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Food parcels as an instrument of politics and corruption

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Jordan Griffiths is the acting chief of staff in the mayor’s office in Tshwane; he writes in his personal capacity.

Food parcels for the destitute sounds like a good idea – but it is just too tempting because it allows the ANC to control the process for political gain. No registers, no proper databases, just a total free-for-all as the value of this entire process is eroded.

As South Africa progresses into the fourth week of lockdown, fundamental flaws in government thinking regarding policy and its role in relation to society have been exposed.

The African National Congress has always swung to the left of politics in its belief in big government and the need for the state to be heavily involved in all aspects of the South African economy. In fact not just involved, but often as a way to directly control particular aspects of South African life and dictate the terms of engagement with the populace.

As the economic reality of lockdown bites, the food parcel has once again emerged as one of the key tools of ANC policy that is deployed to alleviate the suffering of poor communities. The food parcel is a particularly strategic political tool because it speaks to the need for the ANC government to be able to exercise total control over citizens and presents an opportunity to extract economic value as well.

First, a tender for food parcels is issued, a specification is drafted and sent out and companies bid to provide the government with food parcels. Already at this level some value due for the citizens is shaved off because the company in question will have costs associated with creating the food parcels.

Perhaps the company in question is also politically connected or has captured officials within the state and so a food parcel that should cost R500 comes in at R1,000. Alas, more value is lost to citizens. This can become especially rampant in times of crisis when government procurement systems are relaxed to ease the purchase of goods and services to speed up their delivery — this is generally when rampant abuse takes place.

In Mangaung, allegations emerged that the food parcels were worth R1,200 and contained a 1kg packet of sugar, a tin of sardines, a loaf of bread, a pack of maize meal and head of cabbage.

Second, once created, the food parcels are then duly dropped off at the relevant department which must take charge of distribution and storage. In the case of the Gauteng Department of Social Development, no sooner did this happen when officials involved with the process were accused of giving the food parcels to their own families. Of course, another example of how the value of this process is gradually eroded.

Third, examining the distribution network, one of the best ways to secure value at this level is through the use of NGOs which often have databases and can at least ensure that the parcels go to the right people. Of course, the other way is through the use of councillors who immediately politicise and hijack the whole process.

Over the weekend, News24 reported that in every province in the country excluding the Western Cape there were reported instances of food parcel corruption. Instances were reported of trucks delivering food parcels to the houses of ANC politicians which were then distributed to ANC members, other cases where non-ANC wards were deliberately omitted from receiving food parcels and multiple reports of ANC councillors or members stockpiling food parcels in the run-up to their own branch meetings.

Of course, assuming that after these processes there are still some food parcels that will actually make their way to the people in need, this opportunity can then be maximised by inviting the media over to show how caring the government is, despite having eroded the value of this process right from the supply-chain processes down to the distribution.

Food parcel politics is particularly cruel, not only in the way in which it is politically manipulated, but also in the way that it deliberately undermines individuals and their agency to make decisions that are in their best interest. It is the height of paternalism — instead of thinking creatively on how to actively help the most destitute in society the ANC would deploy government funds to procure food parcels and distribute them — and do it poorly as well.

South Africa is not a rich country. With high levels of unemployment and inequality, the country has to think creatively about how it can best use government funds to help the poor. Food parcels are most certainly not it, they are likely one of the worst ways to derive value from an economic perspective purely because there are so many elements in their procurement and distribution chain where value can be eroded.

Assuming that the food parcels distributed were worth R1,200 — what makes more sense, giving people that need it that R1,200 or creating a laborious process to get them a food parcel worth a fraction of that?

It doesn’t even need to be cash, it can easily be distributed via vouchers through specific targeted retailers in the country and tied to people’s ID numbers. The Sassa grants system already provides support to 18 million South Africans and has the infrastructure in place to distribute funds to the neediest in society.

A petition is already circulating organised by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town to get the government to increase the value of the grant by R500 for a period of six months. It currently has more than 550,000 signatures.

Yet despite the very obvious solution of using these systems and merely increasing the value of the Sassa grants that can be paid for a period of time, the government persists with food parcel politics. It is just too tempting because it allows the ANC the ability to reinforce the fact that it can exercise full control over citizens, it decides what is in the food parcel and it can dictate who gets them. No registers, no proper databases, just a total free-for-all as the value of this entire process is eroded. 

South Africans who are receiving social grants understand their situation far better than the government or ANC ever will. Stop insulting them with the distribution of food parcels and assuming you are doing them a service. All these people would rather receive the money that is being spent on the food parcels so that they can make the right decisions for their lives and circumstances. DM

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