the nature of the challenges facing South African society – and, in some measure, many other liberal democracies today. Dzunani and Nkhenso both come from rural Limpopo Province; both were small children when Nelson Mandela won the presidency after decades of political struggle and imprisonment, and following several years of challenging and violent political transition across the country. Both are living the frustrations and disappointments that today define the “rainbow nation.”
Dzunani graduated from a decent rural high school in 2000. He has always been a hard worker – the phrase he uses to describe himself in preference to any other. His parents were hard workers, his father as a plumber in Johannesburg during the apartheid era, and his mother raising several children in the rural “homeland.” When Dzunani’s father fell ill and lost his job, his mother began to take on seasonal work at local (Afrikaner-owned) farms and later worked as a cleaner. The parents impressed on their son the importance of securing his own path through commitment and hard work. Like so many South Africans, they felt a surge of hope for their children when apartheid was dismantled and Mandela’s ANC came to power. The hope lasted well into the 2000s, South Africans being a generous lot and having learned patience through years of abject experience. Hope began to falter at the height of the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, a crisis neglected by the fledgling democracy under Mandela and infamously enflamed under his successor, President Mbeki.
Hope turned to outrage and despair with the flagrant abuses of democracy and economy enacted by Jacob Zuma’s presidency – abuses encapsulated in the phrase “state capture,” to express the degree to which private interests (especially but not only those of the Gupta family companies) “captured” the agenda of governance and the functions of the state, and subverted these to the interests of capital.
Back to Dzunani. His dream when he graduated from high school was to become an engineer. He was good at math, and could fix anything that came his way. His grades were not high enough to earn him a bursary to university (and his parents, like many who grew up under apartheid, had no idea of how to position their first-born for higher education). He spent many months going about the countryside and nearest town asking people “where do I go to find a job?” Dzunani landed a first job helping with construction projects around the communal territory where he lives. With a recommendation as a hard worker, he earned a marginally more secure position (because salaried) as a packer at a banana farm. But without seniority, he was let go when the farm cut back on labour. Worn out by lack of opportunity in the rural region, Dzunani headed to the city in 2004. His experience there was dire.
“I was telling myself that I would work at any job that I get. … But at Johannesburg I didn’t get a job. Just finding, finding, finding [looking, looking, looking], agggh, until I decided to come back again to home.” Dzunani experienced what so many learn in the city: in an economy of structural joblessness – an economy that spawns precarity and insecurity rather than decent employment – life in Johannesburg was unsustainable. He found work with an engineering company for a few weeks; they made promises of stable employment that never materialized. The company paid him a very small sum and let him go without notice. While in the city Dzunani camped on the floor of a cousin’s flat, but still he couldn’t afford to stay “because in Johannesburg they need money for food, money to pay the rent.” After many more months without work he returned to the village, where he could live rent-free in his parents’ compound.
Dzunani finally had some luck in 2010. He happened to hear at a funeral of an externally-funded job-readiness project for youth that was coming to the local villages. He took his resumé to the office of the youth education project, and to his delight he was selected to participate in a six-week program called “Fit For Life, Fit For Work.” His cohort was then chosen to start a youth food security project, also externally funded – a vegetable farm that would provide Dzunani with salaried, stable work from 2011 to the end of 2017. Serendipity took Dzunani to the farm; hard work and commitment kept him there. Sixteen youth started at the farm in 2011. Retrenchments followed little by little as external funds began to dry up (various complex problems stood in the way of the farm becoming self-sustaining, not least competition from larger commercial farms and supermarkets). Dzunani remained until the end, clearly the most talented and devoted of farmers.
Dzunani told me several years ago about his transformation to farmer. With his colleagues he spent three months at an agricultural college learning a mix of conventional and agro-ecological farming methods. From time to time he was offered additional short courses in agro-ecological methods of pest control, soil management, and aquaculture. He soaked up the learning – and more profoundly, the daily experience of working in the soil – and became a farmer.
“I feel it. I feel like a farmer,” Dzunani says. “I pray every day, every night for thanks for giving me that opportunity to know this one, because it’s my career … I enjoy it and I like it to be my career.”
It was not an easy six years. The monthly salary never increased, despite sharply rising food and living costs. By the end of his time at the youth farm, Dzunani was spending nearly one-third of his salary on transport from his village to the farm site. Transport costs are often suffocating for rural workers and a major challenge for those in the cities, who generally live in poor neighbourhoods far from their place of work. He and his co-workers arranged a “taxi” (as small-van private transport is called) to carry them every day from a central pick-up point to the farm in a distant village. Even with that arrangement, transport costs were choking. A local white farmer heard this story and told me “they must make a plan” to reduce their costs – moving closer to the farm, for instance. That’s an impossible compromise for youth who live at very low cost on their parents’ compounds, contributing as they can to the shared costs of food, water, and other necessities. Moving to another village means purchasing or renting land (that is, if it’s even available in the over-crowded villages) and building a small house. These costs would eclipse monthly transport costs several times over. The suggestion of this “plan” makes clear the white farmer’s – and perhaps the government’s – utter lack of comprehension of social and economic realities in poor households.
Close to the bone as his circumstances were when he worked at the farm, unemployment was far worse. Dzunani shudders when he recalls his years of under- and unemployment. Waking in the morning with a knot in his gut as he faced another day with nothing to do, he remembers being blamed for thefts and other nuisances in his village.
“You wake up and you don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says. “It’s very hard, you wake up … The important thing is to work and get money for food. If you don’t work you don’t have food, soap for cleaning your body, clothing … Ayeesh, it’s very, very, very hard to wake up with nothing to do. If you don’t work, are you going to steal from the neighbours? Even if it’s not you, even then the neighbour says it’s you: you are not working, you are staying at home. Some others are going to school, others are at work, and you, you’re staying at home. Everything that is bad, [they say] it’s coming from you.”
