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Posts tagged ‘democracy’

Whose Heritage?

On 24 September, South Africans celebrate Heritage Day, during which they’re supposed to commemorate the rich and diverse cultural inheritance of the Rainbow Nation. That, at least, was the intention in 1996. Now, Heritage Day is a day of rallies and speeches organised by the government, or National Braai (Barbecue) Day – an initiative launched in 2007 to unite the nation in its shared enthusiasm for incinerating meat over wood fires.

Although there is something deeply ridiculous about a National Braai Day, there’s a logic in recasting Heritage Day into an uncomplicated, fun event which includes just about every South African. Not only did the then-Department of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology include food as part of South Africa’s cultural heritage, but most South African cuisines include some form of barbecue. Everyone – from the middle classes in leafy suburbs, to township dwellers – can, and does, braai.

The originators of National Braai Day manage – probably unwittingly – to solve, or to negotiate, the deeply troubling question at the heart of Heritage Day: what on earth do we mean by ‘heritage’?

Like most historians, I find the idea of ‘heritage’ problematic – and particularly in societies, like South Africa, with long histories of nationalist politics. ‘Heritage’ is constructed: it’s what we – the state, and other institutions – select from the past, and what we choose to remember. Usually, we decide to remember those events and people who are useful for the construction of national identities. What we leave out of these narratives of national becoming is almost as important as what we decide to include.

Under apartheid, European explorers like Vasco da Gama, various early Dutch officials, Voortrekkers (pioneer farmers), Boer generals from the South African War, and nationalist politicians were immortalised on bank notes, in statues and monuments, and in thousands of street names. These white men – and some women – represented what the apartheid state defined as South Africa’s heritage – alongside events such as the Battle of Blood River, the songs in the FAK Sangbundel, volkspele (‘folk-games’), and some kinds of Afrikaans literature.

Those aspects of South African history which could not be mobilised in the construction of a narrative of the triumph of white, Afrikanerdom, were ignored. So there was no room for the miners’ strikes of the early decades of the twentieth century; the histories of the ‘hendsoppers’ and ‘joiners’ – Boers who surrendered to, or joined, the British army during the South African War; the implications of the 1913 Land Act for Africans; and the Bulhoek Massacre, for example.

Perhaps inevitably, the ANC has engaged in its own process of myth-making in post-apartheid South Africa, having claimed the 1976 Soweto uprising as its own event (in fact, the exiled ANC was completely taken by surprise by these student protests); interred Sara Baartman – a Khoi woman who toured Europe in various freak shows between 1810 and 1815, and who is now seen as an emblem of African suffering and exploitation under colonial rule – in a grave in the Eastern Cape, a region she probably never visited, but which is the heartland of the ANC; and has renamed airports, cities, and streets.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, presented this year by Ben Okri. Biko exemplifies what happens to difficult figures during processes of national myth-creation: as the originator of the Black Consciousness Movement and often critical of the ANC, Biko stands outside of the traditions, events, and movements which the ANC has used to create its version of a South African history. It’s telling that the ANC did not – to my knowledge – release a press statement on 12 September, the thirty-fifth anniversary of Biko’s death, and has done very little to transform him into a hero of the liberation struggle – as they’ve done with Sol Plaatje, for instance.

Although much of Okri’s speech was very, very bad – a woolly, rambling call for a national and nationalist renewal – I liked his opening point that we need to hold on to Biko’s ‘incisive’ questioning, and ‘forensic’ thought. It’s this kind of critical thinking which holds governments to account – particularly when they harness the past in the name of ‘heritage’ to prop up their claims to legitimacy.

One of the best examples of a thoughtful engagement with the pasts that we choose to remember is Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia (2009). In this memoir-cum-essay, Dlamini makes the – potentially uncomfortable – point that for all the viciousness of life in a township in apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, black South Africans found ways of living – occasionally happily – under an oppressive regime.

He argues for remembering the strategies that people used to cope with the violence and discrimination of apartheid South Africa, suggesting that as we commemorate acts of resistance to the apartheid state, we should also remember the complex, ordinary lived experiences of the majority of South Africans.

As an historian and as someone who lived through the transition, I think that this is such an important point. Having been raised in a very politically aware household – both my parents were at various times engaged in anti-apartheid activities, and my mother was a Black Sash activist when I was little – I remember watching on television Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison just a few kilometres from our house; shouting ‘vote yes!’ during the 1992 referendum; the riots after Chris Hani’s assassination in 1993; the bomb drills at school; frightening white men dressed in AWB uniforms driving through Paarl, where we lived until 1995 ; listening to radio announcers enumerating the numbers of people killed overnight in the Vaal Triangle, KwaZulu-Natal, and other flashpoints; and the alternating terror and euphoria of the 1994 election.

But it was when ordinary, everyday things began to change, that I realised the implications of the transition to democracy.

It’s difficult to describe the experience of being so isolated from the rest of the world as sanctions were introduced against South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. As English-speaking opponents of apartheid, our family was doubly isolated – we didn’t have a large social circle in the small, conservative town where we lived.

