Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea

Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea

by Sarah Fleming Ives


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South African rooibos tea is a commodity of contrasts. Renowned for its healing properties, the rooibos plant grows in a region defined by the violence of poverty, dispossession, and racism. And while rooibos is hailed as an ecologically indigenous commodity, it is farmed by people who struggle to express “authentic” belonging to the land: Afrikaners, who espouse a “white” African indigeneity, and “coloureds,” who are characterized either as the mixed-race progeny of “extinct” Bushmen or as possessing a false identity, indigenous to nowhere. In Steeped in Heritage Sarah Ives explores how these groups advance alternate claims of indigeneity based on the cultural ownership of an indigenous plant. This heritage-based struggle over rooibos shows how communities negotiate landscapes marked by racial dispossession within an ecosystem imperiled by climate change and precarious social relations in the postapartheid era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369868
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/27/2017
Series: New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century Series
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sarah Ives is a lecturer and postdoctoral fellow in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University.

Read an Excerpt



If the Khoisan discovered rooibos, there's no record of it. — WHITE ROOIBOS FARMER

"Rooibos is not new. For generations we have known the benefits," Johan, a coloured rooibos farmer, said, wiping the sweat from his brow as he lifted up his hat. His dusty fingerprints almost covered the hat's message: "I Love Jesus." He placed the hat back on his head, sighed, and continued, "Our forefathers, the Khoisan people ... we didn't document; we knew for generations." We sat together in the shade of the church steeple, trying to find relief from the ever-present heat of the November sun. The town was nearly empty, with only a few children laughing and playing as their grandmothers watched them. Most of the adults had moved to the city or to surrounding farms, leaving their children behind. Those who remained tried to make a living out of remittances or government subsidies or farming the overworked soil.

Johan asserted a cultural heritage linked to the Khoisan and to their Indigenous knowledge of rooibos farming. Yet these Indigenous explanations were far from straightforward. When I spoke with adults who had left the community to work on nearby farms, many laughed and said, "We are not Khoisan." However, white Afrikaans farmers often claimed a cultural and even biological connection to the ecosystem and a personal attachment to rooibos farming so strong that they felt their blood was mingled with the soil. "People are born rooibos farmers," Kobus, an Afrikaans farmer, explained. "It is who they are." The question of who exactly represented the native population and who exactly were the original cultivators of rooibos remained contentious among the residents of the tea-growing area.

This chapter explores how residents negotiated and narrated their belonging in the rooibos region through stories that link their subjectivities to an indigenous plant in complex and at times unexpected ways. As the tea shifted from a native plant to a national beverage to a global commodity, local inhabitants — both coloured and Afrikaans — came to understand it differently. Formerly viewed as just a wild plant, rooibos became a culturally significant product against which local residents measured their sense of indigeneity and, more broadly, their claims to belonging in South Africa and the world. The manner in which people articulated this belonging challenged framings of indigeneity as a form of ethnic essentialism. While Afrikaners asserted that their cultural survival hinged upon a place-based identity, coloured residents resisted attempts to be emplaced as "native." For members of coloured populations, the native label and its links to apartheid-era policies of control held both the promise of redeeming their supposedly pathological identities and the threat of temporally incarcerating them in a state of primitivism or even extinction.

The relations between coloured and white communities were reframed by a commodity chain that seemed to necessitate autochthony to function effectively. What are the effects of combining indigeneity, the market, and local activism in an area where both heritage and the market were fiercely contested? How do celebrations of nativity account for mobility, uncertainty, and dynamism? Arjun Appadurai (1988) describes how commodities and some kinds of people move freely across space at the same time that "natives" become spatially incarcerated. A kind of "sedentarist metaphysics" can emerge in discussions of Indigenous people in which scholars and activists literally root them in place, arguing that they are so adapted to their natural environments that they are ecologically immobile (Malkki 1992). The violence of this spatial incarceration pathologizes mobility and "rootlessness" and thus can render any kind of displacement an affliction.

Following this persepective, many Indigenous debates focus on native peoples who are denied access to their ancestral homes. In apartheid-era South Africa, however, the government enforced and delineated an idea of ancestral, native lands, while it restricted movement. Apartheid legislation cemented associations between land and ethnicity by defining people as belonging to specific ethnic groups and then relegating those ethnic groups to their supposedly place-based "homelands." According to the apartheid government, Zulus belonged in Zululand, Tswana belonged in Bophuthatswana, and so on. Utilizing the same rhetoric as Indigenous movements around the world, apartheid-era propaganda argued that creating ethnically based homelands "freed" the separate "nations" of South Africa. "In the world of today," a 1972 document reads, "a nation's right to determine its own identity is no longer supposed to be a disputed issue" (Information Service of South Africa 1972: 11). The government argued that apartheid was governed not by race-based discrimination and disposession but, rather, by respect for cultural differences and the need for homelands to allow people to "self-develop" in the manner of their choosing. The culturalist optic of the state replaced or masked racism as a means for controlling people and maintaining white economic and political dominance.