With regular work, by contrast, “when I wake up in the morning … I’m happy because, in my heart, I’m telling myself ‘I’m going to work’.” Regular work enabled Dzunani to build two rooms on his parents’ compound for his wife and two children. It enabled him to help with school costs when the elder child started school a couple of years ago. His wife manages the child support grant for each child – US$28 per month per child that is crucial to enabling children to attend school (attendance is free, but uniforms, books, and transport cost money), and keeping them properly nourished.
Dzunani was the last of the youth farmers to be “released,” the mild local euphemism for dismissed, from the food security project. All the salaried workers were replaced by casual workers, mostly older people who live near the farm and can be called up when there’s planting or harvesting to be done. His dismissal is emblematic of a rising global shift from salaried work to casual precarity, a shift lamented by millennials in Canada as in the Global South. Since being let go, Dzunani has been moving around the countryside as before, “finding, finding, finding” work – piece work at construction, picking produce, whatever he can turn up. He’s cheered by the prospect of finding work closer to his heart – and, importantly, walking distance from his home – at Hleketani Community Garden, where the women have promised to call him when they need help with odd jobs. More powerfully, they have offered him a patch of irrigated ground where he can grow food for his family and, all going well, for sale. When he worked at the youth farm Dzunani’s dream was to one day have his own farm. He couldn’t afford the land. Perhaps this is a step in that direction.
Nkhenso’s story is different, though more in the details than the broad sweep. Several years younger than Dzunani, she was born at the start of the transition to democracy (1990, the year Mandela was released from prison). Nkhenso grew up in the same communal territory as Dzunani, under the same traditional leader, in a village down the road. Her father was in the picture on and off during her childhood, but stopped contributing and ultimately left the household when she was in high school. Her mother was left with Nkhenso and five younger children to raise. Nkhenso, who had been a good student, saw her chances of higher education evaporate.
Like Dzunani, Nkhenso had the good fortune to be chosen to participate in the Fit For Life program. She came to the attention of the program’s leaders as a smart young woman with enormous energy and strong language skills (her mother had taught her children English from a young age, and often insisted they speak English at home). These abilities have landed her occasional work as a research assistant and interpreter on university research projects. With the money she earns Nkhenso helped her mother extend the house from two to several rooms, helps pay for school uniforms and other school needs for her younger siblings, and helps support her own college studies in the city.
Nkhenso’s story is still being written. Serendipity and talent brought opportunities, as they did for Dzunani. But for vulnerable households in precarious circumstances, it is often one step forward, two steps back. Among many backward steps beyond their control, Nkhenso’s family has seen their stable life on the family compound brought to a crashing end by the return of the father.
Nkhenso’s father is able to claim the plot because it came through his family when the couple married. Although Nkhenso’s mother raised the family there on her own for many years, and might win the argument in court, she knows that she would likely face retribution if she sought to stay. She and the children have taken refuge on her family’s small plot in another village. The children now face all the challenges of starting again in new schools – while traumatized by the uprooting – while Nkhenso’s mother has had to leave behind a very supportive community of women and church colleagues. She visits as often as she can, but the cost of transport, and time away from her children, make it difficult to draw on those connections. She remains a member of various savings and credit clubs in the original village, connections that are vital to the constrained family economy. She is trying to recreate normalcy for her children at a time when her own emotional life is in turmoil.
The situation takes a toll on Nkhenso. Since the final family split and the move to her grandparents’ village a few months ago, Nkhenso has frequently come home from the city to deal with her siblings’ crises and the family’s material needs. She aches to see the resources she so lovingly invested in the family home squandered on a father who has done so little for his children. She aches to witness the pain of her mother. All this travel and turmoil draws Nkhenso away from the studies that might, in a just world, underwrite a different kind of future.
Writing from another context, the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante describes how the dream of a new day – with its faith in progress, improvement, growth, technology – is shown to be without foundation as the strains of late capitalism accumulate. In Ferrante’s bleak formulation, “the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.” Is the lesson of Southern Italy also the lesson of South Africa? Is there still time for a different ending? Nkhenso and Dzunani are committed to another step forward. May it be toward justice.
Ferrante, Elena. 2015. The Story of the Lost Child. Europa.
Mbembe, Achille. "Revisiting 'Historical Trauma'," Keynote address at Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation Conference, Stellenbosch University, 8 December 2018. Unpublished.
Nuttall, Sarah. "Dark Light: Coming Out of Trauma," Plenary address at Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation Conference, Stellenbosch University, 7 December 2018. Unpublished.
Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard.
Piketty, Thomas. 2015. Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. Nelson Mandela Foundation. Transcript at https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/transcript-of-nelson-mandela-annual-lecture-2015
When I ask the women at Hleketani Community Garden what the garden has done for them, the answer is immediate: “It heals us.” They break into a call-and-response song: “Where do we heal? At the farm!”
In this post I'll consider, as much as possible through the farmers' own words, the nature of the historical trauma they experienced under apartheid; the political – resistant – response they developed; and the forms of healing that the farm continues to offer 26 years after its founding.
Hleketani Garden was founded by several dozen women in 1992, in the throes of the tumultuous transition from apartheid to democracy, and in the midst of a severe regional drought. In other writings I analyse the farm as a case study in social economy – a collaborative, grassroots enterprise with a social remit, whose purposes go far beyond material benefits to generating a community of cooperation and mutual help. These kinds of initiatives are proliferating across the globe – small, constrained, but meaningful acts of self-determination in an era of increasingly precarious livelihoods, soaring inequalities, and ecological devastation.
