The world is currently confronted not only with a biological health pandemic, but it has also surfaced the often-hidden reality of hunger and exclusion faced by the overwhelming majority of global citizens. The global crisis is significantly, also playing out under the reality of an authoritarian state apparatus free (broadly speaking) from constitutional constraints.
While even at the best of times in liberal democracies, the overweening state is constantly suppressing or denying communities and people the agency to act in their own interests, the current overarching all-powerful state, represents a significant existential threat to the marginalised, the excluded and even to democracy itself. Horror stories of marginalised and vulnerable people being coercively herded into concentration camps, as is happening in Cape Town, speaks to the manifestly uncaring nature of an overly centralised state apparatus, which has calculated a utilitarian outcome that fails to consider the humanity of individuals.
With most people’s daily grind to earn a living and to put food on the table summarily stopped, citizens who live on the margins of existence, eking out a living through piecemeal work or low paying starvation wages, and those who rely on state grants to survive, have been told that the way to access food during the lockdown is to apply to a central database which will then determine if they qualify as human enough to obtain food from a central distribution fund.
The dynamics and tensions of agency and coercion, autonomy and oppression, at play during the State of Disaster, directly reflect and amplifies the historical patterns of marginalization and oppression experienced on a daily basis by many citizens.
In a cruel twist of fate, the overarching state has been plunged into a reality in which its tendency to autocracy is exponentially amplified and the pathologies that feed off closed, centralised autocratic systems, such as corruption, nepotism and patronage networks are allowed to thrive in the dark and closed world of a state of disaster.
“Food is strength,” proclaimed John F Kennedy the President of the United States. “Food is peace, and food is freedom”, he was recorded as saying. In other words, food is more than just sustenance for the body and soul, it is also a form of politics. The Politics of Food.
Much of the politics of food revolve around questions of identity and agency, access and accountability, health and sustainability, rather than commodities, flavour preferences, etiquette, or culinary innovations”, as modern culture would have us believe.
Hunger was and continues to be one of the means of oppression and denial of agency. In the current situation where hungry citizens are asked to deny their agency and to instead rely on the centralised, corruption ridden, patronage-network-biased forms of central distribution, the politics of food is unashamedly focused on enhancing and entrenching the state as the sole agent in society while imposing a passive subjectivity on society, more especially those who have historically been marginalised and excluded..
Many of the difficulties faced by the modern state in South Africa, is undoubtedly influenced and impacted by the dichotomy between state and society and the inclination of the state to be all powerful and to deny the agency of citizens in the process of making decisions for the “common good”, while at the same time needing citizens to act with agency and endeavour to advance the common good.
Central food distributions in which people are told to wait for the all-powerful state to deliver to them is one such example. While centralisation and building economies of scale are important mechanisms to assist society in resolving major challenges such as the one, we are facing, they are however not a panacea and are certainly not the only way that the challenge can be approached.
As a neoliberal state in which it is separated out from its citizenry as an entity over and above society, and where civil society is left to coalesce and represent the many varied interests of society, the knee jerk reaction of some civil society funders to abandon the work of building the agency of citizens has been one of the unintended casualties of this pandemic.
As a global society we have not been faced with anything close to the intensity and scale of this pandemic, and thus it is to some extent understandable that civil society funding organisations have not been equipped or ready to respond to the pandemic as it emerged. Most civil society funders flocked to the state to either curry favour with the state and boost their own standing and ego`s, or they genuinely believe that the only way forward is to centralise all resources under the state, even those meant to support the building of agency within civil society.
It was this “funding flight”, which has left organisations and movements like MACUA, WAMUA and Abahlali base Mjondolo, who are dedicated to building the agency of marginalised and excluded communities, floundering in search of support during the crisis.
As MACUA we saw the crisis not as something to run and hide from, but rather as yet another moment in the historical oppression and exclusion of affected communities, where the politics of food becomes yet another arena of struggle for the right to claim our agency.
Instead of giving up our struggle for agency, we have used the crises to build our organisation and its capacity to protect the interests of affected communities. Over the last few weeks, we have reached thousands of vulnerable families who will not be beneficiaries of the deeply problematic centralisation of food distributions and we plan to reach even more over the coming weeks and months. For us, the Covid-19 Pandemic is a continuation of struggle for justice, albeit on an altered terrain.
In assessing whether our approach to agency has been justified, the relevant question to ask, “is whether, on balance, the movement made gains or lost ground; whether it advanced the interests of affected communities or set back those interests.”
The community efforts of movements such as MACUA & WAMUA would be noteworthy if they stop at emergency food relief. But our work providing food relief does not end there. Our service to the community is not simply the provision of needed goods and services or doing for the hungry poor of the nation what the government claimed to be doing. Built into the very idea of a movement of affected communities is the building of the capacity of members of the community to do for themselves, constituted political work, meaningful organizing, and mobilization for the greater struggle for justice which we have been systemically denied.
Hunger is thus as an issue of power and inequitable resource distribution rather than a fleeting personal condition that befell the unfortunate. The retreat of civil society funders into a state centred logic has been a deep cut against the movements of the poor.