When the impact of the listeriosis outbreak is eventually analysed, it is quite possible that the township economy will be mentioned only as a footnote in official reports. Even though the actual cause of the deadly outbreak was discovered when children were admitted to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, located in South Africa’s biggest township, Soweto, the actual source of the bacterial epidemic was traced to a factory in Polokwane, in Limpopo, that is owned by Tiger Brands.
The link between the outbreak and the Tiger Brands factory was announced by Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi in February. Before that announcement, there was a lot of optimism for the township economy. Earlier in the month, Gauteng Premier David Makhura had, for the third year running, reiterated the need for the township economy to be at the centre of efforts to tackle the rampant youth unemployment that is ravaging South Africa. One could tell from Makhura’s State of the Province address that the powers that be had finally come to the realisation that relying on the private sector as the sole creator of employment was misplaced. Although Makhura did not give the specifics of how this would be achieved, his alluding to feasibility studies on a provincial State-owned bank aimed at funding township businesses was serious talk indeed.
Makhura could not have put it better when he said: “If Gauteng is the hub of South Africa’s economy, the townships are the heartbeat of Gauteng. I dream of the townships being spaces where there is a vibrant culture and dynamic local economies underpinned by state-of-the-art infrastructure.” The need for real jobs and affordable transport in the townships were also mentioned. But I bet that even he could not have foreseen the overnight devastation wrought on the township economy by listeriosis.
All efforts to pump investments into the fragile township economy have to take into account the reality that, at present, this economy is essentially a consumerist one, which is based on goods being brought into the townships for sale at retail outlets, with very little manufacturing or the rendering of services taking place. This is why, when the retail logistics value chain is disrupted, the entire township economy feels the pinch.
Every township in Gauteng has an outlet that is known for excellence is supplying the signature township fast food, the kota, which can be loosely described as the township burger – minus the beef, fish or chicken patty. It is a combination of bread, slap chips and various cold meats. The cold meats are what differentiate one kota from another. And it is in this connection that listeriosis devastated the township economy. Mbopha Kota, Swazi Inn and Corner Butchery – all businesses supplying kotas – felt an immediate pinch the minute Motsoaledi revealed that the more than 180 people around the country who had died of listeriosis had most likely consumed cold meats manufactured at the Enterprise plant in Polokwane. The mere mention of the word ‘polony’ brought a significant percentage of the township economy to its knees.
Overnight, spaza shops that were solely dependent on selling kotas stopped trading. The cause of death had been ‘placed directly inside the kota’ – the polony. All those who sell kotas know that, without cold meats, a kota is not a kota. The customers also know that, but, more than that, they are not prepared to take the risk of dying of listeriosis by eating kotas that contain polony. On the other hand, the entrepreneurs cannot bring themselves to trading in ‘deadly goods’ after Motsoaledi’s announcement.
In hindsight, when it made its announcement, the Department of Health should have highlighted that cold meats from companies like Eskort were not implicated in the listerio- sis outbreak. It could have been communicated that ‘cooking’ the cold meats at very high temperatures – which is what most kota traders do – does get rid of the bacterium. But, given that 180 lives had been lost to the outbreak already, the Minister had to err on the side of caution. And that is what brought a whole township ‘industry’ to a standstill overnight.