Under apartheid Jopi village was in the so-called homeland of Gazankulu, which was envisioned as a rural enclave for women, children, and elderly people of Tsonga ethnicity – their men were the labour force in the mines and cities. This rural-urban binary is misleading: people and resources circulated among these spaces, within and in infraction of the strict spatial regulations of apartheid. Yet rural space was, under apartheid, a space apart. Prior to 1970, when the people of what became the village of Jopi were forcibly removed from the countryside and placed in a cramped new space they would call “the lines” in reference to its tight grid pattern, the countryside was a heavily female domain. The twenty-seven women from the farm recall their lives in the countryside – a place they insistently refer to as “our home” – as healthy, traditional, unencumbered. No doubt there is some nostalgia here; some retrospective reanalysis in light of the historical trauma entailed in their removal from the countryside. Yet their stories of life in the countryside are of a piece:
“Back then there was enough rain, there was water in the rivers. Everyone ate from the big gardens. Children learned to plough [grow food] from their mothers and grandmothers" (Sara); "We had to cook with a big pot” to accommodate the produce of their vast gardens. “At the countryside we had space for sorghum, we had space for maize, we had space for squashes. … It was a healthy life" (Dinah).
The women don’t recall much direct intervention in their lives from the apartheid state before 1970. Sara recalls that “the only thing white people would do is come and arrest you when you didn’t pay the permit for your dog or your bicycle.” Substantial service had to be paid to the hosi (traditional chief), but the apartheid state felt distant. The major exception was the impact of the migrant labour system – a system that was a product of British colonialism, and that carried over and took on particular manifestations under apartheid. Its effects were deeply felt across families and kin groups. The men lived in workers’ hostels and women were not allowed to visit. “Distance made a very big gap between husband and wife,” the women say. Husbands were away most of the time, only entitled to holidays from work for – at best – 21 days at Christmas and a shorter break at Easter. Some got home only once every few years. Many of the women recall being afraid of these virtual strangers. Daina’s words are poignant: “you had children with a person you had no relationship with.”
Their rural lives changed in 1970, when households were “chased” from the countryside to the lines. Formally, this enforced move was part of “rural betterment” planning, a process aimed at improving rural economies to ensure they could support and reproduce the segregated African population (e.g., through infrastructure projects like dams; conserving soils and trees). “Betterment” was infused with the belief that black people inhabited a backward and wasteful subsistence economy. Chiefs found themselves agents of policies rooted in a logic and set of priorities alien to their society, and which (as historian Peter Delius shows) “most rural residents saw as profoundly invasive and destructive.” The forced move to the lines was part of what scholar Cherryl Walker calls the “unruly multiplicity” of actual land dispossessions. The women view it as forced removal. They acknowledge certain benefits – their children would now go to school, girls included; new rules protected many kinds of trees. But the dominant memory is of a profound, collective trauma. From their vantage point nearly half a century later, the removal from the countryside was a tear in the social fabric from which their communities have not recovered. As Mphephu puts it, "They didn't better anything. They destroyed our lives." Across seven years of interviewing, the women consistently cite the move to the lines as the root cause of many present problems, including chronic food insecurity. And it brought home the harsh realities of apartheid: the government “started controlling us when we moved to the lines,” Sara says.
Memories of removal are vivid and charged. “The government came with donkey carts, we loaded our things, they said ‘we’re showing you your land.’” These are the words of Daniel, the husband of farmer Mphephu. He was at work in a mine on the Rand when the dispossession occurred. “I’ve got nothing to say. Not one of our family remained there. I can’t find words” to express the losses – loss of land, of home, of the graves of the ancestors. The forced and inhumane nature of the move still stirs anger. “It was heavy,” he says. “We were not in control … They never consulted us. It was an order,” and it was very clear there was no recourse. “Who were you going to complain to?” he asks bitterly. “This was not happening in Jopi only; it was happening across South Africa.” Here he links the tragedy of his kin to that of the community and the nation. The women’s tones are similarly sharp in discussing these events. “There was nowhere you could go and ask,” Mijaji says. “The only thing we heard is that there’s new stands and we have to go. Women were not allowed to attend the meeting” where their indhunas (headmen) passed on the order, so they heard even less than the men.
After being “chased out” (ku caciwa) of their homes, given little chance to prepare, people arrived at the lines – the village site – to find few arrangements had been made for the sudden influx. “The only thing they gave us was stand numbers,” Mphephu says. “They should have made reservoirs” and other preparations. She and others, several of whom were pregnant, remember making bricks to build houses (a task requiring fetching extra supplies of water from the river). There were long days of work in an inhospitable space; Mamayila remembers working all day to build the houses, and then cooking after dark. A particular trauma for her was losing a baby and not being able to mark his grave. In the countryside the family would plant a tree to mark the burial site of a loved one. In the village they were expected to pay for a grave marker, and she had no money to do so. She is still disturbed by not knowing where that child rests in the cemetery. A more general trauma came when the local chief, Gagesha, was imprisoned. He had resisted the removals, arguing to the homeland government that at the very least proper preparations needed to be made before his people were torn from their farms. The government locked him up and appointed his more compliant cousin as chief.
“I lost everything I knew, the trees and the land,” Dinah says of the displacement. “Now the space of ploughing is very small. … We can’t forget sorghum,” the indigenous grain they no longer have space or labour to grow. Mamayila says it’s “very painful [va va ngopfu] to remember the way we were situated. It was so nice. You had enough land to have your garden, donkeys, cattle kraal, one side for goats, one side for pigs.” Today we have “maybe a cattle-kraal size,” says Sara. Land dispossession is at the heart of the trauma. “Pain comes in this way,” Daina explains. “This is my compound; right there the mango tree is somebody else’s compound.” Over the years the women have often conjured chickens as a metaphor for overcrowding in the village: “If my chicken tries to pass [the property line], it stirs up a fight between neighbours” (Daina); “If the chicken says it’s moving, it’s going next door” (Mphephu). As a group they settle on the phrase “you can’t find a place to spit” (ku pfumala vuphelo bya marha) as the most apt way to describe the lines. They implicate crowding in many of the health crises they face today. High blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, asthma, stroke, and circulatory problems are all called “diseases of the lines,” becoming widespread because “there is no air between us” (Sara). Josephine is curt: “the one who signed that paper” calling for the move to the lines is responsible for these diseases.
