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Counting the Cost of the South African Riot: Food Shortage is Here

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The Economy of South Africans are expected to face major food shortages following days of violent unrest across two key provinces, as rioters upend supply chains by looting supermarkets and torching goods trucks.

Footage of empty or sparse grocery-store shelves has been a staple of local news reports since the weekend, while chains such as Shoprite Holdings Ltd.and Pick n Pay Stores Ltd. closed many outlets altogether. In parts of Durban, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal city at the center of the upheaval, long queues formed outside the few open food shops and basics such as bread and milk were in short supply.

“Food is going to be a problem because shops haven’t been open for three days and many with bulk storage have been looted,” according to various sources from Durban and Gauteng.

The unrest started as a protests against the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma, but soon degenerated into deadly and destructive rampages in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the economic hub. Rioters pilfered food, electronic goods and medical supplies from at least 800 stores, and retailers have lost an estimated 5 billion rand ($340 million) to date, according to the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, an unprecedented amount.

The Beer Association of South Africa called for a state of emergency after two SABMiller Africa and Asia Pty. Ltd. depots in KwaZulu-Natal were looted and set alight and Heineken N.V.’s warehouse was ransacked.

“There is a fear that the other three remaining SAB facilities in the province will also be targeted,” Nicole Mirkin, spokeswoman for the Beer Association, said in a statement.

Over 600 retail and liquor stores have been damaged and in some cases destroyed, according to reports received by the industry body. Heineken, the world’s second largest brewer, is in talks to buy South African wine and spirits maker Distell Group Holdings Ltd, according to Bloomberg reports in May.

Trucks Destroyed

More than 35 trucks have been destroyed, with a cost to logistics firms of at least 300 million rand and counting, the Road Freight Association estimates. That’s led to the closing of a key highway between Durban and Johannesburg, cutting off the flow of food and other essential goods from the country’s biggest port to its most populous city.

Citrus farmers are in mid-export season and are among those unable to harvest and transport their produce, Christo van der Rheede, executive director of AgriSA, said in an interview. Sugarcane fields have been razed and livestock stolen, and commitments on exports that bring in crucial foreign exchange and support jobs may not be met, he said.

“South Africans are very fortunate to receive fresh fruit, fresh meat, fresh vegetables on a daily basis,” he said. “If these supply chains are disrupted, there won’t be fresh produce in stores and people will have to rely on frozen supplies. But what do we do if we run out of that as well?”

The food crisis is developing more than 18 months into a coronavirus pandemic that’s led to a spike in hunger around the world. As many as 811 million people — about a 10th of the global population — were undernourished in 2020, the United Nations said in a report on Monday.

 Food inflation in the country hit 6.8% in May, the fastest pace in almost five years.

While the crisis may have its roots in support for Zuma, the scale of the outbreak has also been linked to years of poor government services and a record unemployment rate of 32.6%. South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, underlying a high crime rate, and President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday described the violence as “opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft.”

A small blessing is that the riots are localized in two specific provinces, but the problem will escalate if the violence spreads, said Van der Rheede. If that happens, the country’s entire food logistics network would be jeopardized.

“The last thing that we want is for South Africans to experience hunger, food shortages and starvation,” he said.

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