TMG Think Tank for Sustainability
Blog Post

With pots and pens to parliament – Understanding and responding to crises through a critical feminist lens

A blog commemorating Women’s Day in South Africa, 9 August

by Caroline Peters, Wendy Pekeur, Matilda Tsitsi Fakazi, Nomonde Buthelezi, Hazel and Sanelisiwe Nyaba, Nicole Paganini and Victoria Redmond | 2022-08-10

With pots and pens to parliament – Understanding and responding to crises through a critical feminist lens

In discussing our work on urban food futures, the word most frequently on our lips is “crisis”. The pandemic has left its mark: battered economies struggle to support families as they limp through continued loss of employment. Burdened with their “new normal”, families’ dinnertime conversations centre on survival, queues for food stretch around city blocks, and children’s school performance drops as hunger prevails. Massive food price increases expedited by hyperinflation in many African countries resulting from the pandemic and the Russian war against the Ukraine has put basic necessities out of the reach of blue-collar workers and affectedthe billions of people who receive food imports that originate from the Ukraine.Climate change has been a significant factor in upending traditional farming systems, decimating major staple crop production in many parts of the world and holding farming families in desperate suspense of uncertainty and hopelessness. These global megatrends are compounded by waves of regional, local, and often individual crisesin towns like Cape Town where a range of economic, climatic, socio-cultural, and political forces exemplify the successive pressures faced by urban low-income communities. These crises have forced the world and its cities to face some hard truths on the state of global food insecurity. While governments scramble to stay abreast of the conversation, teams of women volunteers emerge from their darkened and thatched doorways ladened with pots, donations, and straggling children to continue dishing out plates of food, restored courage, and hope. It is with the heart and wilfulness they show that our work finds its inspiration.

Why we need a feminist perspective on crises

Crises are invisible companions in our everyday life, with segments of the population experiencing them in different ways. For some of us, crises are peaks of escalating challenges which hasten to a pivotal or turning point: they give new energy and propel us toward change. For others, crises are constant stressors and a constraint on our abilities to respond to shocks. Yet, we barely understand what the crisis or the multitude of crises we are currently experiencing mean for the most vulnerable. In our research areas in Cape Town, women help us piece together that picture.

South Africa as a society continues to wrestle wit wrestle with the impact of decades of institutionalised racism, sexism, exclusion, structural violence, and other factors that undermine human development and social cohesion. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns were associated with a spike in gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide. Power, patriarchy, and a lack of participation in decision-making processes and structures remain the most significant obstacles to the realisation of food security. Here, hunger is a driver of social unrest and violence. It is a slow violence that damages the fibres of Cape Town’s social fabric. In 2020, in the first weeks of lockdown, the state temporarily closed down informal trade and, with it, the main source of food for vast swathes of the population. People lost their jobs and their access to cash to purchase what little food there was.Urban farmers were banned from traveling to their gardens.Again, women spearheaded change and re-established hope: their networks braided together to set up makeshift kitchens in private spaces where hot food was served daily, conversations bloomed, the shame of hunger started to dissolve, and dreams bigger than plates of soup took shape.

Women who run community kitchens all work from a place of lacking. They were raised in the context of a racist, sexist post-Apartheid South Africa and burdened with intergenerational poverty. For them, sharing a slice of bread with a sibling for dinner is not unusual. Most have experienced or been exposed to gender-based violence (GBV). Yet they continue to emerge through the thick of crises at home and in their communities to serve those in need, often grappling with the lack of boundaries between their roles as community members feeding their families, and kitchen managersfeedingtheir communities. These challenges evoke the feminist perspective that “the personal is political” and call upon resistance and reorganisation in times of social injustice and crisis. The women of Cape Town’s community kitchens rose to those challenges. Their community kitchens were of paramount importanceto their communities and continue to play multifunctional roles and enhance cohesion in Cape Town and other urban spaces around the world where similar schemes have developed. Herein lies a great chance for de-stigmatising and reimagining community kitchens, replacing the antiquated view of community kitchens as feeding schemes for the destitute. Reimagined, these kitchens could serve as places of learning, communication, sharing, healing, and recreation. Reimagined, the kitchen worker’s lives might not be dominated by the struggles to keep their families and communities alive. Reimagined, their worlds (and ours) might not be marked by inequity, violence, fear, and shame.

