Building Food Sovereignty from Below

15 June 2020
Abahlali baseMjondolo

Building Food Sovereignty from Below

There was a serious problem of hunger in South Africa before the Covid-19 lockdown as a result of the long history of colonial dispossession, exploitation and abandonment, all of which continued under the rule of the ANC. There has also been a serious problem with the limited food support that is offered by the state being politicised by ward councillors and their committees. As everyone knows both problems rapidly became even worse during the Covid-19 lockdown.

We have developed a number of strategies to deal with the crisis of hunger. Where ever possible we work to build solidarity between progressive organisations of the impoverished and the working class so that we can build our collective power from below with the aim of combining our power to oppose the system of racial capitalism and build a different kind of society. One part of this vision is that the food system must be taken out of the control of capitalism and placed in the hands of the people. This requires radical land reform, urban and rural, support for small scale farming and the establishment of markets where food can be sold directly from the people to the people. 

We also provide direct solidarity to people in immediate need. When people are hungry today they need food today and we have rolled out a food solidarity programme that has reached our members in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Gauteng. Each branch keeps a careful record of the needs of all its members and when people require food the movement provides food directly to people in need.

As well as providing food to people in immediate need we are also running community kitchens in some occupations. This communal practice ensures that there is a spirit of working together in communities. This is important because it is only when only the poor are well organised from below that we can fight against oppression. It is this spirt of unity that allowed our movement to resist violent and brutal evictions during the lockdown. Community kitchens are also important because they can also support people who have lost the ability to cook on their own for various reasons, including evictions.

The programmes of providing food directly to people in need and running community kitchens are carried out with careful observation of the need for physical distancing, masks and sanitisation. The distribution and preparation of food is also used as an opportunity to ask and discuss the political questions about why so many people are suffering from hunger in a country and a world in which there is enough wealth to ensure that no one ever goes hungry.

We are also growing our own food. Our movement has a clear position in support of the decommodification of land. We take the view that land is gift to humanity which should be allocated on the basis of need and managed collectively and democratically. We are opposed to the idea that land should be seen as property that can be owned by individuals or companies and bought and sold.

On 24 February this year we marched, in our thousands, in support of the demand for the total decommodification of land. The demands expressed on that march came out of months of discussion and most of the people who participated in those discussions and on the march are residents on democratically and collectively managed land occupations.

Land occupations allow people to live on well located land close to opportunities for livelihoods, education and the other possibilities of city life and to participate in urban planning and other ways of shaping the cities from below. Of course, land occupations also allow people to build homes, as well as community halls, creches and political schools. But land occupations are often also spaces that allow for urban gardening and farming.

In many land occupations people have individual gardens. In some occupations there are also collective gardens, supported by the movement. This is not something new. The first collective farming project organised by our movement was in Motala Heights in 2008. The struggle there was led by two brave women, Louisa Motha and Shamitha Naidoo. The Motala Diggers was a women’s organic community garden project, which went on to support the development of a similar women’s community garden group in the nearby eMmaus settlement. The Motala Diggers grew amadumbies, peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, carrots, beans, cabbage, beetroot, bananas and onions. This project did not only ensure that families had food. It also gave women some autonomy from exploitative and racialised forms of labour. In 2008 Faith Nyende explained this well: “We are tired of washing for R20 or even R10 for a big load and then taking that small money to buy food at the shops. Instead of washing we now dig together and grow our own food together.”

One of the community gardens that has been flourishing despite repeated state attacks during these difficult times is in the eKhanana occupation in Cato Crest Durban. This community garden has recently been reported on in the progressive media. Here there is a community run garden, and shop, with work in the garden and shop organised on a rotating basis by a resident’s co-operative. As has been noted in the media in this settlement the community garden has not only provided healthy food for the community. The money made in the shop has been used to buy three chemical toilets and masks, gloves and sanitisers for all residents.

On this occupation you will see the flag of our movement flying high, as well as the flag of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil. There are also links with Potere al Popolo in Italy. A number of our members have spent time with MST in Brazil and we see our own struggle to occupy land and grow food as part of an international

Other branches are excited by what has been achieved in eNkhanana and are working to build their own collective food projects. On the nearby eNkanini land occupation members of the community are also creating gardens where vegetables and maize are planted. This is socialism from below. Socialism is ensuring that no one in our communities starves. Socialism is decommodifying land from below, establishing democratically run co-operatives and building a collective capacity to produce food outside of the capitalist system.

Under the system of racial capitalism imposed by colonialism those in power monopolised their hold on the land by turning it into private property. This impoverished people and forced them to accept exploitative forms of labour to survive. Today millions of people remain impoverished and landless and are only able to access food through the supermarkets that are part of the same capitalist system that has made us poor and kept us poor.

But before colonialism our ancestors did not own, buy or sell land. They did not sell their labour. People lived by planting their own food and grazing their own cattle. If one family sunk into poverty another family could lend them a cow so that they could have milk. Once the family had their own livestock they could return that cow. This was called ubuntu. Ubuntu leads to ubuhlali which leads to democratic socialism from below.


S’bu Zikode 083 547 0474
Mqapheli Bonono 073 0673 274
Nomsa Sizani 081 005 3686
Lindokuhle Mnguni 081 491 4027