That Marie Antoinette’s head eventually landed on the chopping block in 1789, because an angry mass stormed the Bastille on empty stomachs, is regarded by historians more as fiction than fact. Throughout history, however, governments learnt the hard way that they had to tread carefully when it came to the availability of food and high food prices. A hungry mob is, after all, an angry mob.

“It is believed that high food prices were a contributing factor to the Arabian Spring unrest and, not so long ago, people protested over high bread prices in Mozambique. Sufficient research has been done to prove that there is a high correlation between peaks in food prices and social unrest,” says Prof Johan Willemse of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of the Free State.

But will South African voters turn their backs on the ruling party at the ballot-box due to high food prices and empty stomachs? Could local politicians find their heads on the proverbial chopping block in years to come?

Not a very likely scenario in South Africa, but perhaps elsewhere in the world, says Dawie Roodt, director and chief economist of the Efficient Group. “In South Africa, high food prices may even have the absurd effect that people may increase their support for the governing party. Voters will realise that something has to be done about these prices and they will turn to the government to produce some sort of cure. It is only during extreme food price rises that voters will turn against a government – and we are not there yet,” he says.

Social unrest, sparked by high food prices and the ability to buy food may, however, be closer to home than what is generally perceived. The maize and maize meal price in South Africa was at its highest during the recent unrest in the mining sector, and high food prices, combined with rising electricity and transport costs, might have played a role in people’s unease, says Willemse. “South Africans’ disposable income is under pressure – especially in the case of the poor. It is estimated that poor people spend about half of their income on food,” he says. Willemse also believes that South Africa is not yet at a point where voters will turn their backs on the government at the ballot-box due to high food prices.

Rising fuel and electricity tariffs, as well as pressure on consumer spending as a result of the e-toll system, would probably result in more political dissatisfaction in South Africa than high food prices would, says Dr André Jooste, executive officer of Potatoes South Africa and formerly from the National Agricultural Marketing Council.

Annette Steyn, the Democratic Alliance (DA)  shadow minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, believes that the e-toll system will undoubtedly result in higher food prices.  “I don’t believe that government has taken this consequence of the e-toll system into serious consideration. The South African consumer in general, however, is not always sufficiently sophisticated to realise that issues, such as the e-toll system, may have a significant influence on the price of the food they buy. They will therefore not necessarily hold government accountable,” she says.
Prof Ferdi Meyer, director of the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), says that the price of food tends to become theoretical when people do not have the money to spend on food. Job creation is therefore a priority, as food security does not only refer to affordable prices, but also to the ability to buy any food at all.

But could the South African government make a contribution to keep food prices down?

Not much in terms of direct influence, according to Jooste. “Food prices are generally the result of market forces – i.e. supply and demand. An example is the high maize price we experienced a couple of weeks ago. Following the good rains we had, maize prices will decrease. We are actually already witnessing this. Speculation is that we are going to have a bumper crop, even as much 13 million tons, which will be one of the largest maize crops in years. He also believes that government will not do something irresponsible, such as allowing the dumping of cheap agricultural products for short-term gain. Government takes note of the informed advice of institutions, such as the National Agricultural Marketing Council,” he says.

Roodt believes that government is already doing its best in this regard. Basic foods are already exempted from VAT. Government could consider the introduction of subsidies, such as those in Europe, to assist local producers to provide food at lower cost to the market, but this is a complex issue with consequences of its own. Therefore, this is an unlikely route for the South African government. It could, however, assist indirectly by stabilising the exchange rate, he says.

Willemse believes that government has a major role to play. “The only way to keep food prices down is to increase local production. We are already importing quite a number of basic foods, such as cooking oil, wheat, chicken and dairy products. Government must create a more enabling environment for local producers to produce these products,” he says. “This initiative must focus on research, timely drought assistance and good infrastructure.”

Jooste believes that the social unrest in eastern countries could be ascribed to their dependence on imports and the uncertainties that come with the import domain. “That is why food security is so important in a country like South Africa. Our favourable production potential, however, still shields us from extreme food price increases and shortages.”

Steyn also believes that government could play a role in trying to lessen the impact of high food prices on consumers. To transport products, such as maize, by rail instead of by road may contribute to making products, such as maize meal, more affordable to consumers. “Transnet is, however, not interested in this option, as it is of the opinion that not enough agricultural products will be transported in this way, therefore not making it a profitable option for Transnet.

Steyn says that she is also not convinced that the agricultural sector gets a fair deal when the South African government negotiates trade agreements with other countries. Government may have other priorities and agriculture is not necessarily top of the list when these agreements are negotiated.

Meyer believes there is a combination of issues in which government should play a crucial role, so as to create an environment for farmers that lends itself to optimal production. “The agricultural and the mining sectors have huge potential to create jobs and constitute two sectors that can absorb unskilled labour.

But there is too much uncertainty for farmers. If one is not sure about the ownership of one’s land and one is unsure about one’s rights in terms of labour legislation, especially with regard to the permanent employment or the dismissal of workers, one cannot achieve optimal production. Government also has the responsibility of ensuring effectiveness with regard to export permits and trade agreements, and these agreements must be signed in time to operate to the advantage of producers,” he says.

Meyer points out that the Americans supply some of the cheapest food in the world, as the American agricultural sector enjoys strong government support by means of subsidies.  The Americans continuously produce a surplus with aid from government. As a consequence, food prices decline. “I am not propagating subsidies for South African farmers, but government can do much more to provide an environment for farmers to produce at their utmost capacity,” he says.

Willemse recently attended an agricultural forecast conference in Australia. “The focus was on how Australian farmers could produce cheaper food and export at a greater profit. This is the crux of the matter,” he says.
South Africa may not have an angry mob storming the local Bastille yet, but the signs are already there that high food prices and the ability to buy food could constitute a contributing factor to social unrest. Heads may be landing on the local chopping block sooner rather than later.

What do you think?