Protecting activities which provide food security during COVID-19

Photo by Ali Hegazy on Unsplash

Simone Gray

For many South Africans, there is not a fear of dying of COVID-19 but a very real fear of dying of hunger as a result of loss of income during the lockdown period and beyond. People who work in the informal sector have been particularly hard hit by lockdown regulations, causing widespread food insecurity. The lockdown regulations allow for informal traders, spaza shops and corner shops to continue to trade. However, in terms of the lockdown regulations and the directions issued by the Minister of Small Business Development, informal food traders as referred to in the regulations are limited to fruit and vegetable sellers and the Langanas. The word Langanas refers to the informal fish traders in the Northern and Western Cape. In fact in the directives, the Minister specifies that the term refers to those fish sellers who operate in the Northern and Western Cape. Informal food traders, in addition to holding a permit issued by their respective local municipalities allowing them to trade in terms of the Business Act  71 of 1991, are also required to have an “essential services permit” issued by the municipality which allows them to continue to trade during the lockdown.

The regulations insofar as they pertain to informal traders and fishers, are limiting and many communities are not supported by their implementation. On the KwaZulu-Natal coast, fishing forms the primary way locals earn a living and are able to feed their families and to sell in the community to generate an income in order to buy other essentials. The regulations and directives seem to overlook these communities and only allow for fish sellers on the west coast to continue to trade. This has left fishing communities on the east coast vulnerable and uncertain.

Small scale fishers contribute significantly to ensuring that there is food security for their own families and in their communities. If they are unable to fish, their families will go hungry and so will the community who relies on the reasonable prices at which the fish is sold. Many of these communities are situated kilometres away from supermarkets or grocery stores and rely on informal traders instead. In areas closer to supermarkets, the informal food economy provides relief for those who cannot afford supermarket-priced food. 

But it is not only small-scale fishers who are left out in the cold. What about Ma Nkosi who sells vetkoek at the local taxi rank? She uses the money she earns to buy other food for her family and to buy toiletries and electricity at the local spaza shop. The regulations do not allow her to trade because she does not sell fruit or vegetables. Without an income, she will struggle to feed her family. She certainly will not be able to afford electricity this month. Other families will also not be able to buy from her which could also result in other families becoming food insecure.  

Even if fishers are permitted to fish for sustenance alone but are unable to sell their fish, this could still lead to food insecurity within their communities for those families who buy fresh fish to feed their families. It also means that fishers have no source of income with which to buy other essentials, including other food products, for their families. It seems completely at odds that the directives and regulations allow for west coast fish traders to continue to trade but forget about communities on the east coast who also rely on the income generated from the sale of fish.

Whilst government must be applauded for the social and economic relief measures that have been announced – such as increasing the existing social grants, providing for the social relief of distress grant and distributing food parcels – it would be ideal if communities are also able to sustain themselves, particularly in far flung areas which may be difficult for government to access. Measures which allow for people to continue sustaining themselves and providing food security for their communities will also ease the financial and administrative burden on government to provide grants or other support.

We hope that in the coming week of cabinet meetings, the ways in which the regulations affect the most vulnerable and marginalized will be considered carefully and will be addressed. Our hope is also that the Minister of Small Business Development provides clarity for all fishers across South Africa and allows for fishing and trading to continue on the east coast too. In addition to small scale fishers, it would be advisable for the entire informal food economy to be opened up and supported, including those who transport the food. Food insecurity as a result of job loss is inevitable for many South Africans but if allowance is made for the informal sector to continue to trade during this period, it will play a role in easing the hunger burden that the most vulnerable carry.