How does one ask his government to give him food? Since antiquity, different social groups and classes have used different strategies to express their discontent against rulers who are unable or unwilling to design and implement social programmes which could improve their living conditions. These range from complex strategies of ousting unpopular rulers and toyi-toying, to simple acts of drafting memoranda and signing petitions. In some instances, some have used more individualised and specialised tactics to address food price hikes or raise awareness against unjust decisions and institutions. Others have also galvanised towards economic policies which inflate food prices, or poor social conditions which lead to job losses or racketeering in the local markets. Having said that, not all the strategies might coerce a leader to act, as different strategies ultimately yield different outcomes. Still, while a growing number of citizens often mobilise to improve their access to food, this form of collective action remains rare in some countries. This apathy is particularly striking in regimes where thousands remain hungry in the midst of abundance. One such geographical enclave where this paradox is most visible in South Africa.
For decades, South Africa has been known for its interracial and unequal society. The country is economically partitioned into two camps, one white and the other black. On the one hand, the first camp is relatively affluent, with ready access to education, employment opportunities, and a good standard of living. On the other hand, the second camp is composed of many households living under a worse poverty situation, as many lack education and the required skills to secure decent employment. Having said that, a more pressing issue confronting the second group is hunger and malnutrition, as state interventions to improve food accessibility in rural and urban settings remain inadequate. Strikingly, whereas many from the poor communities and townships often take to the streets to press for their entitlements to development opportunities and infrastructures, rarely do these groups channel their dissent towards seeking food interventions. To this end, the question for democratic theorists and rights activists is mainly twofold: first, why is there widespread community-based actions for social infrastructures, yet less galvanisation for food parcels, and second, how to effectively dissent from existing norms, policies, and practices to bring about improved food security programmes?
In my new book Seeking the Right to Food: Food Activism in South Africa, I try to understand this irony, in an attempt to propose positive new directions for social and political reforms. Although the book is about South Africa, it draws from different jurisdictions and real-world political contexts in framing a compelling notion of food activism: reforming sociopolitical norms, institutions, and practices through coercive authority. The book penetratingly delves into and thoroughly engages contemporary democratic theorists in proposing that real food security can only be attained through activism. It is suggested that collective acts could be a key instrument for empowering groups who have been disempowered by prevailing policies, political interests, and power relations.