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Appetite for dignity

- Vishwas Satgar and Jane Cherry

Despite efforts to address hunger at Wits, ad hoc food security interventions cannot keep pace with increasing numbers of hungry students.

The Food Sovereignty Centre at Wits not only empowers and dignifies food-stressed Witsies but is also a model of how to shift beyond food security initiatives to food sovereignty alternatives.

The Inala Forum marching against bread cartels. © Curiosity |  

While interventions such as feeding schemes on campus are necessary in the short term, they don’t offer sustainable solutions for food-stressed students. Add climate change to the mix, and the future for hungry students is even bleaker. Our natural food-producing systems are unravelling and hunger is increasing. 

Finding sustainable solutions to hunger, climate change, and environmental degradation involves tackling the root of the crises. Advocates of food sovereignty and climate justice identify systemic causes – and solutions lie not in existing ‘business as usual’ trajectories, but rather in community, ecological and people-based alternatives. 

The Food Sovereignty Centre at Wits provides a pathway for such alternatives on campus and the inner city of Johannesburg. 

Food sovereignty takes root at Wits 

Food sovereignty refers to a food system in which the right to food is affirmed through control by small scale farmers and consumers to ensure agro-ecological food production, solidarity economy relations, healthy and culturally appropriate food. 

A series of factors and events culminated in what became the Food Sovereignty Centre at Wits. These include the formation of a student-led food sovereignty and climate justice forum, which students in the International Relations class at Wits organised. The forum was formalised as a student society, the Inala Forum, in 2015. Inala is isiZulu for ‘abundance’. 

Another factor was a march in 2016 against high food prices. Here Inala, the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC – a grassroots NGO), and the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC) handed over a memorandum to University management. The memorandum highlighted the plight of hunger in our universities and the need for Wits to support the call for a zero waste, zero hunger, and zero carbon institution. 

A central demand of the memorandum was a space of dignity for food-stressed students whom the Wits Community Citizenship and Outreach (WCCO) programme supports. The WCCO runs a feeding scheme, which provides more than 1 000 hot meals to students daily, and a food bank, which provides students with non-perishables. The University subsequently earmarked the Sanctuary Building on Braamfontein Campus East for a Food Sovereignty Centre. 

Food for thought too 

Inala, the WCCO, and COPAC have since deepened their collaborative efforts to establish the Food Sovereignty Centre and its composite parts. A food garden that Inala initiated on campus in 2015 now supplements the WCCO’s food bank with spinach, carrots, onions and cabbage. Earlier this year, COPAC and Wits signed a memorandum of agreement to bring about the first eco-centric university in South Africa. 

The Wits Food Sovereignty Centre is organising and enabling the food sovereignty pathway at Wits. The centre is a pilot to advance and model eco-centric practices for the University, other higher education institutions, and society. 

It comprises three spaces: 

  • A community engagement and eco-demonstration space advances learning about climate justice and agro-ecology. The building is being renovated to embody the principles of eco-centric living and will model water harvesting, renewable energy, insulation, waste recycling and sustainable architectural design and building materials. Fruit orchards and agro-ecology gardens are being established and another 20 food gardens are planned.
  • A space of dignity for food-stressed students, is managed by these students and includes a communal kitchen and culturally appropriate food preparation space. The first communal kitchen was launched this year and a student-led initiative to recover indigenous foods and local recipes is envisaged. There is already an outdoor communal eating space and fundraising initiatives are underway for modular kitchens and covered areas for students to eat. The communal kitchens and eating spaces represent a food sovereignty alternative to the fast food sold on campuses.
  • The purpose of the support space is to advance food sovereignty in society. A weekly Wits community market involving about 20 rooftop and inner city farmers is envisaged. An eco-centric building, including a seed bank, an indigenous and South African food archive, and a training space for agro-ecology is planned. The latter will be linked to the 20 other agro-ecology gardens mapped and planned for the University.


  • Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor in International Relations at Wits. An activist for more than three decades, he is currently co-designing the food sovereignty space for food insecure Wits students in order to advance an eco-centric university.
  • Jane Cherry is the Executive Manager at the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC). She obtained her Master’s in Development Studies (Wits, 2015), which focussed on food sovereignty in South Africa. Through COPAC, Jane has been involved in the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Wits Food Sovereignty Centre. She has worked on activist tools (seed saving, water sovereignty, a People’s Food Sovereignty Act, and sustainable land use), and has organised national events for food sovereignty and climate justice.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the sixth issue, themed: #HungerGames where our researchers and academics unpack the latest research on food security, food science, food politics and governance, nutrition and food-related issues such as obesity, diets, breastfeeding, and body image.