Growing Towards Disability and Food Justice in the Eastern Cape

Nosintu Mcimeli is the founder of Abanebhongo Persons with Disabilities Organisation (APD), located in rural Eastern Cape, South Africa. ADP works to care for over 100 persons with disabilities in the villages surrounding Nqamakwe, as well as improve awareness of and social inclusion within the households and communities of people living with disabilities. The legacies of oppression, inflicted by Dutch and British colonialism and the White-led Apartheid regime, continue to shape the lived experiences of South Africans today.[1] The post-apartheid neoliberal policies, imposed and encouraged by Global North-dominated world organisations, have increased inequality in the country as a whole, with some of the highest levels of poverty to be found in the mostly rural Eastern Cape.[2] Such regional economic marginalisation exacerbates the pre-existing challenges people living with disabilities often face, including access to resources as well as general social marginalisation within South African society. These many-layered challenges motivated Nosintu, who herself has a disability, to found APD in her hometown and work to alleviate the tangible legacies of oppression and continued marginalisation in her community more broadly. This article is based off of several phone interviews between Nosintu and TGP Communications Coordinator, Annabelle von Moltke. 

Climate change, COVID-19, and hunger

2015, the year that APD was founded, was South Africa’s driest year on record.[3] For rural people with disabilities, climate change compounds the severity of the challenges that they and their communities are already facing. The extended drought, which has induced acute water shortages across the country and severely hinders food growing, has been accompanied by increasingly devastating insect plagues, such as locusts and the Fall Army worm, which destroy staple crops such as maize and sorghum.[4] With her community struggling to access water, Nosintu took matters into her own hands and put out an appeal on the radio. This was answered by an NGO, which initially offered to supply water tanks, but upon negotiation agreed to pay for the drilling of a borehole, to provide a more long-term solution to the water crisis locally. With the disabled and bedridden always in mind, Nosintu has recently organised a team of young people through ADP to regularly fetch water for those of limited mobility. This way everyone can benefit from this newly freely accessible, and communally governed resource.

Reuters reported that up to a quarter of South Africans experienced hunger on a regular basis in 2020, as poverty and the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation were clearly compounded by the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns.[5] As food remains highly commodified in South Africa, like many parts of the world, hunger is a reflection of accessibility rather than availability. According to Nosintu, ‘many rural families in South Africa rely on money sent home by their children, who have migrated to urban centres to work’. For many, lockdown and the ensuing rise in unemployment has led to those streams of income drying up. Nosintu explained that people with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by hunger, both during and before the pandemic, as they have less mobility to shop for food, face difficulties planting their own food gardens without help, and often experience neglect within their own households. Frequently, Nosintu said, ‘family members cash-in a disabled person’s government support grant without that person’s knowledge’ or ability to access their own income. 

Food for the body and soul

To combat the rise in hunger in her local community during the pandemic, Nosintu, with the help of her ADP volunteers, started a donations-based soup kitchen – something that, while known in cities, was still uncommon in rural areas. After crowdsourcing a big black traditional cooking pot, organisations and supermarkets, inspired by her efforts, donated money and food vouchers. From this the soup kitchen was able to feed the community three times a week during the first 6 months of the pandemic.

As a long-term solution, Nosintu is currently working together with children to create community food gardens in local villages. Whilst these initiatives pro-actively involved people with disabilities, not everyone has the mobility to participate in the projects. So, she figured the best way to address the multi-layered problem of food insecurity amongst people with disabilities was to ‘bring the project site to them’. To date, ADP has established 18 household food gardens, and trained people with disabilities, as well as their families, in how to tend to them. By giving people with disabilities, their households, and the wider community a means to produce food for themselves, it not only alleviates food insecurity in the long-term, but decouples access to food from income. Nosintu says, ‘my aim is for every household to have a garden’.

But the food gardens do more than strengthen local food sovereignty. By bringing people with disabilities and their family members together through a shared, productive activity, better relationships are able to form and flourish. This can help combat the social isolation often felt by people with disabilities. In one instance, Nosintu spoke of a story about a person with disabilities and their neighbour and how they improved their relationship through food sharing, revealing that the food garden, though directed towards those with disabilities, were benefitting the wider community in terms of both cohesion and nourishment, too.

The role of local government

In speaking with Nosintu, she noted the important role local and regional government has to play in fostering projects such as hers. In the past, Nosintu stated that she was ‘undermined constantly’ by local councillors and government departments, who refused to recognise any value in her work. As a result, she struggles to fund her projects and ends up drawing on funds from her personal support grant, which she receives in turn from the government for her own disability. In a recent, and much welcome, development, the South African Department of Agriculture has begun to support her food garden projects, yet local councillors remain persistently opposed or disinterested.

An opportunity for change, however, is on the horizon, with local elections held on November 1st, and several small, emerging parties, whose candidates are ‘activists on the ground’ having entered the fray. Nosintu’s hope is that, if elected, they would buck the trend of councillors using their new-found wealth to move away from their constituencies to suburban areas. As she says, ‘the councillors need to be people’s friends, they need to visit their communities’. She also insisted that the Climate Justice Charter[6] be locally adopted and implemented, to help educate rural communities and engage them as ‘stakeholders in the fight against the climate crisis’.

When asked if she had thought of running to become a counsellor herself, she said, ‘many people have asked me this… I will think about it in five years, but for the moment I can create more impact on the ground, as an activist.’

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If you would like to find out how you can support Abhanebongo Persons with Disabilities Organisation please contact Nosintu Mcimeli at Twitter: @McimeliNosintu5, on Facebook at Nosintu Mcimeli Kwepile; or via WhatsApp +27 734125118.

The Third Generation Project’s relationship to Nosintu:

TGP communications coordinator Annabelle von Moltke first interviewed Nosintu Mcimeli as part of research conducted for the UN special rapporteur for Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, Olivier de Schutter. Annabelle asked Nosintu separately if she would be willing to be interviewed for this blogpost, to which she graciously agreed.

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References:

[1] Ba, Z., Colombi, D., Stock, L. & von Moltke, A. (2021) ‘The ‘Commons’: Legal Framework and Contribution to Human Rights’ (Unpublished Manuscript) Sciences Po.

[2] IMF Country Focus. (Jan 30, 2020) ‘Six Charts Explain South Africa’s Inequality’. IMF Website. Available at: https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/01/29/na012820six-charts-on-south-africas-persistent-and-multi-faceted-inequality

[1] Reuters Staff. (Jan 16 2016) ‘South Africa suffers driest year on record in 2015’. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-safrica-drought-idUSKCN0US14T20160114

[4] Ba, Z. et al. (2021) ‘The Commons’

[5] Reuters Staff. (Feb 17, 2021) ‘Hunger increases in South Africa despite COVID-19 welfare payments’. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-safrica-survey-idUSKBN2AH0UF

[6] The Climate Justice Charter (2020) was developed by the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign in collaboration with a range of constituencies, including faith-based communities, and supported by over 200 organisations. Accessible at: https://www.safsc.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Final-Climate-Justice-Charter_EN_August2020.pdf

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