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Seeing the South African Food System through the Lens of Power

Reos Partners
May, 2014

One of the initiatives emerging from the Southern Africa Food Lab seeks to create new ways for small-scale farmers to participate meaningfully in the economy. Launched in 2012, this initiative is currently prototyping five innovations in two rural districts of South Africa. A recent learning history by Reos Associate Karen Goldberg is helping all of us involved in the Food Lab to stay awake to how issues of power are not just “out there” but “in here” too.
The 1913 Natives Land Act relegated all African people to “homeland” reserves initially comprising just 7.3% of the total area of South Africa. Generally, the quality of the soil was poor, and this land degraded further over generations of subsistence farming. While the Land Act was repealed in 1991, its multiple legacies remain major challenges today. In the words of one of the Food Lab hosts: “The food system in South Africa reflects our current reality and the past. It is characterized through power, and power is about race, class, gender … Unless we put that in the centre of what we are doing, we are not going to shift the system.”


Members of SSCA

[Picture: From left to right – a member of the hosting team (arm only), a small-scale farmer, a researcher, an activist and a retailer build a model of the agricultural system]
The transition from crystallizing innovations in 2013 to prototyping these innovations in 2014 has given the hosting team pause to reflect, write, and learn. During this time, we embarked on the learning history mentioned above, which surfaced issues of power, showing us afresh how some of the power dynamics deeply enmeshed in the food system in this part of the world were manifesting in the Food Lab itself.
For instance, only one small-scale farmer attended the inception workshop in 2012. Most participants in the early stages of this process cared deeply about the issues, but were not personally at risk if the process failed. Those with relatively little power but relatively more at stake were absent, and others were speaking—albeit with the best of intentions—on their behalf. This dynamic threatened to replicate an old pattern of academics, activists, policy makers, and key players in the food chain trying to “fix” problems of agricultural production in the absence of the small-scale producers themselves.
By the second learning journey in 2013, this dynamic had begun to change, with Oxfam enabling more small-scale farmers to attend Lab gatherings. One of the first innovations to crystallize was called “Farmers Voices”, intent on creating new platforms for small-scale farmers to talk to one another, to organize together, to find ways to address influential audiences with “one voice”, and to set the agenda rather than be the recipients of agendas set by others. A woman who runs her own small-scale farm leads this initiative.
Even so, the learning history has helped us to see how those most accustomed to having a voice and being heard continue to gravitate to the centre of influence within the Lab. We’re learning to disrupt this pattern and find ways to treat power as a resource that can be spread more widely across the system—starting with our own system—rather than as a finite resource to be taken away from its current holders and transferred to others. Land redistribution, one of the most intractable issues in our food system, is about finite resources. We would be falling into a trap if we treated power in the same way.
As teams start to prototype five innovations in two rural districts, we are seeing the value of locating the Farmers’ Voices project at the heart of all of the initiatives, ensuring that their design and implementation are attuned to small-scale farmers’ needs.

Farmers Diagram

[Diagram: The Farmer’s Voices innovation at the heart of the Supporting Smallholders Project]
We conclude this update with reflections from a founding convener of the Food Lab: “Given our history as South Africans, we generally associate notions of power with 'power over'—with dominance, exclusion, privilege, and rank. And though it is ever-present, we avoid talking about it. When, as has occurred at a few moments in the Supporting Smallholders project, it is named, there is a range of responses—from gratefulness that it has surfaced, to uncertainty how to deal with it, even to anger for ‘spoiling the atmosphere’.
Fortunately, the Change Lab process also creates the conditions in which we can constructively deal with the dark side of power and fully embrace generative power—power that empowers, shifts perceptions, and galvanizes action. Experience in this project suggests that time spent in dialogue walks, informal conversations, and teamwork during and between events, and through sharing the experience of immersion in real-life contexts during learning journeys, serves to create a container of strong interpersonal relationships among ‘unlikely partners’ that provides the safe space for deeper conversations in which difficult issues such as differential power, privilege, and inequality can surface.”
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