See the crises, understand the outcome, and act: Establishing community-based monitoring and applying a gendered perspective

During the pandemic, women in Cape Town critiqued governance meetings about COVID-19's impact on food and the poor for ignoring the voices of those most affected by hunger during the pandemic. They saw the day-to-day struggles but could only provide band-aids to stem the hunger, they knew that hunger was but a recurring symptom of a larger set of problems. Feminist approaches in food security research unearth the root causes of broken systems and power struggles and amplify marginalised voices normally excluded in mainstream food security research. In taking on this feminist research approach, the Urban Food Futures programme run by TMG Research, partners with community programmes and stakeholders such as these women community kitchen leaders and takes discourses about food security studies out of the sole possession of experts, embraces interdisciplinary exchange, and recognises the intersectionality of compounding issues. The Urban Food Future’s programme with its partner organisations will monitor crises through early warning systems and use their joint power to address key structural barrier to equity. Unsurprisingly, this is the same structural barrier to food insecurity that not only the women in Cape Town but communities all around the world grapple with.

Community kitchens often dish more than just a plate of food and play a crucial role in community cohesion. Photo: Caroline Peters

To dismantle this system and reclaim equity, we need to understand how it works in our neighbourhoods. Knowledge is power. Data is political. Yet, government and civil society organisations lack this information on low-income, informally organised communities and thus cannot act. These communities are essentially invisible to decision makers. Community monitoring dismantles the invisibility of communities living in informal settlements and low-income areas and brings their contributions to the surface. Having access to locally sourced and locally relevant data allows community networks, decision makers, and funders to better understand front-line realities during times of crises and to identify crucial community responses, such as the solidarity and perseverance of the women leading community kitchens. Monitoring enables critical functions such as advance tracking of signals of emerging crises, community asset mapping, crisis impact assessment, and intervention evaluation. Perhaps even more importantly, community-based monitoring empowers local actors with information and vocabularies required to assume their rightful positions as experts and agents of change within larger processes, enabling decision making and strengthening member capacity to engage in coordinated collaboration with other actors and city authorities.

“With pens and pots to parliament” is our approach to ground policy engagement processes within thorough community monitoring and research. It binds facts and figures to poetry, music, and hashtags and expands networks of like-intentioned people expressing information in all its forms to capture attention of the widest audience possible. It empowers our community kitchen workers with the data they need to advocate for themselves and their communities and paves a path for them to walk upon as they demand their rights to the world that they envision: one free from patriarchy and the onslaught of its symptoms: violence, hunger, and oppression.

Women's Day in South Africa also reminds us of the multiple crises. Rising food prices on the world market, high energy costs, but also local crises such as the high risk of gender-based violence

We move! We DALLA!!

Our community kitchen work’s expansion has steered our attention to the advocacy efforts of our community partners. In celebration of Women’s Day in South Africa, we highlight the work of the Callas’ DALLA movement.

On today’s Women’s Day, we see women in the Cape Flats, Cape Town’s low income area, advocating using the hashtag #Patrickmustfall. Who is Patrick? Patrick is patriarchy; the name chosen to symbolise patriarchy in South Africa. The feminist campaign, DALLA, pairs “Patrick” with “DALLA”: a powerful word used by gang members in Cape Town to encourage each other to immediate, intimidating, violent action that sends passersby fleeing.

As victims and recipients of DALLA for years, women and children are reclaiming the word as an act of resistance and have initiated the DALLA campaign with the Callas Foundation. The campaign gives a (female) voice to the demand to dismantle patriarchal society/systems and gender-based violence (GBV) in Cape Town. The campaigns sees women coming together to educate and heal each other, protect their vulnerable, enforce the law, and mobilise resources in the form of expertise, knowledge, food, and violence prevention. The women of DALLA reclaim the word and espouse it with a new meaning:

  • Deliberate:We are deliberate in our actions, thinking, and behaviours. We are determined to change the effects of GBV in our communities.

  • Action:We are committed to educating and creating awareness workshops and expert training on GBV. We involve all stakeholders.

  • Leading:We lead by example.We will not stop until we reach as many women and children from all corners and walks of life as possible.

  • Liberation:“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change; I am changing the things I cannot accept.” Angela Davis

  • Awareness: There is power in awareness – Knowledge is power! WOMANDLA

Top picture caption: Body break during TMG’s community kitchen workshop. Photo: Adelaide Cupido The research is part of the Urban Food Futures programme, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

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