Update by Wandile Sihlobo and Sifiso Ntombela[i]

Since the start of the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng, there has been rising concern about food availability. This is understandable as the public feared that the looting and vandalism activities destroyed some food distribution centres, retailers and caused blockages in key logistics corridors. This was specifically the reality of KwaZulu-Natal and to a lesser extent part of Gauteng where incidents of unrest were concentrated in certain areas such as Soweto, Mamelodi and Vosloorus, rather than the entire province. For specific areas in KwaZulu-Natal, the main concern was not necessarily the availability of food but access to food due to disruptions in distribution centres and road networks.

As we argued a few days ago in The Conversation, the KwaZulu-Natal isn’t the epicentre of agriculture in the country and also not necessarily an anchor to the South African food system. Provinces in central South Africa – the Free State, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo – hold far more critical positions in terms of production and processing of food. For example, maize meal and wheat flour – both staples to most South African diets – are primarily produced in the Free State, Mpumalanga, North West and the Western Cape. These provinces account for over 60% of each of these grains’ production and process over 50% of them.

Still, KwaZulu-Natal is pivotal for the trade of agricultural and food products (amongst other goods that pass through the port of Durban). The major transits to and from the port of Durban are N2 and N3 roads, which were also temporarily closed due to the unrest. This warranted an urgent intervention from the government. Amidst these fears, food and agriculture industry stakeholders met with Ms Thoko Didiza, Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, to formulate interventions that would address food access problems and logistics constraints in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.

The major outcomes of this meeting were a commitment by all the stakeholders to work with security cluster to open N2 and N3 routes; ensure the provision of security to enable the resumption of critical basic food operations, such as bakeries and mills; facilitate temporary exemption on competition policy to enable businesses to strengthen their coordination in transporting and distributing food, as opposed to sharing pricing strategies; and unlock the flow of logistics and supply chains at the port of Durban to enable the handling and offloading (discharging is usually the term used) of food products.

These interventions have already been actioned by both government and businesses. The basic food operators like bakeries and the national roads – N2 and N3 – are now operational, albeit security remains a key issue, and everyone should remain vigilant. Moreover, the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition has published the regulations on July 15 afternoon permitting firms to share information and coordinate better to respond to food needs in KwaZulu-Natal. Also, Transnet and various stakeholders have resumed some activities in the port of Durban. These interventions signal progress from a bleak picture a few days ago.

Notably, this also means the fears about access to food in various parts of South Africa should ease as the opening of the main transit points—N2 and N3 – means the raw material needed in KwaZulu-Natal and other parts of the country can now be transported. The recent interventions show that when industry and government work together they can achieve tangible results.

While these developments are encouraging, the security risk remains unabated. This is an area that government, business and social partners should continuously engage in to bring normalcy to KwaZulu-Natal. The loss and cost to businesses and communities will be clear in the coming months, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it will be significant and felt for a while, especially since most businesses and communities are at the same time battling with the impact of Covid-19.

In essence, food shortage is unlikely to be a reality in South Africa. This is why consumers should avoid panic buying as this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and deepens anxiety. There are large food supplies following a good agricultural season. Also, the resilience of South Africa’s food supply chains will likely withstand the current shock. Importantly, coordination and engagement between business and government are crucial to abate the current unrest in the province and for a rebuilding phase.

[i] Wandile Sihlobo and Sifiso Ntombela are chief economists of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz) and the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC), respectively.

Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo). E-mail: wandile@agbiz.co.za

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