These recollections shouldn’t be written off as nostalgia, nor the challenges blamed on population growth. Compounds in the betterment villages are very small, an estimated 850 square metres on average, and the arable portion smaller still. Water was a limiting factor from day one, and growing demand and neglected infrastructure make water a critical concern today. Overgrazing, erosion, and other effects of overcrowding and climate change further diminish agricultural potential.
The women do not draw such a straight line between the move to the village and the crisis of HIV/AIDS; rather, HIV, for these older women, is related to cultural losses that accompanied the loss of their healthy lifestyle in the countryside. “We lost our culture and tradition when we were chased here,” Mhlava says. Daina points out that “so many cultural [practices] are not happening, because we’re sitting on top of each other” with no privacy. Elder generations used to be the main influence on children’s behaviour, including through initiation rituals; now it’s the neighbours and television, Sara complains. Then she returns to material explanations. “It’s because of hunger,” she says. Impoverished girls look for boyfriends because they hope they will give them money. Mthavini insists that what she names as a decline in morals, alongside a rise in criminality, is “happening because we are poor. Our kids aren’t working,” and the grandparents’ grants aren’t enough to meet their needs.
The women have a sharp critique of the growth of individualism and acquisitiveness, and again they implicate the lines. (They also understand that these are global trends: television both relays and helps constitute the problem, they point out.) The word they favour to describe this cultural shift is jealousy (used in the English). They allow that there could be jealousy in the countryside – people might be jealous if their neighbours reaped a better harvest, for instance. But in the cramped quarters of the village, with its many layers of scarcity, jealousy reaches fever pitch. “We’re burning,” Sara says. Being so close together means seeing everything the neighbours have, and endlessly comparing. Mthavini remembers an early Christmas in the village when she kept her children indoors all day, despite stifling heat, to protect them from the sting of not having the new clothes and special food that some children were enjoying. Rosina laments the demise of the communal ethic of the countryside, where households shared with neighbours in need without question. “Now people eat food and some they put in the dustbin, without asking their neighbours if they have eaten.”
The shift to the lines meant “all we could do was work for white farmers,” Mijaji says. “Pick tomatoes. We didn’t know that [later] the good government would come, give us a farm in our village to plant tomatoes and grow.” That grant of land and borehole well, provided by the hosi and the departments of health and agriculture in 1992 (transition era), changed their lives. “The farm makes us forget what we had in the countryside,” Mhlava says. The forgetting heals. “The farm is our hospital.” This six-hectare garden is the first place they have felt “at home” since the countryside. Mamayila puts it poetically: “Our hearts are back to teenagers. Our hands are so strong. Only our legs are painful.” She picks up a stick and acts the part of an old woman hunched over a cane: “In the morning I will have to drag myself out of bed, walk with my walking stick, and think about my home.” Several say they would be buried at the farm if given the choice, underscoring its role as home.
The founding of the garden was grounded in women’s resistance to their predicament, resistance enacted through their communal tradition. “One finger cannot feed us,” they say. “We had to work together.” The strategy is driven by their determination to resist the deepening challenges of hunger, poverty, and unemployment in their households and community; and to “make something for ourselves” as women. By a number of measures, the farm has been a success. In material terms, as Daina puts it, “Our people are being saved, their lives are being saved. There is no more kwashi because of this farm.” (Kwashi, for kwashiorkor, is the local catch-all phrase for malnutrition.) In commercial terms its success has been very modest, but only the agricultural extension officer measures success in those terms. The farm’s impact on fragile household economies is substantial. Women describe how the “seconds” (blemished vegetables) they take home from the farm twice a week free up scant household income for children’s school needs, other household needs, and savings clubs. Importantly, take-home vegetables free up cash to buy water, something many households have to do two or three times a week due to the dwindling and crumbling municipal supply. Even at the height of drought in 2015, when the farm was without irrigation after a major theft, they managed to provide their households with indigenous greens that they encouraged on the margins of the farm.
The farm enables the women to enact the communitarian ethic they revere from the countryside. They see themselves as a linchpin of the wider village community. In addition to making available nutritious, diverse, and affordable produce to a community 40 km from a supermarket, they donate their produce to families hosting funerals and to the very ill. The community is proud of “their farm,” the women say. For Florah (now retired), “[t]he reason I work here is not for the sake of [financial] benefit or the sake of my health. It’s for the community. We are supporting a very big community.” This rhetoric of community service, the gendered respectability that flows from this role, and the sense that they are able to feed the “big community” are fundamental to the women’s resilience and recovery from loss.
The women have built their own empowering community inside the fenced perimeter of the garden. When they walk through the gate in the morning they enter a space of healing: a refuge from abusive husbands, out-of-work adult children, or other stresses at home. They have built community across three generations; they have secured and elaborated positive social identities for rural women, in a context where this group remains one of the constituencies most likely to live in crushing poverty. Through their daily, monthly, and seasonal activities, working side by side in the heat and dust, the women of Hleketani Garden have managed to re-inhabit the social identity of productive farmers. They are healing themselves as farmers, as women, and as reproducers of households.
