It is unlikely that you will know personally any of the ten children under five years old who die every hour in South Africa, and so are spared that suffering.
If you can buy and read this magazine you probably do not live among very poor people. They suffer, and then they die, from poverty: they could have survived their diseases with good food and medication; but they have access to neither. It is hard to imagine suffering on such a scale, in your own community and in peace-time.
Many of the hundreds of people who attended the Conference in June on the Right to Work will personally know some of the children who have died of poverty. Many are very angry. The right to work in South Africa is closely associated with the right to survive – to buy the basic food, clothing, shelter and energy needed to carry on living.
Since few have access to land for subsistence, the only way to survive is to go out and get a job. Only there are not enough jobs to go around: everyone knows that. But we persist in advising job-seeking as the gateway to life.
Surprisingly, many people seem to think that situation is OK. Not perfect, of course; it would be better if there were enough jobs to go round. But probably inevitable – in other words we can live with it.
It reminds me of the words of Robert Kennedy, visiting South Africa in 1966. He spoke of the imperative to recognize the equality of all human beings, not because it was economically advantageous, nor because it reflected the ‘laws of God and man’, nor because other nations thought it should be done, but ‘fundamentally because it is the right thing to do’.
In those days it was hard to imagine South Africa recognizing the equality of all human beings. Forty years later we have done so in principle – except that some of our people still die from lack of nourishment.
Suppose we said everyone has a right to eat enough food every day – not because that would make them more efficient workers, or to create a proper demand for local food or to stave off their anger, but because ‘fundamentally it is the right thing to do’. In war time all nations do that. Food security for the nation and for individuals is given the highest priority; and the economy can be turned round very quickly to do so. That is because people cannot fight on an empty stomach, and civilians’ loyalty is more reliable if they are looked after.
But should the right to food be limited to war time?
Is a strong fighting force the only reason for a healthy population? What would it take to make the right to food an automatic right – because it is the right thing to do?
First, it would take a decision to give it top priority – higher than our obligations under the World Trade Organisation, higher than the economic principle that the market shall determine all prices and therefore who can pay them, higher than the ideology that food must be produced, like all other goods and services, as cheaply and profitably as possible everywhere; higher than the opinions of wealthy potential investors.
It would take a decision to recognise food as not just another product, like cars and shoes and fridges, but as a daily necessity, like water or air. We need to eat food regularly or else we sicken and die. But we can postpone or deny our purchases of other consumer goods. Food should be treated in that light.
Second, we would need to recognize that food must be subsidized. As an industry agriculture has a range of unpredictable challenges from the weather and pests and changes in climate. It can give a sustainable livelihoods only if the price at least is predictable. Farmers cannot change the cycles of nature is response to volatile market conditions, including the value of the rand.
Food subsidy has often been taken for granted since the industrial revolution: its current rejection is the exception. And many nations, notably France, will always subsidize agriculture, not only because of the strength of the farming lobby, but because it is the reason for the flourishing rural economy, the prosperous small farmers and the sheer quality of the French countryside, for which it is globally celebrated. The French are prepared to pay a price for this, and they will not end it, whatever they promise in the way of reform
Third, we would shift the problem focus from the bottom end of the income hierarchy – poor people and their presumed ‘culture of entitlement and dependence’ – to the top of the income pyramid.
There the rich feel entitled to a regular stream of passive income from their investments – for which they have lifted not one finger. That entitlement, and its regular enhancement with free perks, parties and holidays, funnily enough, does not apparently encourage a new culture of dependence, as it is presumed to do for poor people.