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Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, to Oxfam’s launch of their report on Poverty in South Africa, 30 October 2014

3 November 2014

Thank you for inviting me to address the launch of your new report. I must begin by congratulating Oxfam for all the excellent work you do to keep us all focussed on the huge problems of hunger and poverty in South Africa and across the world.

Your report on “Hidden Hunger in South Africa: The Faces of Hunger and Malnutrition in a Food Secure Nation” was a wake-up call for all South Africans.

It revealed that even though SA is supposed to be ‘food-secure’, one in every four people - that’s 14 million people - go to bed hungry every night and half the population is at risk of hunger, despite the country producing more than enough food. A further 15 million, it says, are on the terrifying verge of joining the ranks of the chronically hungry.

I echo the view of Rashmi Mistry, Oxfam’s economic justice campaign manager: “How can this possibly be true in this day and age, in 2014, in South Africa, one of the richest countries in Africa? It is a national scandal that South Africa is a food-secure country, yet the stomachs of so many - particularly women and children - were empty.”
I fully agree with her that "Hunger strips away people’s dignity”, and with Oxfam’s Associate Country Directory in SA, Pooven Moodley, that “not enough is being done to address the issue. Even though the right to food exists in the constitution, there is no legislation to enforce it”.

And it is not just a South African problem. A recent report by the UN Food Agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme reveals that 805 million of the world’s people, one in nine of the population, go hungry every day.

And this is despite there being enough food in the world to feed everyone! What an indictment of the capitalist economic system which is making the rich elite wealthier than ever while nearly a billion people are starving.

In addition, over 3 billion people, half of humanity, eat inadequate diets – causing hunger, malnourishment or obesity. Each year, malnutrition erodes health of billions of people and kills over 3 million children under five and leaves 165 million stunted.

Around 66 million children of primary school age across the developing world attend school on an empty stomach. One in four children around the globe suffers from stunted growth or development due to a lack of nutritious food.

The statistics, like those for South Africa, expose a massive humanitarian crisis, demanding immediate steps to put food into hungry mouths. The problem of hunger is however inseparable from the broader crisis of widespread poverty and massive levels of unemployment.

As the Oxfam report says: “Low incomes, rising costs, a lack of access to productive resources and climate change” are amongst the reasons for the level of hunger.

In the second quarter of 2014, the official unemployment rate - which counts only people actively looking for work - rose to 25.5%, up by 0.3% from 25.2% in the first quarter, the highest level since the first quarterly labour force survey in 2008, when the rate was four points lower - 21.5%.

The more realistic expanded rate of unemployment — taking into account people who have given up looking for jobs — rose to 35.6% in the second quarter, up from 35.1%. The number of discouraged jobseekers increased by 64 000.

Unemployment leads inevitable to poverty, but the employed do not escape either. Working poverty is on the rise. According to Stats SA the median wage in 2013 was R3033, meaning 50% of all workers earned below R3033 per month, a fall from R3115 in 2012 - a real decrease of over 10% for those workers, after taking inflation into account. A shocking 50% of ‘African’ workers earned below R2600 and 35% of all workers earned below two thirds of the median wage- i.e. earned less than R2020.

All these statistics explain why there are such high levels of hunger and such low levels of demand for goods and services, which in turn leads to our sluggish rate of growth and sky-high unemployment. If a quarter of South Africans cannot even afford to buy enough food to escape from chronic hunger, they cannot possibly be able to buy other more expensive items and thus contribute to the economy.

That is the answer to the conservatives who may weep crocodile tears about poverty and hunger but argue that the economy cannot afford to put more money into the pockets of the poor, and pontificate about the dangers of runaway inflation and a ‘culture of dependency’ if we do so.

The reality is the exact opposite. Reducing unemployment, poverty and hunger is not just an act of charity but an economic necessity. If we are serious about building a growing economy and a more equal society, we cannot afford not to bring thousands more South Africans in of the mainstream economy as earners, consumers, stakeholders and tax-payers.

We need to follow the lead of Brazil under former president Lula, and six other South American countries, who have proved in practice that raising the incomes of the poorest is not only morally but also economically necessary. It increases demand, which then increases production, which creates more jobs for workers who also become consumers and sets in motion a virtuous cycle of growth.

The same report I quoted from the UN agencies notes that the policies put in place over the last decade “by countries like Bolivia and Brazil”, in the fight against hunger, “are achieving very positive results.” And these positive policies are clearly also popular amongst the people. This month two left-wing presidents - Evo Morales in Bolivia and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil - have been re-elected with a mandate to continue their progressive policies.

These South American governments have demonstrated concretely that bold alternatives are not only necessary but possible, through bold state-led initiatives, including:

- A rapidly expanding state role in the economy, with strategic ownership of key sectors, and an active industrial policy;
- Active promotion of social ownership, particularly through a huge increase in co-operatives;
- Pursuit of more expansionary macro-economic approaches;
- Progressive interventions to transform the labour market, by formalising employment, combating atypical work, raising wage levels and increasingly, promoting collective bargaining.
The successes of such programmes prove that there are also real alternatives for South Africa and Africa. What more compelling argument could there be for COSATU’s call for a radical transformation of the economy, a national minimum wage and comprehensive social security?

The South African government and the ANC indeed already have, at least on paper, policies to confront the problem. The 2014 election manifesto commits the government to “expand the Food for All programme as part of the national integrated food and nutrition policy for procuring and distributing affordable essential foodstuffs directly to poor communities.”

The challenge is to move from words to deeds, and move beyond theoretical debate into the realm of practical strategic choices. The two key elements must be
- Firstly, lifting people out of poverty through the national minimum age and comprehensive social security, and,
- Secondly, as the Oxfam report also says, speeding up land reform in South Africa, not only to redress the past crimes of colonialism and apartheid and transform the lives of farm workers and dwellers, but also to increase food production, so that we can be genuinely ‘food-secure’, and move as quickly as possible to the entirely realist target of no South Africans going to bed hungry.
I hope Oxfam’s reports reach the widest possible audience and are not just read but lead to more action on the ground to make a reality of our constitutional right to food, under Section 27 of our Bill of Rights.