But always, the power of local self-determination is circumscribed. The women’s successes, inspiring as they are, mustn’t blind us to ongoing structural oppressions. Their priorities clash with, and are often subjugated to, those of an agriculture department focused on profit maximization and marketization; a local and national economy that is still shaped by the legacies of racialized land ownership, and defined by poverty and precarity; a global political economy that privileges multinational agribusiness and supermarkets as sources of food; and a development assistance economy in which the activities of women like these are barely legible. The women have laboriously carved out precious space for self determination – precious, and precarious.
Delius, Peter. 2008. "Contested Terrain: Land Rights and Chiefly Power in Historical Perspective," in Aninka Claassens and Ben Cousins, eds., Land, Power, and Custom: Controversies Generated by South Africa’s Communal Land Rights Act (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press).
Harries, Patrick. 1989. “Exclusion, Classification and Internal Colonialism: The Emergence of Ethnicity Among the Tsonga-Speakers of South Africa,” in The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, ed. Leroy Vail (London: James Currey).
Hay, Michelle. 2014. “A Tangled Past: Land Settlement, Removals and Restitution in Letaba District, 1900 – 2013.” Journal of Southern African Studies 40 (4).
Vibert, Elizabeth. 2016. "Gender, Resilience, and Resistance: South Africa's Hleketani Garden," Journal of Contemporary African Studies 34 (2).
Walker, Cherryl. 2008. Landmarked: Land Claims and Land Restitution in South Africa (Johannesburg: Jacana).
Sara is quick to sum up the experience of Hleketani Community Garden with government funding opportunities: “It seems like they don’t want us to apply.”
In the past seven or eight years the women have attempted to apply to many programs, from the agriculture department to the lottery, from supermarkets to small ngo’s. It’s a harrowing tale. Usually they hear of opportunities through their agricultural extension officer, who’s been supportive with advice and encouragement over the years. He brings them an application form and one of the couple of women who reads English decodes it as best she can. As Sara says ruefully, “with our high-level education we can’t do the papers.” They enlist the help of two high-school teachers who have been generous with help in the past (they’ve tried many teachers, but most look over the complicated forms and tell the women “whoa whoa – you better take this to someone else”). They proceed through the forms only to find – again and again – that they’re missing this or that required piece of information. For at least three years their efforts were stymied by the refusal of a government office in Pretoria to send the farmers their non-profit registration number. The office insisted the number had long since been sent by post (it was never received), and staff were unwilling to help the farmers further.
Do they think the fact that they’re politically powerless, older rural women stands in their way? Certainly. “They don’t want us to apply.”
The farmers’ experience jives with the experience of women farmers in the Global South more broadly. Women, with lower levels of formal education, are far less likely to successfully access farm credit than men (women get less than 10 percent of the credit aimed at small farmers in Africa); women are much less likely to own or control land; they’re less likely to have access to agricultural education and training; they have less access to labour-saving tools and other inputs; and they have more trouble mobilizing labour when it’s needed. These factors have been exacerbated by external assistance programs that long saw “commercial farmer” as a male occupation. Add in their demanding roles as caregivers for children and other family members, women farmers – the majority of food producers in Africa – produce considerably less food per hectare than men. As the World Bank put it in a 2014 study, “If women worldwide had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30% and raise total agricultural output by 2.5-4%.” The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that those gains alone could raise more than 100 million people out of hunger and undernutrition.
In the Q&A following screenings of The Thinking Garden I’ve occasionally been asked “Is this farm sustainable?” The questioner usually means in economic terms, since it’s very clear from the film, and from the farm’s twenty five-year history, that it’s socially sustainable. The fact that the women can rarely afford chemical inputs and use water-conserving irrigation methods mean it’s on the sustainable end of the environmental spectrum.
I understand the question. I’m open about the fact that generous folks from back home have donated to Hleketani garden a number of times since I started talking and writing about it in 2012. Could the farm run without these donations? The answer I generally give is that they were running very well – albeit close to the bone, given their community priorities – until they were hit by repeated thefts and then slammed by drought. The women date the onset of regular thefts to about 2010. These are certainly linked to deepening unemployment and poverty. Happily, theft hasn’t been an issue since a nighttime security guard was hired two years ago (one use of funds from Canada). Drought, on the other hand, is an increasingly frequent threat. Drip irrigation is the saviour here.
What I haven’t said in response to the question about economic sustainability, until now, is that few farmers anywhere flourish without assistance. Farming at any scale is a risky operation. Governments recognize this fact and routinely provide credit, crop insurance, and a range of other supports. Big industrial farmers in the Global North have long enjoyed government support at levels that many view as excessive. In Canada, where farm subsidies aren’t particularly large by global standards, OECD figures show that between 1986 and 2010 subsidies to Canadian farmers varied between $6-$8 billion per year. Dairy, poultry, and egg producers are the biggest beneficiaries (with benefits tilted heavily toward the largest producers). Canadian farmers today have access to farm credit programs and various insurance programs to help them through crises like drought, pests, or spikes in the cost of inputs. Subsidies and indirect support from government accounted for, on average, 12 percent of gross farm income in Canada in 2014.
That’s a sizeable proportion of farmer income from subsidies, but well less than the 18 percent average for the OECD. Meanwhile, more than half the money farmers earn in Norway, Switzerland, Japan, and South Korea comes from government. US farmers pull in at least $20 billion in subsidies a year (some of the most infamous and globally unfair subsidies have been abolished in recent years, but the figure stands. Today most help comes in the form of income stabilization payments when crop prices fall). It’s important to underscore that what is subsidized is not the small or mid-size family farm. Subsidies have focused on vast industrial operations producing and marketing things like soybeans and corn. As author Michael Pollan puts it, “we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup [and ethanol] … not carrots.”
It seems “economic sustainability” in agriculture is a complicated question. In wealthier countries the biggest farmers receive assistance that, for many years, seriously distorted global production and hampered market access for farmers from the Global South.
