News | Southern Africa - Socio-ecological Transformation - Food Sovereignty The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in South Africa

In conversation with Andrew Bennie on food sovereignty and the land question in South Africa


Agricultural labourers working in a field near Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo: IMAGO / Wirestock

Very broadly, could you give us an overview of South Africa’s food system? What does it look like? Who produces the food? Who controls the system and holds the power?

The South African food system produces a very wide diversity of foods, and there are high levels of national self-sufficiency in production — of grains, meat, eggs, dairy, an array of deciduous fruits and vegetables. However, the system is highly commercialized and organized along commodity lines, each with their own well-resourced commodity associations that lobby for their own interests.

Andrew Bennie is Senior Researcher in Climate Policy and Food Systems at the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) in South Africa.

The highly commercialized nature of the food system also translates into high levels of private governance in the food system that effectively limit the role for public policy in steering the food system more directly towards the public good. This private governance has also led to high levels of corporate concentration in the food system. In retail, for example, the country’s top five supermarkets accounted for 64 percent of the grocery retail market in 2019. This level of concentration grants big food corporations market power to engage in opportunistic pricing practices, allowing them to claim complete responsibility for food pricing and the dominance of self-regulation.

In terms of production, there are about 41,000 officially recorded commercial farm units in the country, but most food is produced by only about 15,000 of them. Exactly what percentage of land has been transferred to Black citizens since 1994 is contested, but most commercial food production is concentrated in white hands because of a combination of the shortcomings of the land reform programme and the economic dynamics of the corporate food system, and land reform has yet to address the livelihood needs of the broader rural and urban poor. As an example, the number of commercial cattle farmers has more than halved in the last ten years and the top ten cattle feedlots account for almost 70 percent of cattle. In contrast, there are about 2.3 million (mostly Black) smallholders of various sizes, as well as about 250,000 commercially oriented smallholder farmers.

South Africa’s private and profit-driven food system, characterized by high productivity and market concentration, paradoxically coexists alongside high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. Rising food prices represent one of the main drivers of household food insecurity. In September 2023, the Competition Commission reported that while overall inflation has come down, food inflation remains at nearly twice the inflation rate for all goods and services. Growing profit margins as a buffer against cost pressures push up prices along the entire food supply chain from producer to retailer, resulting in ever-increasing consumer food prices. When upstream commodity prices dropped globally in the first half of 2023, local food prices did not consistently decline.

The latest national food security survey, conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council for the agriculture department, has found that 20 percent of households in South Africa experience moderate to severe hunger, and 63.5 percent experience food insecurity (and around the same amount cannot afford a nutritious diet). This reflects broader societal inequalities. From this perspective, food and nutrition insecurity can be understood as a result of a lack of access to adequate and nutritious food rather than a problem of availability.

While social grants and other food security measures by government such as school feeding schemes have contributed to the reduction of incidences of hunger among poor and vulnerable people, these measures do not address the structural economic and social factors behind food insecurity and hunger.

In relation to food sovereignty, what makes land ownership and access so crucial? Who owns and controls the land in South Africa? What effects does the current system of land ownership have on agriculture?

The land question in South Africa is crucially about historical redress. However, it is also a class issue, in that it relates to who owns and controls a key means of production, and of social reproduction. The latter relates to activities and elements that directly help households to reproduce themselves, such as having a place to build a home to live in, produce food for direct consumption, gather natural resources, and so on, and there is a strongly gendered aspect to social reproduction activities. In a context of high unemployment and precarity, land plays an important role in the multiple livelihood strategies of working people.

The link between land and food sovereignty is also about a bigger political and democratic issue in the case of South Africa.

Land ownership remains concentrated mainly in the hands of white owners in South Africa, and so racial patterns of associated poverty have not been overcome since the end of Apartheid 30 years ago. This partly reflects the limits of the market-based approach to land reform since 1994, but where land has been transferred, the results have been mixed, and indeed, mostly disappointing both in terms of agricultural production and livelihood creation.

Since the mid-2000s, land reform policy also more explicitly adopted a class agenda of seeing land reform as principally aimed at creating a class of Black commercial farmers. This sidelined a much larger segment of people who need land for livelihoods. As a result, it has limited support for multiple uses of land, agricultural alternatives like agroecology, and for alternative provisioning systems aimed at meeting the human right to food. Expanding land ownership and access therefore has an important role to play in expanding the potential livelihood base of working people.

How do land politics and food sovereignty politics connect in South Africa?

Some researchers estimate that, despite the patterns I mentioned above, the amount of food produced by various sizes of smallholder farmers amounts to as much as 20–25 percent of the value-add of commercial agriculture in South Africa. In the context of historical land dispossession and de-agrarianization, these smallholdings are one of the spaces from which food sovereignty practices and politics emerge and could further advance.

The concept of food sovereignty was first developed in the early 1990s by La Via Campesina (LVC) and presented at the 1996 World Food Summit. According to LVC, “food sovereignty includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food-producing resources, such as land, and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies.”

