A naive response to Ntsiki Mazwai

South African critic, Ntsiki Mazwai penned a letter to the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, amid a national lockdown to counter the spread of coronavirus. She questioned the fact that large corporations remained open while informal vendors had been shut out during the lockdown. The president surely will not respond to the letter, but perhaps the real audience was the South African public. How will we respond to inequality in the country?

Mazwai argued that large retailer corporations have made a significant profit from panic-buying prior to the lockdown and from the benefit of being declared essential during the lockdown. But the problem is not unique to the lockdown. For a while, South Africa has allowed large corporations to grow their control within the economy at the expense of impoverished people who cannot compete.

Perhaps the real audience was the South African public. How will we respond to inequality in the country?

In my recent book, No Leaders No Wars, I penned a chapter dedicated to the South African food market, where a few companies are expanding their share of power over the supply chain. From when a seed is planted into the ground to when food (usually processed) is sold at a retailer, few companies profit most. This trend is projected to keep worsening as it is most convenient for both these corporations and South African urban consumers — both of whom hold the most capital.

So, what can we do?

First, we need to work on community food gardens. The best place to start are the grounds of schools and tertiary institutions. Students are equipped with more time, relative to the working class, to keep such a project sustainable. It would not require the mass acquisition of new land because most urban institutions have available land. Such projects can grow food for local communities, address hunger and challenge the corporate food market.

Second, we need to support cooperatives which aim to bring small-scale farmers together. If isolated, small-scale producers will struggle to compete with large corporations; together, they can fight. Farming cooperatives already exist across the country but they need more resources to adequately function. For example, I learned of a cooperative that did not have access to a silo to store grain. If we combined resources to ensure all cooperatives were adequately resourced, they would be more effective.

Third, municipalities need to develop informal trading zones. Presently, many informal traders fend for themselves. Although there are instances where municipalities support particular zones, this is not a mainstream position for most municipalities and the support should be greater. For many informal traders, the only support they get from the municipality is receiving a permit. Even then, regulations attached to the permit pose challenges for impoverished traders with no support.

Rather than putting all of the work on the informal trader to maintain their operation, municipalities can develop convenient zones for informal trading which can also serve to attract crowds of people. This is better than the current situation where informal traders have to peddle on pedestrian walkways. These zones are called “open-air” markets and some regions in the world implement them so well that they have developed a variety of goods, craft and products — such as the Chatuchak in Thailand.

Open-air markets are not malls. They are not owned by a corporation. They do not need to charge exorbitant rates for retail shops to trade. In fact, thousands of various vendors sell at small stalls in some of the largest open-air markets. Even the consumer benefits because open-air markets are a stronger experience of culture and variety.

All of this is possible. Community food gardens are possible. Small-scale cooperatives are possible. Open-air markets are possible. But institutions, people and municipalities will need to unite to make them happen. Most crucially, it’s going to come at a cost to large corporations vying for control.

All of this is possible. All of this is possible. Community food gardens are possible. Small-scale cooperatives are possible. Open-air markets are possible.

That’s why this is often considered a naive approach. South Africans, the institutions we form part of and the governments we elect pander to the interest of the few and wealthy — rather than developing realistic alternatives that cater to the multitude. None of the ideas listed above is new or impossible. They just rely on community and some form of social good.

Still, I hold onto some hope that some of us in this country want to do better for each other. We can see how the current economic system reinforces poverty and suppresses the efforts of those with less money. 

Mazwai asked the South African president what his plan is for the poor to move forward financially. But we won’t get a response from him. I recommend taking our plan to schools, universities & colleges, and municipalities. All we can do is organise from the ground up and make sure that we start to fix these problems in our town or city. We don’t need the president to start moving forward. We just need to start.

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