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Price increases on bare necessities hurting poor

| Economic factors

There might not seem to be a massive difference in the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity research group’s latest Household Affordability Index, but even a marginal increase in the food price is too heavy a burden for growing numbers of people who are barely on the breadline in South Africa.

The index, which tracks price changes for basic foods across the country, revealed the basket of 44 items has increased marginally, to R4 051, since December 2020.

Crippling increases

At just over R4000, the basket is well out of reach for more than half of our population. Worryingly, it has breached the level of the National Minimum Wage, which in January 2021 was R3 321.60.

According to Statistics SA’s three cost of living measurements, which were revised in August last year, the poorest in South Africa need at least R585 a month to be able to afford enough food to meet their minimum required daily intake for survival. The average-sized household (up to four members) require R2 050. The lower-bound poverty line is R840 a person per month, or almost R3000 for the average-sized household. This poverty line encompasses a minimum of nonfood essentials in addition to the food poverty line. The upper-bound poverty line is R1 268 per person per month, or R4 438 for the average-sized household (which includes the cost of non-food items).

Expanded view

The justice and dignity research group had previously based its data on Pietermaritzburg pricing, expanding the scope of its data collection in Joburg, Cape Town, Durban and Springbok from April last year to get a national view of household affordability constraints, and how low-income families were responding to the “deepening financial and economic crisis, given rising expenditure costs, job losses, stagnant employment, a deepening food crisis, deepening poverty and entrenched inequality”.

Women living in low-income households within these areas were approached to work with the group by tracking food prices and other costs in their areas, which include Soweto, Alexandra, Tembisa and Hillbrow in Gauteng; Gugulethu, Philippi, Khayelitsha, Delft and Dunoon in Cape Town; KwaMashu, uMlazi, Isipingo, Durban CBD, Mtubatuba and Pietermartizburg in KwaZulu-Natal; and Springbok in the Northern Cape.

From April to August last year the group ran a pilot to test which foods constitute the core foods and the volumes of these foods in the trollies of low-income households in the new areas; to identify, test and verify supermarkets and butcheries which target the low-income market and where women living on low incomes do their shopping; and collect food prices from the supermarkets and butcheries every two weeks.

Adjusted basket

The new food basket now also includes 6-litre low-fat milk, 2kg chicken livers, 2kg beef livers, 2kg fish (seasonal), 2kg green pepper and 7kg oranges. Increased volumes are 3kg apples (up from 1.5kg), four bars of 500g green bath soap (up from 2 bars of 500g), and 1.5L of bleach (up from 750ml). Reduced volumes are 30kg maize meal (down from 35kg), 2kg chicken feet (down from 5kg), 1kg margarine (down from 2 x 1kg), and 1 x 900g apricot jam (down from 2 x 900g).

While there are regional and household nuances in volumes of starches, seasonal types of fruit and vegetables, and types of meats, (chicken feet, fish, offal, and red meat) the new basket is a proxy of the foods, averaged over all the areas.

Month-on-month (between December 2020 and January 2021), the average cost of the household food basket grew by R48.78 (up 1.2%), while the basket grew by R194.86 or 5.1% over the past five months (from September last year to last month).

The main foods driving up the costs over the past five months were essentials: maize meal (15%), rice (3%), cake flour (3%), white sugar (5%), sugar beans (33%), samp (7%), cooking oil (4%), potatoes (4%), onions (2%), and white and brown bread (both 4%).

Unavoidable costs

The group noted that high levels of price inflation on these foods were problematic because they are core foods, which must be bought regardless of price escalations; the higher cost of these staples means that less money is available to buy other foods important for proper nutrition, such as eggs, dairy, meats, fish, vegetables and fruit; that the higher cost of a basket of food has become unaffordable.

“Because prices have risen on the staple foods, foods which are common in nearly every South African home, it is reasonable to suggest that the impact of high food prices is being felt very widely in society; and that a large majority of families are struggling to afford sufficient food. Most of the financial support made available by government to support families during the initial stages of the pandemic was withdrawn in October 2020 – it lasted just six months,” group said.

The R350 Covid relief grant was terminated at the end of last month, which many political parties – including, curiously, the ANC – are now urging the government to extend.

The group said that the government had chosen to withdraw support in the middle of a pandemic “when almost nothing has gone back to normal and almost everything has got worse”.

Dying for relief

“We have no or little savings, almost no capacity to absorb shocks; we have lost our jobs, our wages have been cut, we work fewer hours. At the same time food prices, electricity prices and transport prices continue to climb. People we love are dying. How is it possible that we allowed government to stop providing relief and not intervene to reduce the cost of expenses viz. regulate and bring down the prices of core staple foods, to subsidise public transport, and to cut the cost of electricity?

“It seems trite to ask if government is doing its best to support us during one of the worst periods of our lives. From our most recent conversations with women, we are hearing that we might, however, have a short window period of grace.”

The group noted that stokvels have been a life-saver for the poor, saying women who were able to keep up with stokvel payments had reported their families were in a much better position than families who were not able to do so.

“Most stokvels survived 2020: women tell us that they were able to carry on making payments by sacrificing their own health and nutrition needs and using some of the social grant top-ups on Child Support and Old-age Grants. Using their own strategies and saving part of the six-month top-ups, women have been able to build up some resilience. The food secured through the stokvel pay-outs in December are an absolute life-saver.”

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.


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