Yet coloured people were given no codified autochthony and no "homeland" of their own outside white South Africa. In such a context, embracing Khoisan indigeneity could serve as both a promise and a trap: It could provide a way to claim the region as their homeland, or it could leave them forever searching for some kind of authenticity. For the coloured of the rooibos region, the noose of nativity under apartheid remained powerful.

In response, coloured residents often rejected a culturally indigenous identity, even as they recognized the Khoisan as the original users of the tea. As Lionel, an unemployed farmworker described, "I want to find my parents' roots. I subscribed to but I couldn't find much. ... Our coloured people, we know our roots come from Europeans and Africans. My grandfather was an Englishman. He was one of the first settlers in the 1800s. He had a lot of land. ... I don't feel any connection to Khoisan." Like Lionel, many coloured residents simply ignored the native identity cultivated by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)and by national and international rooibos-marketing campaigns from companies such as Khoisan Tea and Wiedouw Tea, whose box celebrates "The process of harvesting, bruising and fermentation of Rooibos tea ... introduced by the indigenous KHOISAN people hundreds of years ago." Marketing materials packaged or repackaged rooibos in ways that were palatable for local and international consumers and investors but were also strikingly similar to the cultural essentialism that justified apartheid.

Despite the rejection of a culturally indigenous heritage for themselves, coloured community members actively claimed a connection to rooibos tea, drawing on the tea's indigeneity for evidence. They put forth a temporally different notion of cultural heritage. Instead of a heritage rooted in the past, they described a heritage that was ever changing and potentially still to come. When asked whether he felt that rooibos was a part of his heritage, one coloured farmer responded, "Not yet, but it will be in the future." Discussing his plans to expand his farm from small scale to commercial, the farmer asserted that the object (rooibos) and not the culture (coloured or Khoisan) acted as the focus of his belonging in the region and his hopes for an economically viable future.

"They Have No Identity or History"

Narratives of origin tell people what kind of world it is, what it consists of, and where they stand in it; they make it seem natural to them. By anchoring lives to some kind of larger, cosmic order, identities seem secured. ... Narratives of origin incorporate classificatory schemes that describe the order of things, as well as the relations between things and different kinds of people. — SYLVIA YANAGISAKO and CAROL DELANY, "Naturalizing Power"

[Coloured] children are born "with shame and sorrow in their blood. ... They must inevitably be riven with hatred of their own being." — J. M. COETZEE, White Writing

FIELD NOTES, APRIL 2011: It's another hot Saturday morning, and I wake up to the booming music from the nearby market, where local people and immigrants sell goods, drink, and dance. I walk past the market and down to a local community meeting space for a demonstration presented by the Community Police Forum. I greet a few people I know, and they invite me to see the new machines the police recently received from the United States. A large circle forms around the policeman demonstrating a Breathalyzer. Everyone wants to see how it works, so they grab an intoxicated coloured man who has found his way inside the building, his torn and dusty clothes evidence of his marginal status. It is 9:30 AM. Everyone laughs heartily and encourages the policeman to have the man breathe into the machine. The man's face is blank, not registering — or perhaps not caring — that he has become a spectacle. He breathes into the machine, quietly asks people for money, and then wanders off. The Breathalyzer immediately turns green. Everyone claps and laughs. The police officer explains that the man is probably on tik, the South African slang for methamphetamine. The drugged man wanders back inside and quietly asks more people for money. They ignore him and he leaves. Later, the people inside find another apparently drunk man and continue their game.

Intoxicated, impoverished people were such a commonplace sight in this picturesque town surrounded by high mountains and rooibos fields that no one seemed to notice them anymore. One day, walking down Main Street, I noticed blood — a big puddle and then a trail of drops. I saw a man next, his wrist and arm soaked red. He stumbled into the street. Most people ignored him. Concerned, I asked, "Is he OK? Is someone getting help?" People laughed. "He always does this when he drinks," someone said. The man stumbled and fell down, lying in the middle of the road, flat and broken, covered in blood, a red trail oozing from his body and onto his typical blue worker's uniform. I saw an official who stood with a friend, chatting. "There is a man bleeding in the street," I told him. "I know," he smiled. "He wants to kill himself. Every time he gets some dop in him, he tries to kill himself." In moments like this one, drunken people were no longer people, especially if they were coloured. Town residents would shake their heads at what they saw as my naïveté, giving me sociobiological explanations for alcohol use. "Sarah, the thing you need to understand about coloured people is ...," I was told again and again by white, black, and coloured people alike, the sentence finished in various ways, such as, "they are drinking to die. ... It's a social thing. It's going from generation to generation, ever since Van Riebeeck landed in Cape Town."

