Organisations should not abuse the current food crisis to make abrasive media statements about government failures with a view to attract new members. This is a short-sighted strategy based on own interest alone, argues Dan Kriek.
The politics of food is dangerous. Hungry people need food and they need it immediately.
Unfortunately, some of those involved in getting food to the poor have started playing power politics on the one hand and media politics on the other. This leads to polarisation – a narrative of “us and them” – which is the last thing we need right now.
Unnecessary red tape hampering distribution of food parcels is dangerous, because it is only a matter of time before hungry people who are denied food might take to the streets, loot shops and protest. These things have already started happening in some areas and can lead to widespread instability as hunger increases.
Now is not the time to try to score political or public brownie points when giving to the poor. A prime example of how politicising the issue can distract us from the real dangers of a potential hunger crisis is the spat between acting Gauteng social development MEC Panyaza Lesufi and non-profit organisation (NPO) Solidarity Helping Hand playing out in the mainstream and social media.
This makes one wonder if either party is acting with pure motives or promoting their own interests.
While Lesufi warned against not getting food to the poor quickly enough, he also caused a public outcry by saying that all food relief efforts in the province must be regulated by his department. Organisations and individuals, who want to distribute food to communities in need, must apparently apply for an authorisation letter from his department 48 hours in advance and notify the local police station.
This and other instances, where provincial and local authorities are enforcing similar requirements, are worrying because no such regulations were stipulated on a national level when the government announced Level 4 lockdown.
Local authorities might be able to cite food safety considerations, which can pose potential risk to people receiving food as some form of justification, but any further claims to dictate control will not increase efficiency and are irrational.
Such opportunistic behaviour defeats the purpose of speedy decentralised relief efforts reaching those who are in dire need of receiving it. Hungry and poor citizens, already demoralised by the lockdown, will lose faith in the government and will simply disobey regulations that disregard their most basic needs.
Enter Solidarity by threatening to take legal action against the government if it “continued to implement regulations prescribing that the distribution of food to the poor be centralised under government control” – and rightly so. In response, Lesufi said that the government did not want to “steal the thunder from any NPO”. Up to that point, Solidarity had the moral high ground.
But then Flip Buys, chairperson of Solidarity, posted on Facebook that they were not concerned about Lesufi stealing their thunder, rather that “die donder” (an insulting play on words referring to Lesufi) will steal “our” food. This kind of rhetoric can unintentionally give validity to the dangerous ideology of “us versus them”. The problem is not Solidarity’s proposed legal action, but the potentially polarising narrative that the reckless use of words on either side can cause.
The resulting narrative of “us versus them” can also give traction to fake messages and posts on social media, which are designed to create racial tension and division. For example, the recent viral fake messages going around, which claimed that food parcels may only be delivered to black children and not to white children. What utter lunacy. Earlier, Buys himself posted a warning on Facebook against spreading fake messages like these.
The public discourse regarding the hunger crisis in printed and social media is also not doing us a favour. For example, the sensationalist reporting, which created the impression that national food stockpiles are depleted, is not only untrue but irresponsible and dangerous.
Organised agriculture should also guard against playing politics with the current food crisis. We cannot use food donations as a bargaining chip.
We must never create the impression that government officials should have increased their support to agriculture before they can approach the sector for food for the poor. Hunger is not something to bargain with.
We must donate food without expecting in return, because it is the right thing to do. Organisations should not abuse the current crisis to make abrasive media statements about government failures with a view to attract new members. This is a short-sighted strategy based on own interest alone.
Most role players in the agricultural sector, including individual farmers and organisations like Agbiz and Agri SA, fortunately want to help distribute food to the poor without taking credit. For example, the Agbiz aid project is named the Agri Value Chain Relief Project to avoid taking credit for supplying food to the needy under the name of only one organisation.
The solution to the hunger challenge is simply common sense: No single organisation can succeed on its own. We need a huge collaborative effort between private sector and government to be effective. Desperate and hungry people will resort to violence if we play politics with food.
We need selfless leadership now. We need to pull out all the stops and stop flirting with danger. Hunger has no sell-by date.
– Dan Kriek is a former president of Agri SA. He farms with South Devon cattle in the north-eastern Free State.