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No space at the table for food communing

- Ufrieda Ho

Food commons promote returning food (and access to it) to a place where food exists for the public good, rather than to benefit private, commercial interests.

When John Lennon famously imagined a world with no need for greed or hunger, it was a political statement – also a pipedream. Nearly a half a century since the 1971 hit song became an anthem to imagine a better world, greed and hunger remain at the table even as the ideal of food commoning is yet to pull up a chair.

The Wits Inala Forum, a student society. © Lauren Mulligan |

Agencies like the United Nations World Food Programme continue to highlight the fact that global food production sufficiently meets food demands. There is enough food, yet one in nine people (about 817 million individuals) go hungry and a much higher share do not get the minimally nutritious food required to live healthily. 

This perversion in our modern industrialised food systems is an unsettling truth. It is the reality of cityscapes dotted with fast-food joints and petrol station food stops, but hardly a traffic light without a beggar desperate for food or a few coins. It is also the occurance of people who are simultaneously obese and malnourished. 

In recent years, the idea of a ‘food commons’ has emerged as pushback to society’s warped structures. Food commons promote the idea of returning food (and access to it) to a place where food exists for the public good, rather than to benefit private, commercial interests. Food commoning seeks to dismantle the commodification of food and to make food and access to food, water, and fertile land more freely accessible. 

Food commoning initiatives can take various shapes. These include food co-operatives, urban food gardens, reducing food waste, finding markets for “ugly” produce, restaurants for the poor, food banks, and activism fighting for higher minimum wages and improved working conditions for the most vulnerable. 

The politics of communing 

Commoning is inevitably political though, and comes with both pitfalls and potential, says Patrick Bond, Professor of Political Economy in the Wits School of Governance. Bond co-authored a chapter in the upcoming Routledge Handbook of Food as a Commons with Mary Galvin from the University of Johannesburg. They write in their chapter entitled, Water, Food and Climate Commoning in South African Cities: Contradictions and Prospects that “Commoning is not simply a matter of technicist collective resource management, but a political ideology in which socio-ecological contradictions inevitably emerge”. 

Modern humans are fighting to adapt to societal and environmental pressure and as some of these fights intersect and overlap, there is increasing fragmentation and competing agendas – even among activists themselves. It comes with a loss of ideology that goes against the grain of commoning. 

In Johannesburg, for example, Bond says property rights and ratepayers’ rights are defended to the exclusion of accommodating people who don’t fit the category of land owner and those with municipal bills in their names. 

“People as a result are locked out based on race and class. Finding well-located land to live on or to grow food on is almost impossible,” says Bond. He doesn’t believe cities need to be so exclusionary, pointing out that across our border in Harare, there is an enduring tradition of informal vegetable gardens on land commons throughout the Zimbabwean capital. 

Bond and Galvin write: “Given the history of land and food in South Africa, and the dominance of privately owned lands and commercial farming, land remains a struggle around which people make demands for reparations … But food farming itself rarely moves past material concerns into ideological ones”. 

Breaking bread (but business first) 

But even if the ideology of commoning seems vaguely formed, the reality of a food crisis with its tangle of associated socio-ecological calamities is patently clear, says Jacklyn Cock, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at Wits. 

“South African food systems serve the rich and powerful who engage in corrupt practices like price-fixing bread and ‘plumping’ [injecting water into chicken carcasses], even though bread and chicken are staple foods for 65% of our population, who are poor. This reflects a food system which is unjust, unsustainable due to climate change, and unsafe due to genetically modified organisms.” 

Cock echoes Bond’s point that the greatest challenge of food commoning is to reverse the “intense individualism of neo-liberalism, which inhibits sharing". Cock calls it the “Me First” affliction. 

Common ground 

Still, there are success stories, even if they may not tick all the ideological boxes. Professor Michael Rudolph, founder and director of the Siyakhana Initiative in Bez Valley, in Johannesburg’s eastern suburbs, says their urban food garden has grown over the last 13 years. It began in 2005 as a 5 metre by 5 metre vegetable patch and now it’s a one-hectare farm, with other sites being developed. 

“We are about growing healthy food and also about using research, advocacy, training and social entrepreneurship to fight the hunger and poverty crisis in the country,” says Rudolph, whose background is in community dentistry and he was previously director of the Wits Health Consortium

Rudolph adds that the project has been able to reach people through providing food for vulnerable families, education about water and energy conservation and raising awareness about ecology, health and nutrition. 

“Siyakhana has become a tangible platform to engage with farmers and growers and their families, school children who visit, researchers from universities across the world, corporate representatives, and local and provincial government policy makers,” says Rudolph.

Siyakhana keeps evolving – even this is necessary adaptation and resilience. The next phase, says Rudolph, is to build their human capacity, increase their social media presence and streamline models for replication at different sites. 

The garden is a small example of food commoning, but its small multiple strands pulling together that weave a stronger human-environment web – exactly what growing the common good looks like. 

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance journalist. 
  • 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.