One of the ways my parents coped with this isolation was through books and, particularly, magazines ordered from abroad. Our meals demonstrated particularly well how different we were from the conservative, white society around us, but also how isolated we were from the rest of the world. My mother cooked from Elizabeth David’s books, and also from Robert Carrier, the Supercook series, Good Housekeeping, and Katie Stewart’s recipes in Country Living. When my friends from school were eating lamb chops, rice, potatoes, and overcooked cabbage, we had paella, coq au vin, pasta in various forms, moussaka, and kofte. We drank proper coffee. We didn’t add Aromat to our food.

Making these dishes required some inventiveness: Arborio rice for risotto was almost impossible to find, and I can remember the first time I saw red peppers, mascarpone, ricotta, watercress, and couscous in the shops. My mother became adept at finding substitutes for the ingredients we couldn’t buy.

We have two thick recipe files at home – one for cakes and puddings, and the other for everything else. They comprise clippings from magazines and newspapers – Fairlady, the Financial Times – as well as recipes from friends, including my great-aunt’s amazing vinegar pudding, and, more recently, print-outs from blogs. Some of the recipes are older than I am, and we keep adding recipe cards, torn-out pages from magazines, and bits and pieces from the internet. These files – eccentrically categorised by my sister – are a record of my family’s experience of the past thirty or forty years: they’re a catalogue of our heritage.

They don’t, though, fit into the narratives of national becoming pedalled by the government and, even, the organisers of National Braai Day. What’s missing – among many things – in our Heritage Day celebrations is an acknowledgement of ordinary, lived experience under apartheid – of the multiple ways South Africans adjusted to living under an oppressive regime.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Justice, not Philanthropy

This week José Graziano da Silva, the Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, announced that the famine in Somalia has ended. A combination of good rain, the most successful harvest in seventeen years, and the effective dispersal and deployment of food and agricultural aid means that most Somalis now have adequate access to food. But this is likely to be a temporary reprieve: it’s uncertain if food stocks will last until April, when the next rainy season begins and the main planting is done.

This already fragile situation is compounded by Somalia’s complicated politics: the southern part of the country is still controlled by the Islamist group al-Shabaab, which banned the Red Cross from operating in the area this week, and has disrupted food supplies in the past. Tellingly, around half of the 2.34 million people still in need of humanitarian assistance and seventy per cent of the country’s acutely malnourished children are in southern Somalia.

The end of the famine is no cause for celebration, then. Thirty-one per cent of the Somali population remains reliant on food aid, famine looms in another three months, and there are the after-effects of the famine to cope with: the plight of the refugees scattered around Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya; and the generation of malnourished children.

It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine, half of them children.

Clearly, something isn’t working.

And as one famine comes to an end – or, at least, a halt – in East Africa, another one seems to be developing on the other side of the continent. Niger, and, indeed, its neighbours Chad and Mali, is both drought- and famine-prone. Even in good years, it struggles to feed itself. Fifteen per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in Niger. But poor rainfall at the end of 2011 and a spike in global food prices means that the country’s population faces famine.

Niger’s last famine was in 2010, when the World Food Programme provided food to 4.5 million people. But things seem to be more hopeful there than in Somalia, and largely because Niger has a government which functions relatively well. Realising that it needs to store its food supply properly, provide jobs so that its population can afford to buy food, and also limit the growth of its population, the government of Niger is introducing measures to improve people’s access to food. One new piece of legislation will make it compulsory for children to remain in school until the age of sixteen, partly because of the strong link between girls’ education and declining family size.

Somalia’s weak and ineffectual government can’t do anything to prevent famine from occurring there again. With all the will in the world, there is no way that Somalia’s food crisis will end until its political situation stabilises.

The comparison of Niger and Somalia is particularly useful for demonstrating the extent to which responses to famine – from the media, NGOs, charities, and other international organisations – are heavily politicised. Reporting on the Niger famine in 2010 was fairly muted and I’ve only seen a couple of references to its most recent food crisis. Somalia, though, never seems to be out of the news. The reason for this is depressingly simple:

Niger, the large West African country whose name is best known for being just one unfortunate letter away from a pejorative racial insult, has a few terrorists, but not enough to really matter. Elements from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb wander across Niger’s border every now and then, taking advantage of the large desolate areas which characterise most of the country, but for the most part its contribution to the War on Terror is minimal.

Al-Shabaab is loosely affiliated to al Qaeda and the United States fears that the Horn of Africa could prove to be a useful base for planning future terrorist activities. It probably also helps that Somalia has media-friendly pirates too.

So all famines aren’t equal. All famines are complicated. Indeed, the whole question of ‘hunger’ is complex. I was amused to note that Monday marks the beginning of the WFP’s Free Rice Week. The project encourages individuals to play a game on a website. For every correct answer, Free Rice Week’s sponsors donate ten grains of rice to the WFP. The aim of the project is to ‘provide education to everyone for free’. Hmm…. ok – it includes some basic, if vague, information about ‘hunger’. And also to ‘help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.’

Huh?

So this is going to end world hunger by giving all hungry people rice?

Seriously?

Other than the fact that it would be as – or even more – effective for the project’s sponsors and participants to skip the cute competition and simply donate rice to the WFP (or, even better, to a local feeding scheme or food bank), this really isn’t going to end world hunger.

