South Africa: Re-thinking the commons to increase food security

14 December 2022

by Andrew Boraine, CEO, Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP)

In early September a ‘Food Learning Journey’ took place in Langa, Cape Town. While Langa has a rich and vibrant history, it is, in common with townships throughout South Africa, also the site of severe social and economic exclusion. While it has some formal housing, it is also characterised by sprawling and growing informal settlements, such as Joe Slovo, meaning that many Langa residents live in incredibly precarious economic and social circumstances. 

‘learning journey’ is a process whereby a broad and inclusive range of participants literally undertake a journey to explore a complex system, in this instance the ‘food system’ in Langa, to gain real life, first-hand experience of challenges, and investigate ‘territorial’, or local, solutions to these challenges.  The idea is to ‘flush out’ habitual thinking and assumptions about problems enabling participants to ‘think differently’ and cooperatively come up with new and innovative solutions. 

In Langa, learning journey participants included community members, community activists, community food advocacy groups, local Early Childhood Development (ECD) practitioners, government officials (local and provincial), partnering organisations, and academics.

One of the key principles of a learning journey is for a significant number of the participants to be drawn from the communities where challenges exist. Those who attend from outside these communities are asked to ‘listen twice and speak once’ to enable genuine community voices to be heard throughout a learning journey. As Scott Drimie from the Southern African Food Lab contends, ‘because of this strong intention to create genuinely open democratic spaces, interaction and dialogue becomes a commons’.

Thinking about spaces created by learning journeys as a form of commons is a useful way in thinking through food security issues in Langa more generally. As participants explored the food system in Langa it became apparent that ongoing attempts to address food security are intimately linked to ideas of the commons.  For example, urban food gardens in Langa are a form of commons, as they are typically positioned on common land and are run by community members for the benefit of community members. They have been shown, among other things, to help towards nutritional security for members; increase social cohesion among community members who come together around a common goal; provide both physical and mental health benefits to members; improve neighbourhood security; dissipate urban heat islands; and provide small amounts of income.

During the learning journey several participants highlighted the importance of ECD centres in tackling food and nutritional insecurity. Evidence indicates that ECDs play a critical role in providing healthy and nutritional meals to children. 

The Langa ECD Forum, which is made up of close to 40 ECDs centres (both registered and unregistered), provides two nutritious meals and snacks every weekday to over 1500 children. Aside from this critical role, ECD centres also provide stimulating and safe places for children, thus freeing up caregivers to be able work. In addition, they create valuable jobs for carers and ECD practitioners. All of which contribute to improving household incomes. The Langa ECD Forum, as another form of commons, has proven to be a pivotal institution in supporting ECD facilities and their carers because it has enabled women to share their knowledge and experiences to support each other within the sector. 

Making more public land available for gardening can extend the ‘commons’ for local food production. Photo by Ashraf Hendricks

Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for her work on the commons, was clear that common resources are best managed by a bottom-up approach, with decision making and control in the hands of communities who live within or near common resources and who benefit directly from them. Thinking through and about food security in Langa and South Africa more generally via the lens of learning journeys is undoubtedly useful because it highlights the importance of local knowledge and local control and speaks to the forms of social solidarity within communities that are needed to realise Ostrom’s vison of the commons. While the type of commons envisaged by Ostrom can be created in places like Langa, be it as urban gardens or networks of solidarity like the ECD Forum, they cannot alone provide a meaningful solution to food security in South Africa.

Evidence suggests that because of the shortage of available commonage in Langa, in the form of land and water, and high inputs costs, urban food gardens cannot meet more than 5% of Langa’s food needs. The promotion of urban gardening also forces community members to initiate their own food security, often promoted as a form of ‘resilience’, which is problematic because it assumes that community members have the time and resources to do so while making them, and not the state, responsible for their food security. In addition, much like the creation of institutions like as the ECD Forum, such initiatives have little impact on the systemic nature of the problems that lead to food insecurity in South Africa. 

Chief among the systemic causes of food insecurity in South Africa is the cost of healthy and nutritious food which is, as Dr Wanga Zembe-Mkabile from the Medical Research Council informed the Langa Food Learning Journey, simply too expensive for most Langa residents or is unavailable to them. Systemic challenges such as this will only likely be overcome when far-reaching steps are taken to overhaul South Africa’s food and nutrition policies at national, provincial and local level, and improve food systems governance. 

Before the political will is found to begin to make these profound and necessary changes, events like the Langa Food Learning Journey provide critical bottom-up insights into how food security can be improved right now. For example, we learnt, among other things, that local and provincial government could be doing more to release additional common land for food gardens and small-scale commercial agriculture which they should support on an ongoing basis. In addition, the creation of ECD and informal food trader forums should be encouraged to increase solidarity and enable the pooling of resources. These may be small steps, but they are nonetheless critical ones given the ongoing crisis of food insecurity that exists in South Africa. 

The Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP) is a public benefit collaborative intermediary organisation based in Cape Town, South Africa that supports diverse stakeholders to work together effectively for improved development outcomes.

The Langa Food Learning Journey is one of an ongoing series of Learning Journeys convened by the Centre of Excellence in Food Security in partnership with the EDP, the Southern Africa Food Lab at Stellenbosch University, the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape government within their Nourish to Flourish Strategic Framework. The learning journey is a participatory action research method which reveals food system issues through direct experience, with the potential to support community initiatives, deepen research and inform public policy.