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The President’s Vegetable Garden

There are very few countries, I think, where a satirical news site is frequently mistaken for being entirely serious. Hayibo – the South African equivalent of the Daily Mash or the Onion – must, occasionally, point out to its readers that its stories are made up, rather than real.

Readers can be forgiven for wondering if a report about striking Marikana mineworkers being charged for the Helderberg plane crash is true, when the ANC announces an official policy on the serving of cake at party celebrations. Or if Cosatu officials really did believe they could move into Cape Town stadium, after the ANC Women’s League decided to march against a rude painting of Jacob Zuma, rather than protest the circumstances which allowed for the serial abuse and gang rape of a seventeen year-old mentally incapacitated girl.

A Hayibo post from this week suggests that the ANC’s national conference to be held in December in Manguang, will be replaced by an episode of Come Dine with Me. Instead of conference delegates voting to choose the new leader of the party – and, thus, by default, the next president of South Africa – four contestants will compete in a series of dinner parties:

The cookery show…will feature President Jacob Zuma take on rival Kgalema Motlanthe, former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and Proteas batsman Hashim Amla.

When asked why Amla, a cricketer, was suddenly a contender for the top leadership position in the ANC, BBC producer Cokey McLush shrugged and said ‘Everyone loves that geezer, yeah?’

The four will each host a dinner party on successive nights, and after each dinner will rate the host on his evening. ‘The winner walks away with Pick ‘n Pay vouchers worth R5000, as well as obviously the complete control of South Africa’s political space, so there’s a lot to play for,’ explained McLush.

It would all be much more amusing were it not so very, very serious. I was thinking about food and South African politics this week, after the Mail and Guardian produced a handy interactive guide to the development of Nkandla, the village in which Zuma’s private residence is based.

The Nkandla scandal has rocked South African politics and civil society over the past few weeks, as the City Press revealed that the Department of Public Works has committed to spending R203 million – about US$23 million or £14 million – of public money, not only in developing this village in rural KwaZulu-Natal, but in building Zuma’s increasingly elaborate home.

South African Wonder Woman-incarnate Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector, has announced an investigation into the development. Despite her interest and increasing public outrage, the government remains unrepentant: it has declared Nklandla a ‘national key point’, meaning that it comes under security legislation and can’t be reported on; the Minister for Public Works, Thulas Nxesi, declared at a press conference that ‘questioning the need for spending hundreds of millions of rands in Nkandla showed insensitivity to the cultural diversity of South Africa’; and the state has launched an investigation into how the City Press got hold of the documents which revealed the scale of the spending at Nklandla.

Not for nothing has Nkandla been nicknamed ‘Zumaville’. The M&G’s guide reveals how the village will be transformed with new roads, housing, and a shopping centre. Zuma’s own residence will have two helicopter landing pads, a football pitch, tennis court, and underground bunkers. (Remembering, of course, that he has two official houses, one in Pretoria and the other in Cape Town.) I was intrigued by the fact that a vegetable garden has also been included in the development.

The M&G explains:

The vegetable garden is outside the main security zone, but still inside the outer fence, making it accessible for the people who tend it without a need for them to use the front entrance of the compound. The public works department says food security was identified as a potential security threat for President Jacob Zuma and visiting dignitaries, which means the establishment of the garden may have been state-funded.

I am all for heads of state planting vegetable gardens: I think it’s an excellent idea, particularly as a means of encouraging people to grow their own food. I wish more presidents and prime ministers would plant vegetables to show their commitment to feeding their families healthily and relatively cheaply. But I have a couple of reservations about this garden.

Firstly, the Department of Public Works justifies funding the garden on the grounds that food insecurity could pose a threat to Zuma and his guests. What do we mean by ‘food security’? As a paper published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, and cited by the M&G, explains:

Food security as an umbrella term includes: (i) the availability of food that is nutritious and safe; (ii) an assured ability to procure and acquire food of good quality in a socially acceptable way (e.g. without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing or similar coping strategies). In contrast, food insecurity exists when food is not easily accessible and households have difficulty securing adequate food.

The authors of the paper argue that although food insecurity declined in South Africa between 1995 and 2008 – due partly to the social grants system and the work of the National School Nutrition Programme – one third of South African children do not eat an adequately varied diet, and 18% of them are malnourished:

Our findings show that the nutrient density of the diet consumed by South African children is insufficient to meet their nutrient requirements. Similarly, they have shown alarmingly low food variety and household dietary diversity scores, both of which have been positively related to children’s nutritional status. … Hence, stunting still affects a large proportion of children.