Sub-Saharan African governments committed over a decade ago to allocate 10 percent of national budgets to agriculture with the aim of increasing food security and reducing poverty. So far fourteen countries have reached or exceeded the target. With exceptions (see Rwanda’s story in Sources, below), much of the increased expenditure has not reached smallholder farmers. Little has been targeted to women. Spending has focused on expensive inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or hybrid seeds bought from agribusiness companies. Small farmers often can’t afford these inputs, nor is the political will to assist them (or the agriculture sector more generally) much in evidence in countries like South Africa.
Women, as noted, have a particularly hard time getting their hands on support. “It seems like they don’t want us to apply.” In the context of government neglect and increasing local risks – hotter winters, growing pest pressures, more frequent drought, deepening unemployment and poverty – small, no-strings transfers have been crucial. Unlike a lot of government and agency support, the transfers come in the form of funds the women can invest as they see fit. So far that’s meant drip irrigation, security, and the addition of two younger farmers. So far, it’s working.
Action Aid (2013), Fair Shares: Is CAADP Working?
Gordon Conway, ‘Food for thought from the land of a thousand hills (Rwanda),’ The Conversation June 27, 2016
Mail and Guardian (2015), On Africa’s Farms – e-book
Barrie McKenna, Taxpayers oblivious to the cost of farm subsidies, Globe and Mail July 7, 2013
OECD (2017), Agricultural Support; (2015), Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation
Oxfam, Fight Hunger: Invest in Women Farmers
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Sara MM, Josephine M, and Mphephu M, interview May 2017
Tor Tolhurst et al, Are Governments of the Right Leviathan for Agriculture?
E. Vibert and A. Perez Pinan, "The View from the Farm: Gendered Contradictions in Global Goal Setting," (in review)
World Bank, Series: Turn Down the Heat
World Bank (2014), Levelling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa
WWF (2015), Farming Facts and Figures: South Africa
Once a year I get to spend a month or so in rural South Africa, sitting in the shade listening to the life stories of older women. The privilege is not lost on me. I listen to the women's stories, ruminate on their challenges. Then I come home to my middle-class house in my cosy seaside city and write about their lives.
Little by little I’m learning to accept the lessons these women teach. The one that keeps floating to the surface is resilience. Ordinarily ‘resilient’ is not the first word I’d use to describe myself. I might start at the other end of the spectrum, somewhere around sensitive, occasionally depressive. I’m learning.
An early lesson in resilience came in an African-style traffic jam. I’d driven Mphephu, Josephine, and Rosina on a fool’s errand to the market town. The women, who run a community vegetable farm, had a meeting with a businessman who was offering to deliver the farm’s paperwork to a government office in Pretoria. For a modest price he would get the papers under the nose of the civil servant with the power to register the farm as a cooperative. Without this man’s help the paperwork would collect dust on a desk – ‘for three years,’ Rosina predicted.
I was incensed when this fellow – whose business practice ran to holding meetings at curbside in the centre of town – admitted that he actually had no connections in the office that certifies cooperatives. I couldn’t understand the women’s response. They shook his hand politely, retrieved their money, and headed for my car. Errand complete. Weren’t they angry? Didn’t they want to tell him how they felt about wasting half a farming day on a fruitless trip to town?
‘It happens,’ Mphephu said. ‘Sometimes things work.’
On the way back to the farm we landed in the traffic jam. A young man in a police uniform made random, futile gestures while trucks and minivan taxis dodged around him. After sitting on the shoulder for the better part of an hour I’d had it. ‘Doesn’t anyone around here know how to direct traffic? It’s total chaos!’
Rosina reached over and patted my shoulder. ‘It’s ok, Lizzie. It will be alright.’ The farmers carried on with their conversation while I swallowed my First World pride.
The next spring, in 2014, I returned to the farm to find things in a bad state. Most of the irrigation infrastructure had been stolen months earlier. Pumps, pipes, taps – even the electrical cables had been pinched. There are many layers of disadvantage in these villages, many people in need. Someone needed the money, the women told me. Likely they came from another village. Maybe they were part of a gang.
Little time was spent discussing causes. The thefts had come at a fortunate time, if there can be a fortunate moment for massive theft. Southern summer rains were just around the corner. The farmers made a plan. With no irrigation they would have to forego beetroot, tomatoes, and the other exotics that have become their specialty. They went back to the traditional vegetables – maize, squash, and groundnuts sown from seed they save from year to year, indigenous guxe encouraged between the rows. Twenty farmers planted the full six hectares just in time for the rains. By the time I arrived they were harvesting the last of the groundnuts, carefully plucking every kernel from the soil. At 30 rand (C$3) for a coffee can full, nuts are a precious commodity.
To my fresh-from-Canada eyes the farm was a disaster. Desiccated maize stubble is not picturesque. Mildewed, picked-over squash vines do not suggest prosperity. Rosina set me straight, as is her way.
‘We got a full crop of maize,’ she said. ‘We will start again.’
Start again, as they’ve done so many times in the past twenty-five years. The women set up the farm in the midst of a drought in the early nineties, when their children and grandchildren were ill from malnutrition. Then, as now, they had to make a plan. If they got together, they reasoned, maybe they could get support from government or the local chief and build a well. Neighbours thought they were unrealistic, if not crazy. ‘Vegetables like tomatoes, onions, they were for the white people down by the river [with irrigation],’ Rosina said.
I don’t know the source of this kind of resilience. My partner may be on to something when he says the women don’t have the luxury of giving up. But that’s not enough. Many people around them have given up. In a place where half the population is officially out of work, giving up seems like a rational choice.
The farmers’ explanation is that working together makes them strong.
