- Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa
Measured in terms of the distribution of household income, South Africa has had, and continues to have, among the greatest disparity between wealthy and poor anywhere in the contemporary world. Among black South Africans the unemployment rate averages more than forty per cent; in many rural areas the rate tops seventy per cent. The violence and tyranny of everyday poverty remain a pervasive feature of the social landscape: grossly inadequate housing, water and sanitation; disease, malnutrition and infant death; alcoholism, broken families, sexual violence; extraordinarily uneven and usually woefully deficient access to healthcare. Three quarters of poor live in rural areas. Most recently South Africa [End Page 802] faces among the world’s worst HIV/AIDS crisis, with infection rates in parts of the country reaching a staggering thirty per cent of the population.
Starving on a Full Stomach provides many useful insights on the politics of poverty over nearly two centuries of historical change. Wylie is interested less in the economics of poverty but, rather, in the tangled history of how people defined what it meant to be poor, hungry, and sick. Wylie is particularly concerned with the concepts and percepts of people in positions of power and authority, bureaucrats and specialists, and the ways in which hunger and sickness came to be constituted as a problem deserving of state action or inaction. This, then, is primarily a cultural history of power and representation over matters of life and death, the role of race in the making of a catastrophe.
Divided into seven chapters and four parts, Starving on a Full Stomach begins with a brief discussion of diet and hunger in the late precolonial and early colonial eras, in the period before systemic poverty and widespread destitution. Here the data are tantalizing and incomplete. We know, for example, that much of South Africa is prone to drought. We know also that the agricultural cycle included lean months when people worried about the rains and wondered if this would be a year of plenty or scarcity. Inexplicably, Wylie does not discuss the early and widespread adoption of maize, an American crop, which had and continues to have extraordinary implications for people’s health. Particularly as other sources of protein declined in the colonial period, dependence on maize quite literally created a situation in which children starved on a full stomach. Greater attention to the agricultural history of the precolonial era might have offered important clues to understanding the political economy of maize that Wylie examines in later chapters.
Wylie is on better footing when she analyzes the twentieth century when systemic poverty and widespread malnutrition came to characterize large areas of the country. Starving on a Full Stomach focuses especially on three issues: the early definition of the causes of malnutrition within the context of a paternalistic state; the increasing ascendency of scientific and social scientific expertise; and, finally, the ways in which the state intervened or decided against intervening in African communities. In each case Wylie usefully explores the ways in which racial ideology shaped and reshaped the production of knowledge and state policy. Wylie, for example, points out how ideas about race—some crude, others seemingly quite sophisticated—blinded people from developing a more complex understanding of social problems such as malnutrition, infant mortality, and tuberculosis. She ends by pointing out just how centrally important science came to be in the creation of a racist authoritarian state.
Over the past few years historians have begun writing the history of development, particularly in the period after the end of the Second World War. Starving on a Full Stomach is principally intended for historians of South Africa. However the book also should be read as a contribution to the emerging literature on how people and institutions come to define others as poor, as objects of science, as worthy or unworthy of help.