Ever increasingly in South Africa and all over the developing world food security is becoming a major issue. Within this multifaceted issue I have isolated the production and sale of meat within the townships of Cape Town to highlight some of the problems and challenges that arise where there is a food security crisis, and what may cause this crisis.
South Africa produces enough food to feed it population, but in a system that is governed by money food is considered a commodity, and so food is found where there is wealth to spend. The segregation of classes found across the city of Cape Town makes it difficult for the low earning communities to travel to places where they can purchase good quality foods. This opens up a niche market within communities for locals to sell goods from informal shops, known as Spaza stores. The products sold here are often a little more expensive than the ones found in large shopping stores, but without having to pay the transport costs of having to get to these stores, it makes to more affordable. The meat industry works in a very similar way. As it is too expensive to travel to the high-end butchers, or to dine in restaurants where good meat is served, an informal sector has developed within the townships to feed the need to want to consume meat.
Cattle, sheep, chicken and goats are popular in the townships. Of the red meats, sheep is consumed the most. Goats are purchased mostly for ceremonies; male goats are castrated and used in Amakhetu initiation ceremonies, and female goats are used by sangomas in ceremonies to remove curses cast on people. Cattle are the most valuable and a symbol of wealth. This lends them to only being slaughtered on special occasions.
Documenting the path sheep travel to find their way onto a dinner plate started at an auction on the outskirts of Paarl. Here farmers gather to bid on livestock. Sheep are purchased for approximately R900 each, and resold later for approximately R1500. From here they are taken to a holding farm on the outskirts of the townships. The farmer I was documenting operates on the outskirts of Philippi. The price of sheep is set on their weight. So once purchased the farmers begin to feed their livestock large amounts of fodder to fatten them up and raise their value.
Every morning from as early as 6:30am informal butchers arrive at the farm to purchase livestock to slaughter, cook and sell that day. Interestingly, a large amount of people coming to purchase the meat were women, pointing towards the amount of households that are being financially supported by women in cities at present. The purchases vary in size depending on what day of the week and month it is, and how many stores the butchers own. Weekends are the most busy, and particularly near the end of the month once people have been paid. Meat, as much as it is enjoyed and is a part of African cultures, it is also a luxury in these areas. The larger purchasers have bakkies and trailers that they can load the livestock onto, but for the smaller purchasers they have to catch taxis to get to the farm. The amapheles (isiXhosa for cockroach, and a nickname for the taxis in the townships, because of the way they scavenge through the streets looking for passengers) are predominantly Toyota Cressida’s that have a large boot and can fit a live sheep in to. The sheep’s feet are bound and (from what I could witness) were easy to work with once tied up.
The sheep are taken to the butchers home or place braai ‘restaurant’ where they are slaughtered in their yards or on the side of the street. The core-contributing factor to the lack of food security – poverty – brings another challenge at this point. As the meat is being produced in an informal environment there is no health or safety measures that can be taken to make sure the meat is handled in the correct manner. At the same time, banning this kind of meat production would remove the opportunity to consume meat in these areas and generate outcry. Many jobs would be lost as well. So as carefully as possibly without the required infrastructure, the animals are slaughtered. In this documentation the slaughter of six sheep happened in the side alley of a Government program house in Makhaza. The men were very experienced and ran the operation smoothly. Knives were sharpened on the concrete wall before they lined the sheep up and slit their throats over a plastic basin to catch the blood. Once dead, they start skinning the animal while a boy deals with the waste. The blood is flushed down the toilet (conveniently situated outside). The organs are then removed and the daughters of the family flush them out in buckets and in the washing basin of the home. Based on interviews with the Freshwater Consulting Group, and Kevin Winter from the Environmental and Geographical Science department of the University of Cape Town, the disposal of waste in this way is not detrimental to sewerage system as treatment plants are designed to break down such matter. Though it was questioned if it is designed to breakdown such large quantities of animal matter. The only time it can become troublesome is if it starts to block up the system.
Once the carcasses are ready they are placed back in the vehicle and taken to the braai areas. The skins are salted to dry them out, and then later sold to another company that turns them into souvenirs for the tourist trade. The destination for these specific carcasses was the Makhaza taxi rank, where a container has been turned into a store. Drums had been cut in half and turned into braai’s that were located on the pavement. The container was divided in half with one half being a sales point. The carcasses hung from hooks and the customers would select cuts that they would like to braai. The other half of the container had a table where people could sit together and eat their meal.
On this specific Sunday, the first mutton steaks were being consumed by 9:30am, and the owner believes that all six of the sheep he purchased would be consumed by 15:00.
This is a bittersweet tale of people who are finding a way to survive and enjoy a luxury that is deeply ingrained in their culture. This is however being done under extreme conditions. One quarter of the South African labour force is unemployed. Most of these people are migrating to cities (if they do not live here already) and are finding themselves in situations like this where there is great difficulty in accessing good, healthy, safe, and affordable food. The consequence is malnutrition. On a financial scale treating diseases related to malnutrition can take up 2-3% of GDP. If we look at health statistics in South Africa this makes perfect sense where half of the adult population is obese, and 20% of children under nine years old suffer from malnutrition. The second fact is particularly dangerous as malnutrition in children under the age of two can suffer permanent brain damage and stunted growth.
Meat is also just one element of a balanced diet. Fresh produce is also very expensive and is difficult to get into the townships. Some vegetable garden initiatives have been set up in the townships but they have not received much popularity. Few people other than elderly women are willing to commit time to them, and there is not a large market to sell the produce in the townships. This is leaving these communities very poorly nourished on diets high in starch, and sugars.
The owner of the taxi rank braai speaks to me about his ambitions of what he wants to do with his business. At present he is making a profit of about R200 per sheep sold – a big jump down from R600 profit made per sheep that was sold to him. Like any good businessman he wants his company to grow. Mzoli’s in Gugulethu is his inspiration and he is working on how he can structure his business like theirs. But with the little profits he brings in it will be difficult to get the resources required to run a good operation line. Hooks and drainage need to be put into his slaughter areas. Not to mention the paving so that the killing doesn’t happen in the dirt. There is also the need for refrigeration and adequate transportation modes. But none of this will happen without investment of capital.
This body of work expresses the importance of informal markets, but also the need to better equip informal markets to so that they can cater for their communities without the risks of spreading disease or being harmful to consumers, operating at a too high cost, and not being restricted in being able to offer high quality essential products, such has nutritious food. An unhealthy population affects all aspects of a country and it is frightening that one of the primary pillars of survival, like food, can become the privilege of such a small minority.
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