I know that this seems like a soft target to shout at, and, really, there’s nothing wrong with donating food or money to the WFP, but my annoyance with projects and competitions like this one, stems from the fact that they’re dishonest. There is no way that Free Rice Week is going to end world hunger. It’s a pity that the WFP sees fit to inform people that by taking part in it they’re contributing to solving the food crisis.

In fact, I think that Free Rice Week and other, similar projects actually contribute to the problem.

Firstly, they fudge the meaning of ‘hunger’.  Over the past year or so, we’ve become familiar with the FAO’s horrifying statistic that one billion people go hungry every day – that one sixth of the world’s population does not have adequate access to food. But there are problems with this statistic:

it is not the only way to measure food insecurity. Over the years, it has been criticised on many fronts: for the poor quality of underlying data; for the focus on calorie intake, without consideration of proteins, vitamins and minerals; and for the emphasis on availability – rather than affordability, accessibility or actual use – of food. Some say we’d be better off focusing on improving household consumption surveys, opinion polls, and direct measures of height and body weight.

These figures need to be accurate because they ‘are also used to help guide where to send foreign aid, track progress towards international development goals, and hold governments to account for promises made.’

Moreover, it glosses over the fact that there are many kinds of hunger: the extreme events – the famines – which are the products of natural disasters, conflict, and state collapse; the hunger which is the product of poor diets and an inability to buy or access enough food; and the hunger in developed nations. In Britain and the United States, the numbers of people now reliant on food stamps and food banks has spiked during the recession.

Secondly, these projects ignore the fact that responding to various kinds of hunger requires far, far more than throwing money at the problem. In fact, the WFP’s website even acknowledges this: ‘People can go hungry even when there’s plenty of food around. Often it’s a question of access – they can’t afford food or they can’t get to local markets.’ Famines in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries occur as a result of a collapse of distribution systems, usually caused by conflict or a crisis in government. Famines tend not to happen in stable democracies. The WFP must receive money for food aid – that is absolutely non-negotiable – but long-term change, as we’ve seen in the cases of Somalia and Niger, can only occur once stable, effective governments are in place. No amount of free rice is going to end famine in Somalia.

In other cases of hunger, it’s clear that people are simply too poor to buy food: employment, education, good health systems, and higher wages will go far in remedying this situation. But even then, we have to accommodate the choices that poor people make when spending their money. In an article for Foreign Policy’s special edition on food last year, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo took a closer look at the lives of the ‘one billion hungry’ and came to some interesting conclusions:

We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don’t invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more sceptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.

We asked Oucha Mbarbk [a Moroccan peasant] what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, ‘Oh, but television is more important than food!’

We need to take people’s choices about how they spend their limited funds, more seriously.

Thirdly, by focussing on raising funds, the WFP transforms itself into a philanthropic organisation. Donations of food and other forms humanitarian aid are absolutely necessary to alleviating food crises, but they won’t end these crises – or end ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that). In an excellent article for the Guardian, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter argues:

our global food system…is in crisis. Last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, and the current woes in the Sahel, are the surface cracks of a broken system. These regional outbreaks of hunger are not, as such, extreme events.

Beyond semantics, this is a crucial distinction. In viewing these events as extreme and unexpected, we fail to acknowledge the regularity and predictability of hunger. This flaw is fatal, for it means failing to acknowledge that the food system itself is broken. It means failing to build readiness for persistent famine into international development and humanitarian policy. And it means waiting until people starve before doing anything.

Food aid doesn’t address the deeper, structural problems underlying the food crisis. It doesn’t consider bad governance; the impact of food speculation on rising food prices; and agricultural efficiency, particularly in the light of climate change.

By appealing to people to donate money to fund their response to food crises – which could have been avoided – the WFP and others cast hunger as something which can be remedied with old-fashioned philanthropy. It’s certainly true that philanthropic organisations can do immensely good work – like reducing rates of polio and malaria in the developing world. But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problems which give rise to these crises:

the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life.

Precisely. The world’s poor should not be dependent on the goodwill of wealthy people who have the time and inclination to play games on the internet.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Eat the Rich

Today’s City Press includes a fantastically interesting article about the increased incidence of obesity in post-1994 South Africa. The piece explores the links between the country’s transition to democracy and the fact that 61% of all South Africans – 70% of women over the age of 35, 55% of white men 15 years and older, and a quarter of all teenagers – are obese or overweight.

The reasons for these incredibly high levels of obesity are, as the article acknowledges, complex. In many ways, South Africa conforms to a pattern emerging throughout the developing world. In a report published a few months ago, the World Health Organisation noted that lifestyle-related diseases – like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity – are now among the main causes of death and disease in developing nations. These diseases of affluence are no longer limited to the West.

For the new South African middle classes, fast food and branded processed products, like Coke, are markers of sophistication: of having ‘made it’ in this increasingly prosperous society. But, as in the rest of the world, those at the top of the social scale tend not to be overweight:

contrary to popular myth, obesity is not a ‘rich man’s disease’.

Indeed, the most affluent urbanites can get into their SUVs and drive to gym or to Woolies food hall where, for a price, they can load up their trolleys with fresh, top-quality groceries – from free-range chickens to organic lemons.

This means, says [Prof Salome] Kruger, that ‘the highest income earners are thinner’.

