Just making a cup of tea was expensive in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted life for many South Africans, not only through illness and lockdown restrictions, but also in their pockets. Yet, even as the prices dropped and restrictions eased, new data shows South Africans still struggled to afford basic goods.

While food prices reached a record high last year, the start of 2021saw prices of carrots, potatoes and onions dropping by between 30% and 15% year-on-year in December.

The continued lockdown meant that many people had reduced incomes, and therefore could not afford to buy as much food as before, according to an ABSA bank analysis of food production costs. This saw the price of food decrease, especially fresh produce.

The prices of carrots and cabbage decreased, but it was the potato that saw the lowest dip in prices. Potato prices dropped by 8.1% in January in part because lockdown curfews meant late night bars and restaurants sold fewer chips.

“This week potato prices declined despite lower volumes,” ABSA said in its Agribusiness report. “This is attributable to weak demand and quality issues. Potato quality has also dropped due to high rains and sudden heat. Tomato prices, in turn, increased considerably week-on-week due to lower volumes, while onion volumes changed marginally, and prices showed a corresponding change.”

Potato price bar graph

Potato Prices fluctuating

“The overall fresh produce industry is therefore feeling the pressure as demand is not as high as expected over this season. The apparent slump in demand is due to the adjusted level 3 lockdown, combined with consumer incomes being under severe pressure,” said the report. “Restrictions on the hospitality industry, where restaurants are receiving less customers are also contributing to weak demand.”

The effects of the second wave

In the Cape Town Market, traders have watched the prices of their goods go up and down. One of the largest and oldest fresh produce markets in South Africa, it’s an ideal barometer for what is happening in many South Africans’ pockets.

Regarded as an essential service, the market did not experience supply chain issues and better rains have further improved supply, said market board member Sherwyn Thompson.

“The cost of garlic and ginger has gone up tremendously,” said Thompson.

In a bid to boost their immune systems during this second wave of infections, many have turned to natural remedies.

Mitchell’s Plain resident Aabidah Prins said she used to pay R10 for a small pack of garlic and ginger at the local butchery. Now she pays R30.

Even if prices lowered marginally, South Africans had less to spend in large part due to the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown.

“I strongly believe South Africa’s whole economy is overpriced and that it is designed to keep people’s wallets maxed out,” said Mitchell’s Plain resident, Alroy Brown.

Poverty worse due to pandemic

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africans already battled with poverty. As many as 6.6 million people experienced hunger during 2018, according to the Statistics SA 2018 General Household Survey.

The data released by Stats SA shows that 15.7% of households within metropolitan areas have experienced inadequate or severely inadequate access to food during the previous year, with the City of Cape Town (27.5%) being listed as one of the most common areas. Further, women are more impoverished with a headcount of 58.6% as opposed to 54.9% for males.

In October last year, as South Africans felt the economic effects of the pandemic, the price of food and non-alcoholic beverages increased by 5.4%, according to Statistics South Africa. This is the largest annual increase since September 2017 when South Africa was the country was dealing with a drought.

The statistics body recorded some of the largest annual prices for November 2020 and these included fruit (13.9%); sugar, sweets and deserts (9.7%), oils and fats (9.7%), milk, eggs and cheese (6.5%). Making a cup of tea cost more during the pandemic: the cost of black tea went up by 10.4%, while the price of white sugar jumped by 13.9%.

Adding milk to your tea would have been even more expensive, since the price of full-cream long-life milk went up by 10.4%. Just boiling the water was also more expensive: the cost of electricity and water both went up by 6%, according to StatsSA.—Health-e News