18 April 2008
A lack of leadership and profiteering by certain private sector organisations is leaving consumers at the mercy of high and rising food prices, according to the National Consumer Forum.
“It is scandalous that, in a country as bountiful as South Africa, we cannot ensure that food is affordable for the poor,” said NCF chairman Thami Bolani. High food prices hit the poor hardest, as they spend a bigger portion of their income on food, he said.
The lack of action on this issue has meant that poor consumers have been left stranded. “It is the democratic responsibility of government, and the moral responsibility of the private sector, to work with civil society and find solutions to this crisis,” said Bolani.
The last time that the country faced a food price crisis, which was about five years ago, government set up a food price monitoring committee.
“Government can do more to address the issue of high food prices and guarantee food security for the majority of consumers in our country. Consumers are entitled to find out what government and business intends to do about these sky-rocketing trends that are being monitored,” said Bolani. “It is not enough just to keep collecting statistics about a crisis as it develops – government needs to be making plans and acting on them, to ensure that the country can afford to feed itself.”
He said that South Africa is part of a global economy, so there are external factors affecting our prices. But there are also internal factors that we can address in the fight against food inflation. These include the lack of sufficient competition in our marketplace and the resulting profiteering; there is also not enough support to farmers, in particular emerging farmers, from government institutions like the Land Bank.
“We also need more investment in rural areas,” said Bolani. “Much has been said about cooperatives, but there are few success stories. Properly handled, these could offer more competition; this has been done in countries like Japan, where they have also helped create much needed job opportunities.”
Government also needs to improve the efficiency of its services, said Bolani. “The South African consumer cannot afford mismanagement and inefficiencies at state institutions such as Eskom,” he said. “The electricity price increase that Eskom wants is unacceptable and unaffordable, especially in the current climate when food prices, petrol prices and interest rates are so high.”
He said that electricity price hikes will aggravate food prices, and will make every food producer or manufacturer raise their prices.
Consumers can also play an important role in the campaign against high food prices. One such strategy used by consumers in the past has been the selective boycott of certain products and retail stores to force down food prices. “Consumers have the right to vote with their wallets, purses and feet,” he said. “This tactic was used to great effect during the campaign against apartheid.”
Consumers also needed advice and guidance to cope with the effects of inflation. “We need to use information to ensure that consumers are empowered to make the right decisions in the market place,” he said. “Government agencies – in particular, the provincial consumer affairs offices, could channel resources to civil society organisations that have links with people in disadvantaged areas.
“Channelling funds to big companies at the expense of civil society does not really help,” he said. “Government needs to work more closely with civil society and not compete with them. Unfortunately, there is still a reluctance in many government departments to co-operate with civic groups; government departments must become more empowering and less domineering.”
In the field of consumer rights, government support for civil society could help consumers learn skills to cope with inflation, such as:
- Buying in bulk, especially in disadvantaged areas
- Buying at discount stores
- Budgeting properly, rather than buying on impulse or on credit
- Getting rid of debt
- Finding the outlets with the cheapest basket of goods
- Testing and buying ‘no- name brand’ products to save money
More education is necessary, and the public broadcaster needs to be more pro-active in airing and promoting these issues.