For urban dwellers who earn less, fresh food is usually more difficult, and expensive, to buy than processed non-food:

But for your average city dweller – earning money, but not necessarily enough to own a car to get them out to the major supermarket malls – food is where you find it.

Typically, this is in small corner shops selling a limited, and often more expensive, range of fresh foods. Fruit and veg can be hard to find among the toothpaste and toilet paper spaza staples.

‘R15!’ It’s taxi fare from Orlando to the Pick n Pay in Soweto’s Maponya Mall – and it was 25-year-old road worker Lindiwe Xorine’s reply when City Press asked her how far it was to the nearest supermarket.

We call these areas where access to fresh food is limited, ‘food deserts’. It’s entirely possible to buy fruit, vegetables, and free-range meat in South African cities, but high prices and bad transport infrastructure limit people’s ability to purchase these products.

We’re dealing, effectively, with the effects of mass urbanisation since the ending of influx control in the mid-1980s and the 1994 elections.

The migration of South Africans from rural to urban areas has been a key factor in the nation’s radical change of lifestyle habits.

Twenty years ago, restricted by apartheid laws, just 10% of black South Africans lived in urban areas. Today, more than 56% do.

Alison Feeley, a scientist at the Medical Research Council, says this massive shift to a fast-paced urban life has resulted in dietary patterns shifting just as dramatically from ‘traditional foods to fast foods’.

But this isn’t the first time that South Africa, or indeed other countries, has had to cope with the impact of urbanisation on people’s diets. During the nineteenth century, industrialisation caused agricultural workers to abandon farming in their droves, and to move to cities in search of employment, either in factories or in associated industries. In Britain, this caused a drop in the quality of urban diets. Food supplies to cities were inadequate, and the little food that the new proletariat could afford was monotonous, meagre, and lacking in protein and fresh fruit and vegetables.

One of the effects of this inadequate diet was a decrease in average height – one of the best indicators of childhood health and nutrition – among the urban poor in Victorian cities. In fact, British officers fighting the South African War (1899-1902) had to contend with soldiers who were physically incapable of fighting the generally fitter, stronger, and healthier Boer forces, most of whom had been raised on diets rich in animal protein.

This link between industrialisation, urbanisation, and a decline in the quality of city dwellers’ diets is not inevitable. For middle-class Europeans in cities like London, Paris, and Berlin, industrialised transport and food production actually increased the variety of food they could afford. In the United States, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, a burgeoning food industry benefitted poorer urbanites as well. Processed food was cheap and readily available. Impoverished (and hungry) immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Italy were astonished by the variety and quantity of food they could buy in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.

It’s difficult to identify similar patterns in South Africa. We know that the sudden growth of Kimberley and Johannesburg after the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1882) stimulated agriculture in Griqualand West and the South African Republic. Farmers in these regions now supplied southern Africa’s fastest growing cities with food. The expansion of Kimberley and Johannesburg as a result of the mineral revolution was different from that of London or New York because their new populations were overwhelmingly male – on the Witwatersrand, there were roughly ninety men for every woman – and highly mobile. These immigrants from the rest of Africa, Europe, Australia, and the United States had little intention of settling in South Africa. As a result of this, it’s likely that these urban dwellers weren’t as badly effected by poor diets as their compatriots in the industrialised cities of the north Atlantic.

Cape Town’s slums and squatter settlements were, though, populated by a new urban poor who migrated with their families to the city during the final three decades of the nineteenth century. Most factory workers were paid barely enough to cover their rent. Mr W. Dieterle, manager of J.H. Sturk & Co., a manufacturer of snuff and cigars, said of the young women he employed:

It would seem incredible how cheaply and sparsely they live. In the mornings they have a piece of bread with coffee, before work. We have no stop for breakfast, but I allow them to stand up when they wish to eat. Very few avail themselves of this privilege. They stay until one o’clock without anything, and then they have a piece of bread spread with lard, and perhaps with the addition of a piece of fish.

This diet – heavy on carbohydrates and cheap stimulants (like coffee), and relatively poor in protein and fresh produce – was typical of the city’s poor. It wasn’t the case that food was unavailable: it was just that urban workers couldn’t afford it.

In fact, visitors to the Cape during this period commented frequently on the abundance and variety of fruit, vegetables, and meat on the tables of the middle classes. White, middle-class girls at the elite Huguenot Seminary in Wellington – a town about 70km from Cape Town – drank tea and coffee, ate fruit, and smeared sheep fat and moskonfyt (syrupy grape jam) on their bread for breakfast and supper. A typical lunch consisted of soup, roasted, stewed, curried, or fried meat (usually mutton), three or four vegetables, rice, and pudding.

It’s also worth noting that the Seminary served its meals during the morning, the middle of the day, and in the evening – something which was relatively new. Industrialisation caused urban workers’ mealtimes to change. Breakfast moved earlier in the day – from the middle of the morning to seven or eight o’clock – lunch (or dinner) shifted to midday from the mid-afternoon, and dinner (or tea) emerged as a substantial meal at the end of the day.