One of the main reasons for food insecurity in South Africa is poverty and, partly as a result of this, the country’s population is at risk of becoming even more insecure. A 2009 report on food security published by the Human Sciences Research Council notes:

Rising food prices, particularly of maize and wheat which are the staple diet of the poor in South Africa, pose serious problems for the urban and rural poor as most are net buyers of food. Recent information from the Food and Agriculture Organisation…suggest that food prices will increase steadily over the next decade even if there are some fluctuations and the occasional drop in prices. Given increasingly strong linkages between the local level and national and international commodity chains and economic networks, even remote rural households in South Africa are affected by changes in these networks. Unless there are new policy directions, poor households will increasingly be forced to allocate a greater proportion of their expenditure to food, with the result that diets will become less diverse, lower in quality, and energy intake (calories consumed) will drop as people try to cope with the situation. Most severely affected will be the chronically urban and rural poor, the landless and female headed households.

Although the government deserves praise for reducing levels of hunger in South Africa, far too many people, particularly children, don’t have adequate access to food. Indeed, it would appear that with rising food prices internationally, there is a risk that the country may become more food insecure.

To justify the public funding of a vegetable garden for the president’s private residence on the grounds of ‘food security’ is deeply offensive to the numbers of South Africans who can’t afford to feed themselves and their families properly. If the president and the Department of Public Works were genuinely interested in reducing food insecurity in the region, it would make far better sense for them to plant a larger, communal garden for all of Nkandla’s residents.

My second problem with Zuma’s vegetable garden is the very dubious way in which it’s been funded. There is a link between poor governance and food insecurity. One of the best recent examples of how corruption impedes food distribution occurred in Uttar Pradesh. Throughout India, only 41 per cent of the food intended for the very poor by the Food Corporation of India – the government agency established in 1965 to ensure India’s food supply – reaches households. This is due partly to wastage, but also to corruption.

In Uttar Pradesh, though, nearly all food aid was stolen by corrupt officials over the course of three years, as Bloomberg reports:

The scam itself was simple. So much so, that by 2007 corrupt politicians and officials in at least 30 of Uttar Pradesh’s 71 districts had learned to copy it…. All they had to do was pay the government the subsidized rates for the food. Then instead of selling it on to villagers at the lower prices, they sold to traders at market rates.

The irony is that India’s food reserves are full – and there’s more than enough food to go around:

While the Food Corporation of India is required to keep about 32 million metric tons of rice and wheat, bumper harvests have left the country with a stockpile of more than 80 million tonnes, according to the corporation. Stacked in 50-kilogram sacks, the food would reach from Sitapur to the moon, with at least 270,000 bags to spare.

To stop food rotting, the central government lifted a four- year ban on exports of wheat last year. In June, India donated 250,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan.

But with corrupt officials, there’s no way of guaranteeing that this food will reach the poor. When distribution systems fail, people go hungry – and more than half of India’s children, and 21 per cent of adults, suffer from malnutrition.

This is, admittedly, an extreme example of the implications of corruption for food security, but it demonstrates particularly well how poor governance can impact the lives of the very poor. Given the rising levels of corruption in South Africa, it’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that the government’s good work on reducing hunger has the potential to be reversed if systems are corrupted through bribery, theft, and mismanagement.

It’s an obvious point, but the R203 million set aside for Zumaville could have been used to build roads, railways, food silos, and other infrastructure to improve the distribution of food to rural areas.

Six years ago, Lonmin commissioned a report into the health of the communities in seven villages – including Marikana – around its platinum mines. One of the main findings was that malnutrition was a major problem, and that children had been discovered suffering from kwashiorkor:

an easily prevented condition that occurs when there is insufficient protein in the diet. Kwashiorkor is more common in countries in a state of political unrest, or where there has been a drought or natural disaster.

Why the president feels that he and his guests deserve a state-funded vegetable garden when South African children are suffering from a condition associated with failed states, is utterly beyond me.

Further Reading

Miriam Altman, Tim Hart, and Peter Jacobs, Food Security in South Africa (Human Sciences Research Council, 2009).

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

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