Home South African Snapshot of a nation deep in an economic, social crisis

Snapshot of a nation deep in an economic, social crisis


Price increases on staple foods, electricity and cooking oil have left even those fortunate to have a job with not enough money to see themselves through an average month.

The price food is going up regularly and people can’t afford to pay any more. Picture: Cindy Waxa

SEVEN months of lockdown has left millions of South Africans facing starvation and increased dependence on social grants as the government scrambles to avert a financial crisis.

Price increases on staple foods, electricity and cooking oil have left even those fortunate to have a job with not enough money to see themselves through an average month.

This was revealed in the Pietermaritzburg Economic, Justice and Dignity (PMBEJD) group’s Household Affordability Index, launched this week, which now covers Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Springbok, in the Northern Cape.

What it provides is a snapshot of a nation deep in an economic and social crisis where the poor are facing the worst of it.

The organisation, through the collection of food price data from supermarkets and butcheries in the four centres, created a Household Food Basket for the poor.

They found that a general worker on the national minimum wage of R3,653.76 would not afford the Household Food Basket of R3,916.72.

“Over the past several months, our incomes have come down, and the cost of goods and services has gone up. Most South African households living on low incomes cannot get through the month on the income that comes into the home and cannot afford even the very basic goods and services they need,” said Julie Smith, a researcher at the PMBEJD.

To cover this drop, many have resorted to borrowing money from money lenders who are offering high interest rates.

South Africa has also experienced dramatic job losses.

“StatsSA’s latest job statistics for Quarter 2 of this year shows that 2.2 million South Africans lost their jobs and, in the last quarter, the expanded unemployment rate for black South Africans is 46%,” added Smith. “A large proportion of black South African workers do not earn anything close to what would reasonably resemble a living wage.”

The study found that some of the main foods driving up the costs of the Household Food Basket were maize meal, rice, cake flour, sugar beans, cooking oil and potatoes.

The increase over the lockdown period on the Household Food Basket for Pietermaritzburg was R293.38, or 9.1%.

Also cutting into family incomes was the rising cost of electricity and transportation. The research found that women, on average, moved between four and five shops while shopping to find the cheapest goods. Women were also more likely to sacrifice and go without to feed their families. The Covid-19 crisis also meant money had to be spent on hygiene products.

Manakhe Chiya, a data collector for the PMBEJD, said the lockdown had left people frustrated. “And they are angry, and the problem, they say, is who is going to listen to them,” she said.

With less money, the concern was that families were not getting enough nutritious food, which could impact their health. “Our social grants that are so critically important (but) are also so inadequate,” said Smith.

On Thursday President Cyril Ramaphosa told Parliament the government would continue the special Covid-19 relief grant of R350 a month, for three more months.

Further research has shown that the special grant, though considered by many to be inadequate, had been important in stopping hunger.

PMBEJD project co-ordinator Merwyn Abrahams said a study by the University of Cape Town had found a drop of 27% of those going hungry in the Western Cape, after the introduction of top-up grants.

“If the top-up grant was taken away, 27% would emerge again in terms of household hunger and food insecurity. And if you take into consideration the R293 increase in the food basket, then more than 30% of households would be plunged into household food insecurity,” he said.

A National Income Dynamics Study-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey conducted by Stellenbosch University had found that 22% of respondents had reported that someone in their household had gone hungry in May and June. This figure dropped to 16%, with child hunger dropping to 11%.

Ultimately the researchers hope that the Household Affordability Index will be an early warning system that would provide insight into how the economy was doing.

“Even if entire wages were spent on food, which they are not, education, economy and social outcomes will continue to unravel and will condemn another generation to desperate poverty,” said Smith.

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