Factory workers in Cape Town ate according to this new pattern as well. The difference was the quality of their diet. A fifteen year-old white, middle-class girl in leafy Claremont who had eaten an ample, varied diet since early childhood was taller and heavier than her black contemporaries in Sturk’s cigar factory. In all likelihood, she would have begun menstruating earlier, and would have recovered from illness and, later, childbirth far more quickly than poorer young women of the same age. She would have lived for longer too.

Urbanisation changes the ways in which we eat: we eat at different times and, crucially, we eat new and different things. By looking at a range of examples from the nineteenth century, we can see that this change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The industrial revolution contributed to the more varied and cheaper diets of the middle classes. Industrialised food production and transport caused the urban poor in the United States to eat better than many of those left behind in rural areas, for example. But it’s also clear that it exacerbates social inequality. In the 1800s, the poor had too little to eat and that which they did have was not particularly nutritious. Children raised on these diets were shorter and more prone to illness than those who ate more varied, plentiful, and protein-rich food. Now, the diets available to the poor in urbanising societies are as bad, even if the diseases they contribute to are caused by eating too much rather than too little.

Most importantly, we have an abundance of food in our growing cities. Just about everyone can afford to eat. The point is that only a minority can afford good, fresh food, and have the time, knowledge, and equipment to prepare it. Food mass produced in factories helped Europe and North America’s cities to feed their urban poor a hundred years ago. I’m not sure if that’s the best solution for the twenty-first century.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Affordable Luxury

I had a powerful sense of déjà vu yesterday as I read this weekend’s Financial Times. As the news section described the world economy’s recent nose-dive and entry into Phase Five of the early twenty-first century’s Great Depression, the FT’s monthly magazine How to spend it blithely informed its readers that ‘Homes are constantly borrowing bright ideas from luxury hotels.’ And went on to recommend the installation of architect-designed pool houses – which tend to go for around £3,000 per square metre.

Have you read How to spend it? If ever there was a cultural artefact which encapsulated the excess and arrogance of the boom time before the near-collapse of the British and American financial systems in 2008, then this is it. It’s a magazine aimed at the super-rich – at the sort of people who have so much money that they need advice on how they should spend it. I read it – or, at least, I read as much of it as I can before I’m engulfed with rage – because it offers an insight into a bizarre, yet incredibly powerful, world to which I will never have access. (And, frankly, life’s far too short to spend months in search of the perfect example of summer cashmere.)

Printed on glossy, A3-sized sheets of paper, it describes trends in the art market and fashion world; which yacht is de rigeur this season; where best to order bespoke jewellery; and whether or not it’s worth hiring a private chef. How to spend it is a celebration not of money – that would be vulgar – but, rather, of luxury.

In this week’s edition, Terence Conran comments in an article about his perfect weekend (which features his routine in his Georgian manor, designing furniture, and resting by his specially-altered river), that ‘luxury usually means simplicity, or easy living, rather than things that cost a lot of money.’ That Conran’s description of luxury as costing nothing is in a magazine which devotes itself to the top-end, exclusive, and incredibly expensive, is a pleasing irony. But it did make me think about how we define luxury, and particularly as regards food.

In his landmark study Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), the anthropologist Sidney Mintz traces how in Britain, sugar shifted from being a luxury available only to the very wealthy, to being an affordable commodity for most people by the early nineteenth century. Yet despite this -  despite the fact that sugar was cheap and consumed in large quantities by the British population, and particularly by the poor – it was still seen as a treat. It became an affordable or everyday luxury.

It was the increasing popularity and cheapness of sugar – and it gradually replaced honey as the world’s sweetener of choice – which caused the democratisation of a range of other products, and chiefly chocolate, tea, and coffee. Chocolate, once associated with ritual and celebration in pre-Columbian Mexico, was introduced as a beverage to Spain in 1527, but only took off In Europe once sugar was added to it. It became popular among the aristocracy, partly because it tasted delicious but also as a result of its supposed medicinal qualities. It became widely available at the end of the eighteenth century when imports increased and the production of solid chocolate was industrialised.

Similarly, coffee arrived in Europe via Turkey – cafes were opened in Constantinople from 1554, and the first coffee house in Paris was established in 1672 – and more efficient production, bigger imports, and the relatively new idea of sweetening coffee with sugar meant that it was popular throughout the continent by the 1700s. Tea was introduced to Britain by Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s Portuguese wife, but it was only when someone discovered that stirring sugar into it made it less bitter, that it gained a bigger audience among the middle and upper classes. It was heavily promoted by the financially shaky East India Company, and also by the British government in the mid-eighteenth century as an alternative to alcohol. A drop in the tea price in 1784 caused the spike in British tea drinking: between 1801 and 1810, 12,000 tons of tea was drunk annually in Britain. By 1890, that soared to almost 90,000 tons.

All of these affordable luxuries – tea, sugar, coffee, and chocolate – were popularised because innovations in technology and higher yields abroad made it possible for prices to fall at home. What revolutionised the cultivation the crops was the fact that they could be grown successfully all over the world – tea was taken from south-east Asia to east Africa, coffee from Ethiopia to south-east Asia and Brazil, and chocolate from central America to west Africa and south-east Asia – and in vast plantations.

