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Are there 13, 14 or 15 million hungry people in South Africa?

This article is more than 8 years old

Calling for an end to the “hunger crisis” which sees “14 million people going to bed hungry”, the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign plans to hold a bread march against hunger in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday.

Claims about the number of hungry people in South Africa appear to bounce around this figure.

Earlier this year Democratic Alliance member of parliament, Kevin Mileham, claimed that “15 million people in South Africa are already unable to feed themselves on a daily basis”. Former trade union leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, claimed that the number stands at 13 million.

What does the most recent data show? We took a look.

‘A dynamic and complex phenomenon’

A vendor sells vegetables at the Alexandra township, near Johannesburg, in 2010. Photo: AFP/Monirul Bhuiyan
A vendor sells vegetables at the Alexandra township, near Johannesburg, in 2010. Photo: AFP/Monirul Bhuiyan" />

Estimating the number of hungry people in South Africa isn’t an easy task, according to the experts.

“Big numbers like these are useful politically to communicate the urgency and seriousness of food insecurity,” says Florian Kroll, a food systems researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Siyakhana Initiative for Ecological Health and Food Security.

“But any such number is constantly shifting as food insecurity is a dynamic and complex phenomenon.”

This is partly because hunger is a subjective feeling. Understandings of hunger and the level of discomfort associated with it varies between different people and sectors of society.

“It’s a very qualitative measurement - it’s not like you’re counting televisions,” Professor Nelia Steyn, head of the University of Cape Town’s division of human nutrition, told Africa Check.

26% of households reported hunger

Africa Check was unable to find a study which concluded that 13, 14 or 15 million people in South Africa reported experiencing hunger.

The 2012 South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimated that 26% of households were “experiencing hunger”. A further 28.3% were “at risk of hunger” while the remaining 45.6% had food security.

“But that 26% is in terms of households, not in terms of people,” cautioned Steyn.

Determining how many hungry people there are in South Africa is not as straightforward as calculating 26% of the population. (Note: This is possibly how figures of around 14 million emerged - 26% of South Africa’s current estimated population of 55 million is 14.3 million.)

But such a calculation is not correct according to senior research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, Dr Zandile Mchiza.  

“It is important to note that not everyone in one household will experience the same vulnerability,” Mchiza told Africa Check.

“Some individuals could be going to bed without food, some could be having less than recommended amounts of food while some could be just fine.”

An example of this, she said, was parents sacrificing food so that their children would not go hungry.

7 million people experienced hunger

A South African beggar on a street in Johannesburg in 2005. Photo: AFP/Fati Moalusi
A South African beggar on a street in Johannesburg in 2005. Photo: AFP/Fati Moalusi" />

Both Steyn and Mchiza recommended that data from the general household survey carried out by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) be used to verify the claim.

“Currently we have to trust the Stats SA data since it is the only survey that keeps track of what is happening in the country,” Mchiza said.

The yearly survey includes questions that measure the feeling of hunger at the individual and household level.

Respondents are asked whether anyone in the household went hungry in the last year because there wasn’t enough food. A person is considered to be experiencing hunger if they answer “sometimes”, “often” or “always” to this question.

In 2014, Stats SA reported that 1,760,946 households (11.4% of all households) “contained an adult or a child that reported going hungry in the past 12 months”. But, as Steyn and Mchiza explained, this does not mean that everyone in the household went hungry.

At the individual level, just over 7 million individuals (13.1% of the population) reported experiencing hunger in the last year.

Hunger at household and individual level has declined substantially since Stats SA started measuring it in 2002. That year 13,422,028 people (29.3%) reported experiencing hunger.

‘More sensitive measure of food access’

Measuring the subjective feeling of hunger - which may vary between households and people - doesn’t reveal the state of food access in the country.

Because of this Stats SA asks the following eight questions as part of the general household survey which they say “provides a slightly more sensitive measure of food access than the question on hunger”:

  1. Did your household run out of money to buy food during the past 12 months?

  2.  Has it happened 5 or more days in the past 30 days?

  3. Did you cut the size of meals during the past 12 months because there was not enough food in the house?

  4. Has it happened 5 or more days in the past 30 days? 

  5. Did you skip any meals during the past 12 months because there was not enough food in the house?

  6. Has it happened 5 or more times in the past 30 days?

  7.  Did you eat a smaller variety of foods during the past 12 months than you would have liked to, because there was not enough food in the house?

  8. Has it happened 5 or more times in the past 30 days?

If someone answers yes to two or less of these questions they are considered to have adequate food access. Answering yes to between three and five questions means that the person has inadequate food access. Someone has severely inadequate food access if they answer yes to between six and eight questions.

In 2014, 39,625,431 people (73.8%) reported having adequate food access, 10,552,594 people (19.7%) reported having inadequate food access and 3,508,335 people (6.5%) reported severely inadequate food access.

However, the 14,060,929 people reporting inadequate or severely inadequate food access should not automatically be assumed to be experiencing hunger.

“Many people are able to avoid the worst hunger by reducing dietary quality,” Kroll said.

He said this is commonly done by eating more cheap refined carbohydrates and low-quality oils and meats.

Conclusion: Hunger estimates half of what is claimed

There is no evidence to support claims that 13, 14 or 15 million people are experiencing hunger in South Africa.

A 2014 nationally representative survey revealed that there were 7 million individuals who reported experiencing feeling hungry.

The same survey also measured food access. Based on this assessment, 14,060,929 people (26.2%) reported that they did not have adequate food access. However, experts say it should not be assumed that they were experiencing hunger.

Edited by Anim van Wyk


Additional Reading

Deputy president’s speech downplayed the level of child hunger in South Africa (2014)

Do 12 Africans die of hunger every minute? The claim is exaggerated (2013)

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