Although South Africa is a food-secure nation, food insecurity plagues townships such as Alexandra. The lack of access to affordable nutritious goods has stunted many low-income households.

At the time of writing it is the end of September and the official arrival of Spring, but the first seasonal rains have not yet fallen.  It has instead ushered in a disturbingly harsh and unfamiliar heat which hits Alexandra township in Johannesburg, amplifying the unwelcome, pungent stench of the mountains of trash on the banks of the Jukskei River. The distinct odour is accompanied by petrol fumes from the nearby Sasol station, along with the scent of chicken frying at KFC at the entrance of Marlboro Drive. A heady mix for one’s senses to contend with.

The community of Jukskei View, situated by the river and built on these landfills, houses hundreds of people seeking cheap accommodation. The area buzzes as community members continue with their daily morning routine. Pedestrians and hawkers fill the side of the road, with vendors selling fruits, vegetables and bricks by the bridge and next to the river, while others walk to their various destinations. The sound of hooting can be heard as taxis seeking commuters drive by, releasing exhaust fumes as they go, suffocating those close by.

“Food security means sufficient supplies, as well as accessibility, affordability, nutrition and stability over time. Largescale droughts can have cascading impacts on all these elements.”

Upon arrival at Jukskei View, children as young as three years old play outside their homes, which are close to the edge of the landfills by the river, which should be a source of life but is instead a wet dustbin. Old surf boards, furniture and used cold drink bottles fill the river, creating a colourful yet dull and lifeless stream. The sound of maskandi (traditional isiZulu music) fills the air as people clean their houses, separate litter or simply sit in the shade, away from the relentless sun.

Bongiwe Msimanga, seated outside her room and in the shade, has lived in the area for the past three years. Although she is unemployed, Msimanga sells bricks for R1 each as a means of income. The mother of one (a 21-year-old youth) explains that she collects bricks from the dumping sites and uses the money to buy food.

“I buy bread and cold drink and then eat. After that I must budget and know where I am going to get food for the afternoon while also budgeting rent money,” says Msimanga. The increased cost of living has affected many like Msimanga, who buys food exclusively from spaza shops. She cannot afford to buy nutritious food items such as eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables. This has resulted in her only affording bread, off-brand cold drinks and small quantities of meat – nothing more than R40 a week. In a month, Msimanga spends approximately R600 or less on food.

Climate change, rising costs deepen food insecurity 

Msimanga is one of 6.5 million South Africans who are food insecure and frequently hungry because of unemployment and the 13% increase in the cost of nutritious food, according to the Household Affordability Index. Nutritious foods as outlined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) consisof cooking oil, maas (fermented milk) and starchy foods such as pasta and bread. However, in the past year alone the prices of 29 of 44 staple foods have increased, with items such as cooking oil rising by 69% (from R135,74 to R228,94), maize meal by 30% (from R241,40 to R268,88) and frozen chicken by 14% (from R336,51 to R381,66).  

As stated by the 2021 edition of The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, “Africa has experienced the biggest jump,” in undernourishment, by an estimated 21%, due to inaccessibility to affordable nutritious foods. As a result, one in four South African children under the age of five is stunted, with a higher chance of children from low-income households experiencing malnutrition and stunting according to a 2020 report by Child Gauge.   

Climate change is proving to be one of the main contributors to food insecurity. In a report by the National Climate Change Adaptation, the past five years in South Africa have been the hottest, with records revealing that the change in climate has resulted in extreme weather events such as an increase in heat waves and lengthening of dry spells.  

According to a 2011 report by Anna Mazhira, extreme weathers have caused a significant jump in the price of food, highlighting the significance of seasonal weather to agriculture. When weather patterns become unpredictable it changes and complicates the production pattern of farmers who must adjust accordingly.  

New technology and infrastructure ease the harsh conditions brought by climate change that impact traditional farming methods, according to Food for Mzansi and head of news at the publication, Duncan Masiwa.  

The real issue, however, according to researcher and writer at Food for Mzansi, Evelyn Smail, is that climate-induced extreme weathers such as droughts in South Africa have compromised and reduced agricultural production. “Food security means sufficient supplies, as well as accessibility, affordability, nutrition and stability over time. Largescale droughts can have cascading impacts on all these elements,” says Smail. This affects the livelihoods of vulnerable and poverty-stricken communities, she says, highlighting how the spike in the price of food pushes many poor households into food insecurity.   

Doing it yourself 

Urban agriculture has the potential to significantly improve and reduce food insecurity in townships, which mostly consist of low-income households. Senior researcher Christina Culwick from the Gauteng City Region Observatory explains that urban agriculture has numerous benefits for townships. These include the availability of fresh produce and job creation, and will help with “green infrastructure” matters such as urban heat island impact (an area significantly hotter in temperature than surrounding areas, due to human activities).

Food security and urban agriculture programmes such as the Lenin Drive Communal Garden are prime examples of urban farming in Alex. Thoko Matseke is one of the successful farmers from the garden. “At first I didn’t like it, I was part of negotiating for land. But I changed my mind,” says Matseke who eventually started her own after helping others with their gardens.

The garden, which was previously a crime hotspot and dumping sight, has been transformed into an area centred on job creation, food supply and the sharing of skills and knowledge to encourage community members to start businesses and gardens of their own.

