Full shelves, empty bellies

Durban – Middle-income South Africans are running out of money to feed their families and are getting deeper into debt just to afford everyday essentials.

Financial services company Debt Rescue said people who earn between R20 000 and R25 000 are relying on credit cards, store cards, overdrafts and loans to buy food and get them through the month.

However, not everyone had access to these facilities, and many were in huge debt or under debt review.

The organisations’ chief executive Neil Roets said in many cases people were forced to sell their houses and cars, and move in with family members, to make ends meet.

“Within five days after they get their salaries and the debit orders have come off, they have nothing left in their bank accounts,” said Roets.

He said global economic conditions, the exponential increase in the cost of living, the 38% year-on-year increase in the price of fuel, electricity price hikes and steep inflation were some of the factors that had led to the current situation.

The National Credit Regulator’s Credit Bureau Monitor, released in March, had shown there were 16.21 million enquiries for credit during the first quarter of this year.

Roets said it also showed the country had 26 million credit active consumers, while 10 million had impaired credit records.

While many have been worried about food security, given Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine and the effects of climate change, experts say South Africa does not have a shortage of food.

Instead, they warn that the shelves might be well stocked, but people won’t have the money to buy food.

Political scientist Sandile Mnguni, who is currently researching food security, confirmed that: “We might have food, we might have stockpiles of food, but affordability will be the issue.”

Mnguni said the situation was changing rapidly.

“Even if we look at trends, we can clearly see people are cutting back in relation to the necessities they’ve been buying even a year ago.”

He said less money also meant that many didn’t have a choice when it came to what they ate.

“Over the years we have seen people going for fast foods rather than spending more on food that is nutritious. As much as everyone would like to consume healthy food or a balanced diet, the issue of affordability prevents them from doing so,” said Mnguni.

He said healthy food was expensive and unaffordable, while it was cheaper to buy fast food that was filling but not nourishing.

Mnguni said most people did not live in spaces where they could grow their own food.

“Even when you go to outlets or retailers, you find that healthy food is expensive, and you find that organic food is even more expensive.”

The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity group said a basket of food for a family of seven amounted to R4 750, much higher than what most people could afford.

Spokesperson Mervyn Abrahams said typically food was not top of the list when South Africans budgeted.

He said transport money to get to work came first, then electricity for heating and security, paying debt and lastly food.

“Incomes are so low that South Africans have to live off debt,” he said.

Abrahams said the July 2022 Household Affordability Index showed that the average price of a basket of food in Durban had increased by R724.97 year on year to R4 851.88.

The average food basket in Johannesburg had increased by R583.62 year on year to R4 771.49, while the average food basket in Cape Town had increased by R576.93 year on year to R4 648.26.

Roets said the first step to survival during these tough times was to budget.

“It’s the one thing you have to be disciplined about and which will help you remove non-essential things from your monthly expenses,” he said.

Mnguni said the government should consider adding chicken and baby formula to its list of VAT exempt goods, and protect local industries to bring down the price of food.

He said imported chicken should be taxed more to allow for the growth of the local industry.

The South African Poultry Association’s (Sapa) Izaak Breitenbach told the Independent on Saturday that the government’s decision to suspend anti-dumping tariffs on imported chicken was a huge blow to the industry and that farmers and consumers would suffer.

“Now we have to compete with dumped product in the market

“The benefit does not accrue to the consumer. Right now importers are the only ones that are benefiting. I’ve never seen an imported product selling for a lower price,” said Breitenbach.

He said by allowing other countries to dump their chicken in South Africa, Sapa had to put its development plans on hold while local poultry farmers would face losses.

Abrahams believes South Africa should shift its logistics from road to rail to transport goods and localise food supplies, while municipalities should remove red tape and make it easier for more people to trade in public places.

“The real level of your wage is what you can can buy with it, and that has been decreasing,” he said.

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