The farm is a community of women; it’s like a ‘big, a very big family.’ This is a message I find both hopeful and distressing. Of course working in a team can bring strength and its own pleasures. But it’s a model that has trouble gaining traction in our acquisitive, individualist society. We’re a culture of self-reliant individuals. We’re supposed to do it ourselves.
It dawns on me that this has been my challenge. For much of my working life I’ve been trying to prove myself as an autonomous individual. Alone, fragile. The women at the farm have taught me otherwise.
The people of Jopi village feel like canaries in a coal mine. The local metaphor features a snail collecting ashes. When I visited Jopi during the severe Southern African drought of 2014-2016, vegetable farmer Daina M told me that home food gardens in the village had produced “nothing, nothing at all” during the growing seasons. Scant rain came too late for the maize and groundnuts that are staples of the local diet.
Mhani (Mother) Daina and her neighbours, like the people in East Africa currently facing drought and famine, are daily living the consequences of the world's addiction to growth and the resistance of powerful politicians and corporations to meaningful action on climate change. In Jopi village the extreme El Niño of 2015-16, combined with human-induced climate change, brought blistering heat and worsening drought. It is not a one-off event. In the brief six years I've been doing research in Jopi, farmers have described more frequent drought, more capricious rains (arriving later in the rainy season; arriving in sudden floods that wash away seeds; not arriving at all), and dry river beds. On a national level major reservoirs and other surface water resources are dangerously depleted, causing community-level shortages that fuel outrage and instability. Beyond the numbing statistics – tens of millions of Africans facing impoverishment and hunger as droughts undermine agriculture first in Southern Africa, now in East Africa and Nigeria – what does climate change mean in people’s daily lives?
In Jopi it means precarious access to water. Mhani Daina can’t afford her own well, so her household relies on the municipal water supply. Water is supposed to run through those pipes twice a week. Women, often spelled off by children or grandchildren, line up dutifully on the appointed days. Some have as many as fifteen or twenty plastic containers to fill (they use 20-30 litres per person per day: Canadians use ten times that). On a good day, when the water actually flows, it can trickle so slowly that people spend more than an hour filling their cans – after queuing. This is time that can’t be spent studying, playing, or working for pay.
There haven’t been many good days lately. Failed rains mean ground-water supplies and reservoirs are not replenished, and rural poverty and poor government planning exacerbate the effects of drought. Mhani Daina used to rely on her neighbour’s well for a back-up supply, but now there is barely enough for that family’s use. Household use includes cooking, drinking, and bathing; home gardens rely on rain.
Heat is the other challenge. When I'm in Jopi, usually in the Southern winter, Mhani Daina and fellow farmers at the women’s cooperative vegetable farm complain that “you can’t even tell it’s winter anymore”: temperatures regularly soar into the thirties under the winter sun. While much of the world worries about the dire effects of a two-degree rise in global temperature, inland regions of Southern Africa can expect a five-degree rise by 2050 unless global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced dramatically. High temperatures are wreaking havoc already. Pests that used to die off in cooler weather now flourish year round. Pumpkin leaves, a favourite local green, are shrivelled and unmarketable within an hour of watering. Indigenous plants provide useful alternatives in dry years but they too are susceptible to pests, and to invasive species. People who can little afford it are forced to turn to less nutritious store-bought food.
Mhani Daina and her co-workers find hope at their farm. They founded the vegetable project in another legendary drought period, 1992. “The farm chased kwashi from our village,” says farmer Mamayila M, referring to kwashiorkor and other forms of malnutrition. For twenty-five years, using water-conserving drip irrigation fed by a productive groundwater well, these farmers have been providing nutritious, reliable, and affordable food to people from Jopi and neighbouring villages. They grow “exotics” including tomatoes, onions, three varieties of spinach, sweet potatoes, green beans, and butternut squash following largely agro-ecological practices.[i] The women are intensely proud of their contribution to the community. Alice K says local children are "fresh" as a result of the farm's vegetables. Florah M laments the poor nutrition in cheap store-bought food. "Even a five-year-old child can be old from eating that food," she says.
Extension workers from the provincial agriculture ministry teach conventional growing methods, but the women generally can’t afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They adopt agro-ecological methods of necessity. They work to rebuild the soil with organic material, nourish their crops with chicken manure tea, and -- in an early adaptation to climate change -- have given up on pest-prone plants like cabbage. Cabbage is a favourite vegetable in the region, but the women of Jopi have helped the community cultivate a taste for spinach, which is both more nutritious and less attractive to pests.
In the context of climate change, this kind of sustainable local initiative is crucial – not just for people’s health, but for broader food security. Healthy local food systems support community development, providing food and jobs where people live. A growing body of research shows that agro-ecological methods produce food systems more resilient to the effects of climate change than conventional agriculture. For instance, soils rich in organic material are better able to retain moisture and less prone to wind erosion; decomposing organic matter feeds the soil far more sustainably than fossil fuel-based fertilisers; and encouraging growth of indigenous edibles among commercial crops helps protect biodiversity.
The consequences of climate change become less theoretical with every failed rainy season (or here in Canada, with unprecedented fire seasons, devastating floods, and year after year of record-breaking temperatures). People who are poor -- living in areas particularly vulnerable to extremes, often without adequate housing or clean water, and susceptible to disease -- are hardest hit. Farmers living in such areas are adapting and innovating as best they can. Those of us privileged to be insulated from these pressures need to make sure our actions support, rather than undermine, their efforts.
Sources include - [i] Olivier de Schutter, “The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food,” Final Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jan. 2014; Laura Silici, “Agroecology: What it is and what it has to offer,” IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) Issue Paper June 2014.
