Unquestionably, the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on all facets of human life. From an overwhelmed healthcare employment, from fractured social relations to civil unrest and instability, no part of the human experience in South Africa and globally has been left unaffected by the virus. However, Covid-19 did not affect all segments of the population equally and those classed within marginalized social and economic groups were particularly vulnerable to the detrimental effects of the pandemic and lockdown restrictions. In case the vast inequalities in South Africa were not sufficiently obvious, the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the unjust and inequitable structures that failed those not safely situated in the upper-middle class.
South Africa currently has a Gini coefficient of 63 and is ranked as one of the most unequal countries in the world. This inequality- while co-constructed by the new political elite- is a legacy of apartheid legislation and colonialism that relegated anyone not classified as white to poverty and landlessness- albeit at varying degrees of dispossession. Income remains heavily skewed along racial lines that have significant social ramifications, including access to education, quality healthcare, and the ability to meet one’s basic material needs. The reality of unequal, unjust and socially fragmented communities is one that the IJR is intimately acquainted with.
Last year, the Social Change Model project held a series of webinars with its IJR ambassadors across the country in its effort to 1) better comprehend how the pandemic affected its stakeholders, and 2) equip itself to adequately respond to the needs expressed by each community. Each individual spoke from their experiences and personal observations and addressed issues that related specifically to poverty and food insecurity. It’s worth noting that the Social Change Model project works in historically disadvantaged communities that were particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
Earlier this year, the Youth Identity project, also, held dialogue workshops in Calitzdorp that sought to uncover the unique ways Covid-19 had impacted young people’s lives: their sense of self, their mental well-being, their priorities, and their opportunities for growth and development. The stories that emerged from that workshop told a grim tale of poverty, hunger, and harsh limitations. However, young people were not hopeless, but eager and itching to turn their predicament into an opportunity for social and economic progress. Where opportunities for active citizenship presented themselves- in soup kitchens and assisting young children with their homework- young people in Calitzdorp were eager to participate.
As the Social Change Model and Youth Identity project teams, we were acutely aware that our dialoguing workshops- while necessary- were not enough. We, then, sought to mitigate against the adverse impact of the pandemic while remaining true to our niche and expertise. It’s important to note here that neither project imposes its will on communities, and instead chooses to consult with IJR ambassadors and other stakeholders about how best we can support and capacitate them. Thus, following multiple consultations with stakeholders, businesses and non-profit companies on alleviating poverty and food insecurity, we agreed on the construction of household food gardens. The idea landed well- better than the team anticipated- and we knew we struck gold. Buy-in and consent from all parties involved are important to the sustainability of a project and important to the kind of impact that will be made.
On 26 August 2021 the Social Change Model and Youth Identity projects, in collaboration with IJR ambassadors in Calitzdorp and partnership with Seed to Harvest, piloted the IJR’s first household garden project in five households. It is a hybrid garden system that employs two gardening apparatuses, namely: the vertical system and the box system. The vertical system is mainly intended for growing vegetables, like spinach and celery, that don’t require a lot of space and can then be planted in a string of pockets that are hung on the wall. The box system, which is on the ground, is bigger and intended to hold plants that are heavier and require more space to grow, like carrots and beetroot. It took the team a good day to set up the gardens at each household and plant the vegetables, but it was a rewarding experience for each person involved. Every team member, every ambassador and their household were involved in the setup and sowing of seeds. Already, the carrots have begun to sprout and IJR ambassadors are speaking of sharing and trading their produce with each other!
To the delight of the team, the set-up of the gardens did not only signify an advancement toward food security and nutrition in the households where it stood. It, also, pointed toward the restoration of fractured relationships. One youth ambassador, who had a particularly difficult relationship with their mother, asked her to join them in planting the vegetables. As she assisted them, the two of them spoke about the plant itself and where to place it, and of the harvest, they would reap once the plant matured. It is our hope that in the planting and caring for vegetables, that they nurture their own relationship and mend the parts that need healing.
 An IJR ambassador is a person identified by the Social Change Model project as a community member who practices active citizenship and encourages others to do the same. This person is trained by the IJR to execute the mission of the organisation in their specific community.
Danielle Hoffmeester, Project Leader in Sustained Dialogues at IJR