But the link between land and food sovereignty is also about a bigger political and democratic issue in the case of South Africa. The national question, briefly, is about overcoming the racialized patterns of dispossession and poverty engendered through colonialism and Apartheid, together with democratization. But the ruling ANC’s hitching of land reform to narrow commercialization, de-racialization of private property and commercialization, techno-fetishism, and industrial agriculture reproduces the very forms of exclusion that need to be overcome to address the national question, and to achieve food sovereignty. So, food sovereignty is about the food system but is also linked to a wider political struggle related to a deeper socio-ecological re-think of land, social relations, and food.

Throughout our history, and still in the present, Black working-class life has been and is shaped by rural-urban connections.

A second important point to understand this relationship is that the land question is not reducible to agriculture alone. Land reform is connected to a variety of other needs and possibilities as well: housing, a base of survivalist strategies in the face of high unemployment, livelihood precarity, and non-agricultural economic activities.

Seen in this light, food sovereignty politics can be understood as necessarily connected to a wider set of redistributive, class-based needs and demands, which include housing, jobs, and social policy. It is also crucially about economic policy, in that the policy approach to agriculture and food systems reflects the government’s commitment to market-based and technicist rationalities in economic policy, i.e. generally making more commodities, food items, etc.

I would therefore argue that a key contribution of food sovereignty politics to the land question (amongst others) is to position land reform as a crucial ecological intervention as well. That is, the land question is also an ecological question: it offers the opportunity to reconcile redistribution, sustainable food production and consumption, equity and livelihoods, with broader ecological sustainability and resilience (an imperative in the context of the mounting climate crisis). Food sovereignty politics is therefore a crucial intervention for a just transition in the South African food system, and for a broader societal just transition.

What (political) interventions are required in the context of land and agro-food systems to enhance the position of women?

Identifying women both as producers and consumers in terms of food sovereignty is important in the South African context. Throughout our history, and still in the present, Black working-class life has been and is shaped by rural-urban connections. A high proportion of South Africa’s population also lives in urban areas, at over 65 percent. A growing number of people living in rural areas are not food producers, and many working people in urban areas produce food to supplement their diets.

While an important aspect to it, it would be a mistake to reduce both food sovereignty and land to a rural issue only. Food sovereignty is about the entire food system (including urban processing, distribution, and consumption). It should therefore also include those that do not produce food, but for whom transformation of the food system is most needed in terms of their consumption and nutritional wellbeing.

Amidst mass unemployment and precarious employment, access to land plays an important social reproduction function. Because of gendered roles around social reproduction, this has particular resonance for working class women, rural and urban. Land reform, and securing women’s rights to land and natural resources, are therefore critical interventions.

Given the role of working class women in food consumption, efforts to increase the accessibility of food are important. This can include a number of interventions. As Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity’s (PMBEJD’s) work with working class women on food prices, accessibility, and nutrition shows, this should include increasing the value of social grants, and introducing a basic income grant.

There is a significant amount of varied work happening around food systems, ecology, land, and so I think there is much scope for creating stronger alliances between various actors in various parts of the food system and different organizations.

Other interventions that need further research and consideration are how to reduce non-wage costs of production. This could include better support for shifting to agroecology and reducing external inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and subsidies, so as to ease pressure on food prices without damaging (and rather improving) the wages and incomes of smallholder farmers and farm workers. Overarching land and agrarian reform remains an important intervention.

However, to link this with a transformed food system also requires interventions downstream of agriculture, so that corporate logics of a privatized food system don’t undermine the prospects of land recipients in agriculture. These are some examples of interventions that could potentially significantly support the role of women in a just transition for food sovereignty.

In your view, can the food sovereignty movement in South Africa play a role in advancing struggles for land rights?

So first, we need to ask, who is the food sovereignty movement in South Africa? A number of organizations and formations use the idea of food sovereignty to frame their work. But the content of what is meant by it can vary, as well as the politics of what is needed to achieve it. That is, for some, shifting to agroecology and healthy food systems in the agrarian structure will achieve food sovereignty. For others, more far-reaching structural changes, like agrarian reform, redistribution, and shifting of more fundamental economic power relations are critical to their conception of food sovereignty in addition to the agroecological shift.

Furthermore, there are formations that have been doing the work to try and connect various categories of working people around land rights and food sovereignty — smallholder farmers, farm workers, the landless — such as the Inyanda National Land Movement and the Right to Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign.

There is therefore important work that has been done in connecting land rights and food sovereignty through patient and consistent movement-building efforts. However, despite the important often localized successes of these movements and campaigns, in structural terms we have not yet reached the point of achieving the systemic change we’re after in terms of land rights and food sovereignty.

Yet there is a significant amount of varied work happening around food systems, ecology, land, and so I think there is much scope for creating stronger alliances between various actors in various parts of the food system and different organizations. This will take further work to create this shared agenda that links land rights and food sovereignty to a broader transformation of the food system to end hunger and malnutrition and ensure planetary wellbeing. This is something that a number of us in civil society are working on trying to achieve.