When I first met the women of Hleketani garden I was moved by the community vegetable project they had set up under apartheid, but I didn't quite foresee the rich research relationships that would follow. An offhand query as I prepared to return to Canada touched things off. Would any of the women like to talk to an historian about their lives? “All, all would like to talk with you,” Evelyn N told me. During the first season of our collaborative oral history project, in 2012, the women asked how the research findings would be shared. I explained that I would be writing articles based on our conversations, sharing recordings with their community, giving talks, and ultimately writing a book. “Aren’t you going to make a movie about us?” Mamayila M asked.
Mamayila's colleagues thought a movie was a fine idea. Only a handful of the two dozen women involved in the community farming project are literate and fewer read English; academic writings are nothing to them. My first response to Mamayila’s suggestion was to laugh. When I returned for the second research season in 2013, I brought each woman a copy of a desktop-published book telling the story of their farm and including lots of colourful images of them hard at work. The book was a big hit – farmers took it home and had their children and grandchildren read it to them in wonderful moments of intergenerational knowledge sharing. Then came the collective question: “aren’t you going to make a movie about us?”
The idea took a while to germinate. It was brilliant in the abstract: the women’s farm is picturesque and the twenty-five-year history of its trials and triumphs is a story at once inspiring and sobering. These women’s life histories provide intimate insight into the gendered, racialized, and generational challenges of poverty; the diverse and innovative livelihood strategies of those “living with lack,” as my South African co-researcher Basani Ngobeni puts it; and the humble heroics entailed in meeting those challenges in marginalized communities around the globe. But I didn’t know how to make a film.
Things shifted in the 2014 research season. The farm was facing serious challenges from theft and drought. The farmers needed a boost and people needed to understand the structural challenges facing small-scale farmers in the Global South, and how those challenges are deepening with climate change. When I got back from South Africa I had lunch with Christine Welsh, a long-time colleague downstairs in Gender Studies and a filmmaker whose documentaries about Indigenous women I had always admired. Christine says she makes films about “ordinary women doing extraordinary things.” Perfect. To my delight she jumped at the project.
Christine, the film’s director and my co-writer, signed up well known filmmaker Mo Simpson as cinematographer/editor, and my indispensable colleague Basani Ngobeni served as assistant director. UVic student Liah Formby volunteered as a location assistant, and we hired people from the village in various roles. After frantically helping the women replant the garden -- huge thanks to my generous Skwiza (sister-in-law) and Chomi (dear friend) -- we filmed in May 2015. It was not smooth sailing. Godzilla El Niño brought temperatures well into the thirties (“winter” in Limpopo Province), the farmers were battling drought without proper irrigation, days were long, heat made us cranky, and high winds caused headaches for sound recording. But the women shone. They carry the film, which is recorded in the xiTsonga language (with subtitles). They tell their stories of creating a farm community and combatting malnutrition, poverty, HIV/AIDS and climate change in their own voices, in their own time. As a colleague said, “it’s amazing how we get to know the women, their personalities, in such a short film” (35 minutes).
We launched “The Thinking Garden” in March 2017 at a full-to-the-rafters public screening at UVic. It won an award at its first festival (Vancouver International Women in Film Festival), screened at another festival in April, has made almost twenty stops across Canada (so far), and is under consideration for festivals in the US, Europe, and Africa. I screened the film in N’wamitwa and Johannesburg in May to warm responses. The farmers are delighted. As Rosina M says, “we never thought we would see something like this for our farm.”
After festivals we’ll release “The Thinking Garden” online, where it will be readily accessible to those interested in food security, women’s empowerment, climate change and related issues. In the meantime the film can be accessed through our distributor, www.movingimages.ca
For more info: email@example.com
Alice has raised the price of her legendary doughnuts. People had been telling her to do so for a long while but she worried that the school kids wouldn't be able to buy them. She needn't have worried. They still sell like -- well, like doughnuts -- and she's pocketing a little more money for her efforts.
Our early morning with Alice is a favourite memory from the film shoot, not least because we got to sample the delicious treats straight from the oil. Mo shot so much footage of Alice making her way to the school to sell doughnuts that when she reviewed the files that night she told us, "we've got Alice crossing the continent with her wheelbarrow." Those who followed our exploits during filming in 2015 may have read the following story before. Those who've seen the film will remember Alice.
Alice has always been one of the last farmers to arrive at the farm. She rolls in with her wheelbarrow just after ten. Her early mornings are spent making doughnuts to sell at school at recess time.
Early is an understatement. Alice gets up at 1:30 am to make the batter for her doughnuts. She buys fresh yeast in bulk once a week or so, and goes through 25 kg of flour every four days. After putting aside the batter for the first rise she catches a little more sleep, then gets up at 3:45 to shape the flattened balls (120 each day). She might doze off while they rise, and by 5:30 she’s up making the fire and putting on the oil to heat. By 6 she drops the first balls into the sizzling oil. Before the sun was up on the day of the shoot Alice's first customers were coming up the path – a church lady and a couple of young boys on their way to school. Doughnut frying lasted about an hour; Alice had a quick bath and set off for the primary school, her wheelbarrow loaded and ready for the day. It's a long way from Alice’s house at the bottom of the village to the school at the top. There were frequent stops to sell to regulars as she passed their gates.
Alice tells me a little bashfully that there is "not much profit" in this business she’s been running for twelve years. She clears about thirty rand – three dollars – a day after paying for flour, yeast, sugar, and oil. She recently doubled her prices to keep pace with the price of flour. Her customers didn't bat an eye. This is Alice's only reliable source of income since she's several years too young for the pension. She’s relieved the farm is back in action. The vegetables she takes home are a big help to the household budget.
The school kids polished off the doughnuts at recess and Alice headed off to the farm. By the time she arrived the sun was at full, blistering strength. She picked up her hoe and started the day’s work.