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Food Security in the Context of COVID-19: The Public Health Challenge, The Case of the Republic of South Africa

Isabelle Tsakok | September 04, 2020

South Africa shows that being food self-sufficient is a far cry from being food secure when poverty is extensive, the majority of people suffer from the “quadruple burden of disease”, the economy is highly unequal, and when improving the quality of the public health infrastructure remains a major challenge despite successive governments’ efforts. The major factors that undermine food security and health in South Africa are directly or indirectly due to the long history of social exclusion of black South Africans, the hallmark of the apartheid system for decades. Under apartheid, the dualistic agricultural system favored the minority, white farmers, who owned 86% of farmland, and who, by the 1990s, produced more than 90% of agriculture value added. Already by the late 1980s, South African agriculture produced more basic food commodities than all other countries of Southern African Development Community (SADC) combined: e.g., maize, wheat, sunflower, and sugar (World Bank, 1994). In contrast, the Homelands into which the blacks were crowded, are poverty-stricken: the subsistence-oriented farmers earn less than 5% of the national wage rate (Hérault et al, 2009). The legacy of apartheid still largely shapes economic opportunities in South Africa, despite successive ANC governments’ efforts to reverse the discrimination. Add to this the daunting challenge of climate change and a bimodal health system which condemns the majority to sub-standard health care, and you have close to a ‘perfect storm’. Once again, South Africa, like the rest of the world, is being taught an old lesson. According to Snowden (2019), the wisdom that saved human societies in the past has to be brought to the front and center of government. As the ancients put it: “salus populi, suprema lex esto”, that is: public health must be the highest law, and all else follows from it (Adams, 2020). Realizing that pandemic preparedness is essential for survival and resilience makes achieving food security even more complex.