• BreakThrough Staff

Community at the heart of hunger struggle in South Africa

Akhona Kobese, 30, with potatoes harvested from the communal permaculture garden on land provided by Elundini Backpackers. (Photograph by Bonile Bam)

Communal gardens and farming enterprises are the beginning of sustainable food sovereignty in South Africa, but a basic income grant is essential to address hunger in the shorter term.

By Anna Majavu and Nomfundo Xolo

In a country where 10 million people go to bed hungry every night, the government’s COVID-19 social relief of distress grant was a lifeline. A tiny lifeline for a fraction of the estimated 28.4 million unemployed and "economically inactive" people in the country, according to researcher Siyabulela Mama, but a lifeline nonetheless.

So when the government ended the grant after just nine months, as part of its economic austerity measures, it cut more than five million people off from a monthly payout of R350 (about $23.50). Although only enough to buy a loaf of the cheapest bread each day and little else – and even though it excluded women whose minor children were already getting a child support grant of R470 a month – it kept casual and precarious workers, restaurant workers, street traders, artists and others who had lost their jobs during the pandemic from starving.

The widespread unrest triggered by a disgruntled ANC faction violently attacking delivery trucks in July quickly foregrounded hunger in the country, as thousands of starving South Africans took advantage of the chaos to loot supermarkets and food warehouses in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The government reintroduced the social relief of distress grant in response to the chaos, extending it to March 2022. Many hope it will convert to a basic income grant.

Mama, who works at the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at Nelson Mandela University, is a spokesperson for the #PayTheGrants campaign, which wants a basic income grant of R1 268 a month for those between the ages of 19 and 59. South Africa does not have a dole system and this age group falls outside the old age pensions and child support grants that the government offers.

Television news stations call him frequently to discuss the basic income grant and he says “over 10 million people go to bed hungry every night while living near shops with plenty of food that they cannot afford. That created a crisis. But this time the crisis exposed that the South African food system is so unjust and needs to be overhauled.”

Activists first proposed a basic income grant 20 years ago. The government has been “contemplating” it since 2002. A new generation of activists, such as Mama, is taking this campaign forward and combining it with grassroots food sovereignty projects based on communal gardens and poultry farming. Mama works with such projects in the coastal city of Gqeberha in Eastern Cape province.


Women living in the eKhenana shack settlement in the coastal city of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, are part of a growing national trend of occupying unused land and using it for the communal production of food.

Nokuthula Mabaso, 38, says the communal vegetable garden that the members of shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo established allowed them to generate enough revenue to supplement their savings of R3 000 and set up a communal poultry farm.