Food inequality in South Africa

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By Robyn Bowden

It is common knowledge that South Africa suffers from extreme income inequality. But just how unequal is not always clear. Most South Africans wrongly predict where they are located in income distribution. As a result, the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) developed a tool to allow households to see where they are positioned in the national household income range.

The results are startling. If your combined household income is R48,753 per month after tax you are in the richest 1% of South African households. To put that into perspective, the middle income households, separating the top half and the bottom half of the population, earn R1,149 per month after tax – which is below the upper bound poverty line of R1,183 per person per month. This inequality leads to a skewed allocation of resources and services, most notably food.

According to The South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an extensive nationwide survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), of the sampled households 28.3% were at risk of hunger and 26% experienced hunger.

South Africa’s food security strategy is to produce more food. But the reality is that as a country, South Africa produces more than enough food to feed its entire population. The problem is that many people cannot access this food as they cannot afford it.

According to the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group’s latest affordability index, more than half (55.5%) of the population lives below the upper bound poverty line of R1,227 per person per month. And a quarter (25.2%) live below the food poverty line of R561 per person per month.

It is not only the quantity of food that is a problem but also the quality. The affordability index shows that the monthly spending of lower income households is well below what is required to get the minimum nutrition needed for a healthy life (R3,059.93 vs. R4,068.36 for a household of seven).

South Africa suffers from what is called the ‘tripe burden’ of malnutrition – where malnutrition, overweight and obesity, and micronutrient deficiency coexists in society. This is manifesting into a health epidemic that has led South Africa to be ranked as the world’s most unhealthy country in 2019 according to the Indigo Wellness Index.

Nutritionally low processed foods are not only cheaper than healthy whole foods but they have a longer shelf life. As household budgets are split between food and non-food expenses so, this allows households to spend the necessary portion of their salary or government grant on food before it can get used for other expenses within the month. However unlike other household expenses, such as transport and debt repayments, food is the one expense that can be adjusted. For this reason, food is the first expense to be reduced in times of economic struggles.

Call to action

Our faiths call us to be compassionate to those in need and as such we are called to act in the face of such human injustice.

So what can faith communities do?

SAFCEI proposes two approaches:

Firstly, we need to provide immediate support to those in need who are in our communities and struggling to feed their families. To assist them in not only accessing enough food, but nutritiously adequate food. We can do this in our places of worship, many of you already provide soup kitchens and other outreach programmes. Is there more your faith community could do? This is an important question to ask ourselves as we realise the reality that most families are dealing with. There are a number of organisations who help with food access such as Food Forward , and the Food Bank, who we would encourage you to approach if you want to find ways to support communities in need.

Secondly, we need to look for ways to address the deep rooted cause of these injustices. Such as putting pressure on government to develop a holistic food strategy that looks at food access and not only food production, subsidises healthy foods while taxing unhealthy foods, and seeks to proactively address income inequality. If you are interested in engaging with campaigns and other ideas to address inequality and SAFCEI’s new food and climate justice programme please sign up to our newsletter here and email Robyn (at for more information.

By Robyn Bowden, SAFCEI’s Food and Climate Justice Coordinator