It’s little wonder that colonialism is so closely associated with the production of all of these commodities, and particularly with sugar. Not only were imperial powers, most notably the Dutch, Portuguese, and British, responsible for globalising the cultivation of these crops, but they put slaves to work on tea, coffee, and sugar plantations. The plantation system of farming – in which a single crop is farmed over a vast area – is labour intensive, and European colonisers worked their slaves, literally, to death.

In this way, slave labour allowed for the democratisation of chocolate, sugar, tea, and coffee. This is particularly ironic in the case of coffee. Coffee houses were connected to the rise of modernity in Europe. Anne E.C. McCants explains:

The expression ‘to break bread together’ now has an archaic feel to it. A proximate contemporary substitute, albeit devoid of the powerful religious significance of bread, is to ‘go out for a cup of coffee’, which is at least as much about conversation as it is about nourishment per se. Historians associate this total reorientation of the culture of food and drink with the substitution of coffeehouses for taverns; the wider dissemination of public news; trading on the stock exchange; … new arrangements of domestic and public space; [and] the ability to sustain new industrial work schedules despite their tedium….

Not only is there a connection between coffee drinking and the Enlightenment and democracy in Europe, but also between coffee, sugar, tea, and chocolate – and capitalism and consumerism. Joyce Appleby writes:

American slave-worked plantations and mechanical wizardry for pumping water, smelting metals, and powering textile factories…may seem unconnected. Certainly we have been loath to link slavery to the contributions of a free enterprise system, but they must be recognised as twin responses to the capitalist genie that had escaped the lamp of tradition during the seventeenth century. Both represented radical departures from previous practices.

Both factories and plantations took a significant capital investment to set up; both produced healthy profits which were reinvested; both relied on plentiful, cheap labour; and both introduced new work routines. Appleby describes sugar as ‘one of capitalism’s first great bonanzas’, arguing that ‘its successes also revealed the power of the profit motive to override any cultural inhibitions to gross exploitation.’

As sugar shaped the capitalist system of the eighteenth century, so it did consumerism. Demand for particular items had driven trade for hundreds of years, but it was only during the eighteenth century that widespread demand from all classes of people, and particularly in Britain where wages tended to be higher, began to fuel capitalist economies:

[A] large body of domestic consumers fuelled England’s commercial expansion and a richly elaborated material culture dependent upon the market. … New attachments to objects, a raging delight in novelties, and the pleasures of urban sociability bespoke a deep engagement with the material world that made spending seem more beneficial to the economy than did parsimony.

As Appleby implies, consumerism links a desire for things with the construction of identities. Sugar, coffee, chocolate, and tea were the first foodstuffs to be transformed into consumer goods. By no means essential to our diets, demand for them was driven by factors other than hunger: people bought them in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because, even though they were cheap, they represented luxury and comfort.

Food has always signified more than simply nutrition, but it’s been implicated in the rise of a consumerist society since the eighteenth century. This means that not only do consumers attach a range of new meanings to the food that we buy – we purchase food not only because we need to eat, but because of how we construct our identities as consumers of goods – but consumer demand drives the production of food. It’s for this reason that efforts to reform eating habits – either to combat lifestyle-related diseases or, indeed, to produce a more sustainable food system – have to deal with the fact that we approach food as consumers operating within a global food system.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton, [2010] 2011).

Anne EC McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61 (2008), pp. 172-200.

Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Other sources:

K.T. Achaya, The Food Industries of British India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

E.M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c.1800-1947 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).

Alain Huertz de Lemps, ‘Colonial Beverages and the Consumption of Sugar,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 383-393.

Kenneth K. Kiple and Virginia Himmelsteib King, Another Dimension to the Black Diaspora: Diet, Disease, and Racism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

Sidney W. Mintz, ‘Sweet, Salt, and the Language of Love,’ MLN, vol. 106, no. 4, French Issue: Cultural Representations of Food (Sep., 1991), pp. 852-860.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Random House, 1992).

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

Frank Trentmann, ‘Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 48, no. 2 (April 2009), pp. 283-307.

Marijke van der Veen, ‘When Is Food a Luxury?’ World Archaeology, vol. 34, no. 3, Luxury Foods (Feb., 2003), pp. 405-427.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

No Famine is Inevitable

Last week there was a flurry of excitement as commentators compared the R1 million pledged by the South African government to aid the victims of the famine in the Horn of Africa, and the potential billion rand loan which it is currently considering for Swaziland. Not only could Africa’s economic powerhouse donate considerably more than a million rand (about £90,000 or US$150,000) to Somalia, but granting a conditions-free loan to King Mswati III’s dysfunctional kingdom would serve only to prop up the continent’s last absolute monarch.

Although I was as outraged by my government’s apparent indifference to the plight of Somalis, I did begin to wonder if that money could be used more wisely. Of course, South Africa must – and can – contribute to the international effort to distribute food in Somalia. Given the scrutiny of aid agencies working in the region, as well as the awareness of how aid money has been channelled to elites over the past few decades, it’s likely that South Africa’s donation will go to those who need it. But giving money to alleviate the famine is a short-term fix.