“I sell veggies [and] give [them] to ordinary people, then they sell,” says Matseke, who plants and sells bananas, plums and peaches. Matseke says there is a need for more farms in the township to “help reduce poverty”. This programme has made access to affordable and nutritional goods possible while also assisting families in need of food. The concern, however, lays in the maintenance and development of urban agriculture throughout Alex which, although it has assisted many, remains limited without the complete support of the government.

An issue facing smaller farmers at Lenin Garden is land invasion, says City of Johannesburg spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane.  “The garden [Lenin] is ongoing, but not [as] fully as before because the site has been earmarked for the development of a fire station,” says Modingoane. While the programme provides many of the women working there with “technical and soft skills in financial management, conflict resolution, business management and book-keeping training”, he says, the garden’s relocation to an alternative, unknown location means that what was accessible to all will be removed, intensifying food insecurity.  

This places pressure on those who rely on the gardens to seek alternatives, such as gardening in their yards in the townships. According to Culwick, “One of the tricky things is that areas good for agriculture are also very good for housing because they tend to be flat, so there tends to be a bit of competition between those two land uses. But you likely would be able to find attractive land across Gauteng township areas that could be used.”

Pay as you weigh 

Initiatives such as the Gcwalisa shop in Alexandra, on John Brand Street, have also been crucial in the fight against nutritious foods being inaccessible and unaffordable. The bright yellow container was established by Miles Kubheka, the founder of Wakanda Food Accelerator (a company that works with entrepreneurs to offer solutions to social challenges such as food security). The store sells rice, sugar, maize meal and oil for as little as R3 to R5.  

Miles Kubheka says his Gcwalisa shop allows Alexandra residents “to buy non-perishable, nutritional food products with any amount of money at their disposal”. Photo: Malaika Ditabo

Gcwalisa, which means ”fill up” in isiZulu, uses a weigh-and-pay method that allows consumers to bring lunchboxes or receive biodegradable bags and glass containers to weigh and store needed goods, while remaining environmentally conscious and friendly. Other stores such as Refillery, located in Johannesburg and Pretoria, also follow this model but in brick-and-mortar stores.  

In an interview with Business Insider, Kubheka says the aim of the store is “to [allow] individuals who are either food insecure or at risk of being food insecure to buy non-perishable, nutritional food products with any amount of money at their disposal”. 

Due to the store being partnered with Unilever and other retailers that sell staple foods, Kubheka can buy goods in bulk at a discounted price. Operations manager Josephine Katumba explains that the store can sell goods at a reduced price due to it working directly with manufacturers. “The more layers there are in the food chain, the more margins there are, the more people are paying. So, when you work directly with the manufacturer it already reduces costs significantly,” says Katumba.  

“Over the next 18 months we want to open 50 stores in townships in Gauteng,” she says. The business plans to expand to the rest of Alexandra, and to launch stores in other communities such as Diepsloot, to create employment while providing food security. 

Grassroots efforts   

The container is situated in front of the house of one of two employees, Mmapula Saul, who already has an existing relationship with SA Harvest, a former partner in the container. Saul is manager of a non-profit organisation (NPO) called Moloko Meals on Wheels, which was established by her late mother in 2013 to help children in need of food. The NPO gets its supply of food mostly from Woolworths and SA Harvest, which also donate clothing for the children. Often during the week, Saul cooks and provides breakfast and lunch, but scheduled power outages have affected the system. “Because of no electricity we are unable to cook, so whatever we have at home we take out and give to them, but when the electricity is fine we do not mind cooking,” says Saul.  

With SA Harvest donations, Saul provides food to families who have lost a loved one. “I gave recently to one from Extension 3 that lost a father … and even though it was not a lot, it made a difference,” she says.

The store, along with Moloko Meals on Wheels, has helped create jobs for the two women from Alex who work there. It has also given community members access to nutritional staple foods, gradually bridging the food security gap in low-income households.

Other organisations such as Ratang Bana, run by Ingrid Maredi, have also contributed to feeding and assisting vulnerable children and families.

“There is a need for food due to [the] high number of orphans and vulnerable children,” says Maredi, who takes care of 500 children a week. Ratang Bana, which receives food and funding from the social development department and HIVSA, helps children with lunch after school, by offering homework assistance and by providing monthly food parcels and bread every Thursday. The organisation also facilitates HIV prevention sessions at schools.

The centre has a garden that produces onions, basil and beetroot, which have been incorporated and used to prepare meals. The vegetables and herbs grown are also given to children and families in need, says Maredi.

The vegetable and herb garden at Ratang Bana is used by the centre’s staff to prepare meals for as many as 500 orphans and vulnerable children every week. Photo: Malaika Ditabo

Hope and gloom in Alex  

Shacks in Alex are often faded and cracking along their sides, revealing their old age. They overlap each other, with little to no space for a yard or garden in which to plant a flower or two. A speck of green here and there peeps out, but lifeless ground and surroundings overshadow all. Areas that host gardens and greenery are often tucked away and in the back, hidden from the view of strangers and outsiders. These spaces are filled with vibrantly healthy and fresh herbs, flowers and vegetables that steal the show and give hope of a better future for the many community members who depend on these gardens.

As the day draws to a close, the harsh sun takes its leave from the community built on landfills, leaving behind only overwhelming heat. A lot of ground that has the potential to resolve matters such as food insecurity and unemployment has, instead, become homes for the desperate and poor.

FEATURED IMAGE: A view of Alexandra with Sandton in the background as a street vendor and tailor sit in their makeshift shop. Photo: Malaika Ditabo