No shortage of food in South Africa but distribution still faces headwinds

This is understandable as the public fear that the looting and vandalism have destroyed some food distribution centers, retailers and caused blockages in key logistics corridors.

This is the reality for KwaZulu-Natal, and to a lesser extent parts of Gauteng where incidents of unrest were concentrated in certain areas such as Soweto, Mamelodi and Vosloorus, rather than the entire province. For specific areas in KwaZulu-Natal, the main concern was not necessarily availability of food but access to food due to disruptions in distribution centers and road networks.

As we argued a few days ago in The Conversation, KwaZulu-Natal isn’t the epicentre of agriculture in the country and also not necessarily an anchor to the SA food system. Provinces in central SA — the Free State, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo — hold far more critical positions in terms of production and food processing. For example, maize meal and wheat flour — both staples in most SA diets — are primarily produced in the Free State, Mpumalanga, North West and the Western Cape. These provinces account for over 60% of each of these grains’ production and process over 50% of them.

Still, KwaZulu-Natal is pivotal for trade of agricultural and food products (amongst other goods that pass through the port of Durban). The major transits to and from the port of Durban are the N3 and N2, which were temporarily closed due to the unrest. This warranted an urgent intervention from the government. Amid these fears, food and agriculture industry stakeholders met with agriculture minister Thoko Didiza to formulate interventions that would address food access problems and logistics constraints in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.

The major outcomes of this meeting were a commitment by all the stakeholders to work with the security cluster to open the N2 and N3; ensure the provision of security to enable the resumption of critical basic food operations, such as bakeries and mills; facilitate temporary exemption on competition policy to enable businesses to strengthen their coordination in transporting and distributing food, as opposed to sharing pricing strategies; and unlock the flow of logistics and supply chains  at the port of Durban to enable the handling and offloading of food products.

These interventions have already been actioned by both the government and businesses. Basic food operators like bakeries are now operational and the N2 and N3 have been re-opened. Security remains a key issue, and everyone should remain vigilant. Moreover, minister of trade, industry and competition, Ibrahim Patel, published regulations on July 15 permitting firms to share information and coordinate better to respond to food needs in KwaZulu-Natal. Also, Transnet and various stakeholders have resumed some activities in the port of Durban. These interventions signal progress from the bleak picture of a few days ago.

Notably, this also means the fears about access to food in various parts of SA should ease as the opening of the main national roads means raw material needed in KwaZulu-Natal and other parts of the country can now be transported. The recent interventions show that when industry and government work together they can achieve tangible results.

Security is an area that government, business and social partners should continuously engage on to bring normality back to KwaZulu-Natal. The loss and cost to businesses and communities will be clear in the coming months, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it will be significant and felt for a while, especially since most businesses and communities are at the same time battling the impact of Covid-19.

In essence, food shortage is unlikely to be a reality in SA. This is why consumers should avoid panic buying as this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and deepens anxiety. There are large food supplies following a good agricultural season. Also, the resilience of SA’s food supply chains will likely withstand the current shock.

• Sihlobo and Ntombela are chief economists of the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA (Agbiz) and the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC), respectively.