Possibly because of the way it echoes Africa’s other best-known famine, the Live Aid-engendering Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985, the famine in the Horn of Africa has generated an enormous amount of coverage in the international press. More information and analysis can only ever be a good thing, but much of the discussion around the famine suggests that it’s a crisis which emerged suddenly and without any warning. As the Guardian’s John Vidal put it, ‘A massive drought, as if out of nowhere, has settled over the Horn of Africa’. Moreover, some commentators, like Vidal, have blamed the famine on only one or two factors, usually climate change or Western indifference to African suffering.

The causes of famines are complex, but they are never entirely unpredictable. Counterintuitively, they are not necessarily caused by a lack of food, but are, rather, the result of long-term systemic failure: in agriculture, trade, and, most importantly, in government. By suggesting that South Africa’s paltry million rand donation would be better spent, my point is that South Africa’s involvement in the Somali crisis should go beyond giving money for food. It needs to stop famines from happening in the first place, and that is not impossible.

We have managed largely to eradicate famine in the twentieth century. Before then, food shortages and famines were part of the rhythms of everyday life. In societies where food production was inefficient both in terms of labour and technology – and until the eighteenth century, eighty per cent of the population of Europe was engaged in agriculture – frequent crop failures meant that famine occurred often. But during the 1700s, an agricultural revolution allowed greater, more regular, and, crucially, more reliable yields to be produced by smaller numbers of people. International trade also meant that countries could buy food to supplement local shortfalls. For example, during the 1870s, the failure of the European grain crop boosted Canadian and American wheat exports, as these two countries fed Europe for almost a decade.

Although initially developed in the Netherlands and Britain (and there is a strong link between the development of capitalist economies and efficient food systems), the methods pioneered during this green revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spread around the globe. By the early 1900s, famine was caused increasingly by people, rather than only by nature. That said, the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1852) was certainly the product of the potato blight, but it also occurred at a time when Ireland was an exporter of wheat: there was enough food to go around, it was just that those who were starving couldn’t afford to buy bread. The Cattle Killing Movement in South Africa (1856-1857) caused widespread famine among the Xhosa. Around 40,000 people died of starvation, 33,000 moved away from the eastern Cape to seek work, and the authority of the Xhosa polity was fatally undermined. But this was caused by a decision to slaughter cattle and destroy crops on a mass scale.

Equally, some twentieth-century famines were caused partly by crop failure, but were also the product of bad governance and ineffective systems of food distribution. As Cormac Ó Gráda explains:

Wars, blockades, poor governance, and civil unrest can also lead to famines; panics about the food supply and poorly performing markets can exacerbate them. In such cases…factors other than crop shortfalls reduce the purchasing power or ‘entitlements’ of vulnerable sections of the population: the size of the loaf matters less than its distribution.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argued in Poverty and Famines (1981) that – contra Thomas Malthus who suggested that exponential population growth would result inevitably in famine – famines can occur in times of peak food production. Why? I think it’s worth quoting Sen in full:

In every society that exists, the amount of food that a person or a family can command is governed by one set of rules or another, combined with the contingent circumstances in which that person or that family happens to be placed vis-à-vis those rules. For example, in a private ownership market economy, how much food a person can command will depend on (1) what he owns, and (2) what he can get in exchange for what he owns either through trade, or through production, or some combination of the two. Obviously, in such an economy a person may suddenly face starvation either because his ownership bundle collapses (e.g., through alienation of land to the money lenders), or because the ‘exchange entitlement’ of his ownership (i.e., the command of what he owns) collapses (e.g., through his becoming unemployed and not being able to sell his labour power, or through a decline in his terms of trade vis-à-vis food).

In other words, people starve when they can’t buy food – either because they no longer have the money to exchange for food (as a result of unemployment, for example) or because food prices become prohibitively high. Peaks in food prices could be due to droughts and other ecological factors, conflict, and speculation.

The crisis in Somalia demonstrates particularly well how state intervention can prevent or cause famine. In 1960, British Somaliland and Italian Somalia became the independent Republic of Somalia. Nine years later, Major-General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a bloodless coup and ruled Somalia through a military dictatorship until the collapse of his government in 1991. Somalia’s experience of food shortages and famine must be understood in this context of Barre’s government (or lack thereof) and economic policies. In 1970, he announced the implementation of ‘scientific socialism’, introduced strict central planning, and viciously stamped out all forms of opposition. Peter T. Leeson writes:

The government slaughtered civilians who posed threats to the government’s plans or political power, used coercive intimidation to create artificial support for its activities, and forcibly relocated others to further the political or economic ends of Barre and his cronies. ‘Both the urban population and nomads living in the countryside [were] subjected to summary killings, arbitrary arrest, detention in squalid conditions, torture, rape, crippling constraints on freedom of movement and expression and a pattern of psychological intimidation’. The state ruthlessly suppressed free speech and controlled all forms of information reaching Somalis. Newspapers (only one was officially permitted by the government), radio, and television were fully censored and dissent in any form squelched with force. Under Somalia’s National Security Law No. 54, ‘gossip’ became a capital offense. Twenty other basic civil freedoms involving speech, association and organisation also carried the death penalty.

