The small businessman who took on the bread cartel

The struggle over the price of bread in South Africa is the struggle for adequate nourishment, and securing the right of the poor to flourish.

Still from the film.

In late 2006 Imraahn Mukaddam, a local businessman, is told by his supplier that the price of bread is going up by 30 cents, and that all the other suppliers would also be raising the price by the same amount. Faced with possible destitution and the knowledge of the flagrant swindling of the public, he decides to report them all to the authorities, launching a legal battle that continues until today. The central theme of the documentary is that challenging the costing of bread has taken a huge toll on Mukaddam’s life, yet the bread suppliers continue to thrive, unhindered despite paying fines ranging between R45 million and R1 billion rand.  The film, “Crumbs–Toppling the Bread Cartel,” is the inside story of  Mukaddam’s fight for social justice and the personal cost of blowing the whistle on corporate greed.

“Crumbs,” written and directed by local filmmakers Dante Greeff and Richard Finn Gregory (recently premiered at the 2014 Encounters Documentary Film Festival in Cape Town.

Here’s the trailer:

While focusing on Mukaddam’s personal trials the documentary tries to emphasize how artificial price inflation feeds into issues of corporate ethics and food security. We are told about South Africa’s entrenched history of corporate collusion and corruption—a system that really is built on a culture of theft, as one media expert puts it. This is reflected in the findings of the country’s Competition Commission, which showed that “between 1994 and 2006 (local bread companies) Tiger, Premier, Pioneer and various independent bakeries increased bread prices “by similar amounts at or about the same time”, and between 1999 and 2001 agreed to close certain bakeries.”

The film also shows how price inflation disrupts the food security of the poor, revealing the ethical dimension to this sociological problem. They use vox pops to let ordinary working class folks tell us, in all colors of the Cape linguistic spectrum, about their dependence on bread and its burden on their pocket. There are solutions and alternatives. We are introduced to a community working plots of land cultivating greens for Abalami Bezekhaya, and talking heads who opine about food solidarity rather than food security, and government’s drive for one household, one garden.

The struggle over the price of bread is the struggle over adequate nourishment, and securing the right of the poor to flourish. Imraahn Mukaddam’s struggle therefore concerns a struggle for human rights. And it’s a task as monumental as the grain silos of Pioneer Foods in Salt River. But he finds help from a number of NGO’s lawyers and organisations who rally around him for change. They make for a refreshing cast of characters.

This is also a story about rampant inequality. And Crumbs succeeds in showing this by crafting its narrative against the stark mise-en-scene of social life in Cape Town. Images slice between the rust and dust of townships and the vintage chic of the inner city; shots of diners delighting in the cornucopia of artisanal food at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, and the hungry and homeless enjoying their basic, bland 5 cent meals, not far away at the Service Dinning Rooms in the inner city.

This angle is also the documentary’s weakness. Sometimes it comes off as smarmy, overwrought. And it does so through eyes familiar with a landscape that others may find difficult to interpret. The sentiment reaches its zenith in a religious theme explored towards the end, one that amplifies an appeal to morality that does not cut it when fighting corporate nemeses.

Mukaddam is a fighter. His is a story is about working the levers of the law to compel corporates unswayed by such appeals to sentiment. It’s about risking financial ruin in pursuit of changing an unjust economic system. It’s a story that resonates in post-apartheid South Africa.

And his struggle goes on. The bread cartel may have been toppled but economic justice was not equitably met. But there is a bit of a happy ending. In 2013, Mukaddam got a break when the Constitutional Court ruled in his favor for a class action suit. It opened the way for distributers and retailers affected by the collusion to sue the bread suppliers. Through pioneering this legal action they may yet force the hand of corporates unwilling to share their sometimes ill-gotten wealth.

* Go check out the film, the project online, and support Mukaddam’s work at Consumer Fair and Cape Town TV.

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