Solutions to hunger crisis should have Tim Cohen’s support, not his disdain

John Steenhuisen challenges DM columnist to an open in-person debate on “genuine” solutions to hunger crisis


10 November 2023

The following Right of Reply by DA Leader John Steenhuisen was published by Daily Maverick on Thursday 9 November, in response to journalist Tim Cohen's attack on the DA (Daily Maverick 2 Nov) for our cost-of-food solutions. We would like South Africans to understand the reasoning behind the DA's solutions to the hunger crisis.

In the face of South Africa’s prolonged and mounting hunger crisis causing immense human suffering with tragic short- and long-term consequences for our nation, it beggars belief that Tim Cohen (Daily Maverick, 2 Nov 2023) would choose to attack the DA for the solutions we’ve put on the table rather than the ANC for utterly failing to care about a nation in deep distress.

If Cohen thinks the DA is only now focusing on the cost of food, and only to get people to register, I would ask him what rock he’s been hiding under these past eighteen months while the DA has repeatedly urged government to intervene with our proposed solutions - solutions we developed in consultation with civil society experts in 2022, in response to the sharp rise in food prices occasioned by Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Food price inflation hit a high of 8,6% in June 2022, putting enormous pressure on low-income household budgets that were already under immense strain due to bad management of the economy, the slow pace of reform, the riots and floods in KZN, the spiralling cost of electricity, and the ANC government’s irrational hard-lockdown regulations which caused a steep rise in hunger and malnutrition, as found by the NIDS-CRAM survey in May 2021.

The DA set out many of our solutions in a press conference on 8 September 2022. Cohen can read the press statement here. Far from being “populist”, the DA’s solutions to the cost-of-food crisis are well-researched, workable and urgent. Everyone who cares that 27% of children under age five are stunted due to malnutrition, or that 81% of households miss at least one meal per day due to high food prices, should get behind these solutions and put pressure on government to implement them.

Had he made the effort to engage sincerely with the DA’s solutions he would realise that global food price increases notwithstanding, there is so much that government could do to take pressure off low-income household food budgets.

Instead, Cohen considers there to be little the ANC government can do to alleviate South Africa’s cost-of-food crisis. So rather than use his platform to call out government, Cohen has chosen to defend the ANC and rather to launch an outright attack on the DA.

Cohen says if the DA is going to play “bandwagon politics” (whatever that means) we should “at least find solutions that are actually genuine”. I challenge Cohen to an open in-person debate on “genuine” solutions to the hunger crisis. Meantime let’s have a look at some of the DA’s solutions to reduce hunger and malnutrition in South Africa.

The DA has proposed a range of short-term interventions to bring immediate relief, coupled with meaningful economic reforms that open the economy for jobs and growth, to tackle at source South Africa’s problems of hunger, poverty, unemployment and falling tax revenues.

We’ve called on government to review the list of zero-rated food items, with a view to expanding it to include more items commonly purchased by the poorest 50% of households, such as bone-in chicken, tinned beans, peanut butter, and baby food.

The last review of zero-rated items was done in 2018 by a panel chaired by Professor Ingrid Woolard, who agreed back in 2022 already that this list is due for review. The DA’s suggested additions to the list were provided to us by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), based on their analysis of low-income household food expenditure data.

Bone-in chicken is a high-quality source of protein and by far the most popular one for poor households, making up 14% of low-income household food budgets. Vulnerable South Africans need an affordable source of protein to prevent them shifting to a less nutritious high-carb diet as their budget is squeezed. It is also versatile and quick to cook, saving on energy costs.

Zero-rating bone-in chicken would cost approximately R4 billion per annum, but experts have suggested the intervention would pay for itself through improved health, work and learning outcomes.

Budgeting is about making trade-offs. I wonder if Cohen has considered, for example, that the ANC government spends almost R4 billion per annum on Protection Services to protect itself from the public when it could choose to spend this on protecting 30 million poor South Africans from hunger and malnutrition. As Joe Biden famously said: “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.”

Based on advice from international trade experts, the DA also proposed a review of import tariffs on some food items, including those chicken categories most commonly purchased by households facing the most extreme deprivation. These experts advised that this intervention would have a negligible impact on the fiscus but a large impact on these poorest of poor households.

Cohen may disagree with these expert-held positions, but there is surely enough room for debate to render his accusation of “populist” unfair and unjustified.

In fact, the DA has for years called for tariffs on imported chicken to be lifted, which Minister Patel only recently did amid the outbreak of avian flu. The abolition of those tariffs has immediately brought down the price of chicken products. This is a case study on how the DA's policy position of cutting tariffs and trade barriers would help the poorest of the poor.

The DA has also called on government to slash fuel prices to prevent hunger and riots. Again, far from being a cynical ploy “to get people to register”, we’ve done so consistently for the past two years, and Cohen can read this statement from May 2022 to understand our reasoning.

In addition to a slate of proposals we’ve put forward to grow South Africa’s food security, the DA has consistently called for the Child Support Grant to be raised to the Food Poverty Line. Few interventions could do more to address the 27% incidence of childhood stunting that so profoundly cripples those children’s prospects across the full course of their lives.

Cohen should know better than most journalists that all these interventions and more could easily be funded by meaningful economic reforms that open SA’s economy for growth and jobs. Should he genuinely not understand the DA’s plan to grow the economy, he can go onto our website and read our extensive suite of policies on how to deal with all the factors that make for a healthy economy.

I would also point Cohen to the many steps being taken by the DA-led Western Cape government to tackle the hunger crisis. This includes feeding around 500 000 schoolchildren daily through its support for school feeding schemes, 25 000 schoolchildren through after-school and youth development programmes, over 150 000 young children through ECD centres and over 100 000 people through funding soup kitchens. Its first 1000 days programme provides nutritional support for children at risk of malnutrition.

With no hint of irony, having bashed the DA’s solutions, Cohen then goes on to call the DA the party of “maximal critique”, implying that all we ever do is criticise the ANC, rather than coming up with solutions of our own.

I would remind Cohen that as the official opposition, it is the DA’s constitutional duty to call out the ANC for their failures. This is literally what taxpayers pay us to do. The DA started warning South Africa about the dangers inherent in the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment in 1998 and about the risks of state capture in 2011.

South Africa would be a different and far less hungry country today had journalists such as Cohen heeded the DA’s advice back then and joined our call for change. This is exactly what Cohen should do now, in the face of this hunger crisis.

Finally, there’s Cohen’s frivolous attack on the DA for not criticising government’s proposed tax hikes. Yet just the previous day, I tackled President Ramaphosa on these directly during oral questions to the President. And I would point Cohen to DA Shadow Minister of Finance Dion George’s press statement of 2 November aptly titled “Increasing taxes is not the solution Minister Godongwana”.

Maybe I’m naïve to expect more from journalists, but if you consider the extent of suffering and risk posed by South Africa’s hunger crisis, then shouldn’t Cohen take the time to understand what the DA is offering before mounting a fulsome attack on us? I certainly think so.

John Steenhuisen

DA Leader