Funds were diverted from public works, education, healthcare, and infrastructure to the military, on whose support and ability to terrify and brutalise the Somali population Barre depended. The nationalisation of land and industry in 1975 was, predictably, a disaster. The abandonment of socialism at the end of the 1970s in order to attract assistance from the International Monetary Fund made very little difference either. Somalia was heavily dependent on international food aid during the 1970s and 1980s. The Horn of Africa is prone to drought, but it’s worth noting that despite catastrophic droughts in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, Somalia managed to avoid famine – unlike its war-torn neighbour, Ethiopia, whose government ignored the plight of its population.

As Abdi Ismail Samatar notes,

Somalia’s last major famine was in 1992 and was not caused by drought. Nearly 300,000 innocent people starved to death because of sectarian politics. The epicentre of that famine was in Bay, one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions, and starvation was induced by warlords who used food as a weapon against farmers and pastoralists.

Barre’s government collapsed in 1991, plunging Somalia into civil war and a chaos from which it has yet to emerge. It’s telling that a country which had managed to avoid famine for over half a century, despite drought, food shortages, and incredible food insecurity, saw widespread famine only after food supplies were disrupted by war.

So why famine now? Over the course of sixteen years, Somalia has been the subject of fourteen reconciliation conferences, none of which managed to produce a stable government. In 2004, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), an anti-Islamist, pro-Ethiopian political grouping, was put into power in Somalia under the leadership of Abdullahi Yusuf and with the support of the United Nations. However, the TGF was neither popular nor effective as a government. In the absence of effective leadership, a number of attempts were made by Islamic groups, war lords, civil society organisations, and others to create some sort of order in Somalia, and particularly in Mogadishu. One of these, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, was formed by a group of war lords in February 2006. They were backed by the United States who saw them as allies against Islamic groups in the region.

Armed clashes between the Alliance and Islamist groups soon broke out and developed into a war which the Islamists won decisively. By the middle of 2006, they had taken control of Mogadishu as well as central and southern Somalia. Not only was this an embarrassment to the United States and its ally Ethiopia, but for the first time it seemed that Somalia was offered the possibility of a relatively popular and effective government in the hands of the Islamists, who quickly organised themselves into the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC). However, an invasion by Ethiopia at the end of 2006 caused the collapse of the CIC, the reinstallment of the almost entirely ineffective TFG, and the beginning of a new civil war between the Government and opposition groups. The most successful of these was Al-Shabab. Originally the CIC’s youth wing and affiliated with al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab is an Islamist group which now controls most of southern Somalia.

Years of political uncertainty, conflict, and chaos (best exemplified by the way piracy has flourished along the Somali coast) have left Somalis particularly vulnerable to drought and the less predictable effects of climate change. A combination of a US- and UN-backed blockade of the parts of Somalia controlled by Al-Shabab, as well as this organisation’s unwillingness to allow the World Food Programme to deliver food to southern Somalis has caused the famine. Samatar explains:

Normally, societies have three lines of defence against mass starvation: local capacity, national government and the international community. When a disaster hits a region, the first help comes from local administrations and the communities themselves. If events overwhelm the first responders, then the national government takes charge of operations; and when the crisis exceeds the wherewithal of the nation, international actors come to the rescue.

It is clear that all three levels of livelihood protections have failed in Somalia. Al-Shabab has prohibited the local population from organising their municipal governments and charities to fend off the disaster. Similarly, Somalia’s national government, which is beholden to sectarian leadership and international patrons, has been oblivious to the emerging calamity, and has thwarted the international community from coming to its aid

This was a famine which could have been avoided had order been established in Somalia. Here, Somali politicians and war lords are as much to blame as the international community, East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the UN, and, crucially in my view, the African Union. This famine is not the result solely of dastardly foreign countries plundering Africa, nor can blame be laid entirely on Somalis themselves. But after the effort to feed Somalis has ended, reconstruction needs to begin. And it’s here where South Africa must – and I think is obliged to – take a leading role.

Somalia also demonstrates the extent to which food security is linked to strong, functioning governments. Countries which are badly run, have weak economies, and, most importantly, are authoritarian, are the most strongly disposed towards famine. Last year’s narrowly-avoided famine in West Africa was due largely to the incompetence of Niger and Chad’s malfunctioning, undemocratic political dispensations. Only the spread of democratic and open government, with, crucially, a free flow of information, will prevent famines from happening in Africa. As Sen remarked, ‘There is, indeed, no such thing as an apolitical food problem.’

Note: I try to use sources which are easily available, but for this post I’ve relied on articles from academic journals. Unfortunately, these are securely behind paywalls. If you’d like copies of them, let me know.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York and London: W.W. Norton, [2010] 2011).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Making Famine History,’ Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

Amartya Sen, ‘The Food Problem: Theory and Policy,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 447-459.

Other sources:

L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943-4,’ History Ireland, vol. 18, no. 4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India (July/August 2010), pp. 36-39.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The Ripple that Drowns? Twentieth-Century Famines in China and India as Economic History,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, (2008), pp. 5-37.

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

Anne M. Thompson, ‘Somalia: Food Aid in a Long-Term Emergency,’ Food Policy (Aug. 1983), pp. 209-219.

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Christian Webersik, ‘Mogadishu: An Economy without a State,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 8 (2006), pp. 1463-1480.

S.G. Wheatcroft, ‘Famine and Food Consumption Records in Early Soviet History, 1917-25,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 151-174.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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