In historical and contemporary narratives, the coloured community has been envisioned as inauthentic, weak, and full of the shame of rape and miscegenation. According to a common South African legend, Jan Van Riebeeck, the founder of the first Dutch settlement on the Cape, was the "father of the coloured," as settlers often forced sexual relations on local women (Adhikari 2005). In the rooibos-growing area, Afrikaans farmers sometimes joked about how white people — although never their ancestors — would take Khoisan women into the Bush. Today, the term "coloured" refers to people from a heterogeneous combination of heritages, including those from the Khoisan community (a unifying name for the "original" inhabitants of the region, often referred to colloquially as Bushmen); people of biracial heritage; and people brought as slaves or laborers from other African countries and from regions such as Southeast Asia (Jensen 2008). While initially many children who resulted from settler relations were absorbed back into their mothers' communities, "coloured" soon became its own community, codified under apartheid and either taken for granted or envisioned as a false identity by white, black, and even coloured South Africans. As an ethnic label, colouredness proved problematic to definitions of indigeneity. Their presumed placelessness emerged from an assemblage of legal, political, economic, and sociocultural exclusions.

The demographics of the rooibos region are dramatically different from those of the rest of South Africa. The region is classified as 80 percent coloured, 15 percent white, 5 percent black, and less than 1 percent Asian. The national population is classified as 79 percent black, 9 percent coloured, 9 percent white, and 2.5 percent Asian. The topic of coloured identity and the terminology around labeling people "coloured" are culturally and politically fraught in South Africa. Some academics and activists prefer the term "so-called coloured," or simply "black," to describe a unified nonwhite population. Other people use the term "brown" or the Afrikaans "bruinmense." Or they put "coloured" into quotation marks to emphasize its colonial legacy and to deemphasize any essential qualities of the "race." However, in the rooibos region, nearly everyone I spoke with preferred the term coloured without quotation marks or the burden of a "so-called" in front of their self-identified ethnic identity. "I feel like they are denying my identity," one man replied when I asked him about the usage of "so-called." Similarly, residents felt that because the words "black" and "white" do not require quotation marks around them, neither should "coloured."

"Narratives of origin tell people what kind of world it is, what it consists of, and where they stand in it," the anthropologists Sylvia Yanagisako and Carol Delany (1995: 1) argue. But what do you do if you believe that your origin narrative is rape? "Upliftment" projects and job creation organizations initiated by the state, by political parties, and by NGOs working in the rooibos-growing area attempted to explain and fix the "coloured problem" by emphasizing the population's lack of a place-based cultural identity. The Living Landscape Project, an NGO, focused on the development of school curricula that incorporate archaeological materials and the training of local people as guides, craftspeople, and heritage managers. The project aimed to reconnect residents with their surroundings through education (not through concrete land transfers).

The mission statement describes the local abundance of fossils, artifacts, and natural features that "all point to the passing of time." With a focus on time, the statement continues, "it seems an obligation of archaeologists (and geologists, paleontologists) to illustrate the dimension that houses all of these records of the past. This is far from an academic exercise, as we will confront the difficult issues of global warming, the sustainable use of resources and the protection of diversity by better understanding long term environmental and human history." The project specifically emphasizes geographical dispossession in its narrative of local history: "Colonial settlement disturbed and ultimately destroyed these relationships between people and the land, though many San and Khoe were incorporated into colonial society as the labouring class. Whilst the San and Khoe languages and cultural traditions were almost lost, the Cape is alive with traces of the past in the form of rock paintings."

In addition to training students and local residents, the project planned to attract tourists through rock art tours and accommodation. People in town who were involved in the project often spoke of it as a failure. "Spare us another NGO," one resident complained. They cited the lack of funds, the uncleanliness of the space, the economically unsustainable attempts to provide employment, and the dissolution of many of its programs. With their emphasis on lost heritage and animated prehistory, development workers struggled with how to repatriate a people who supposedly have no essential home.

The racial classification "coloured" often found itself mired in circular definitions that gave the population no claims to land, language, or culture. According to the government's Wilcocks Commission of 1937, colouredness — and the Cape coloured, in particular — was defined as "a person living in the Union of South Africa, who does not belong to one of its aboriginal races, but in whom the presence of Coloured blood ... can be established with at least reasonable certainty." This official document defined colouredness only by what it was not: Indigenous. With the advent of apartheid-era racial classifications, the idea of a coloured community became legally ossified yet remained culturally suspect in the eyes of white, black, and even coloured South Africans. Commissions that aimed to "understand" the coloured population, such as the Wilcocks Commission, spoke of the persistent threat that coloured men would become criminals (Badroodien and Jensen 2004).


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Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION The "Rooibos Revolution",
1: Cultivating Indigeneity,
2: Farming the Bush,
3: Endemic Plants and Invasive People,
4: Rumor, Conspiracy, and the Politics of Narration,
5: Precarious Landscapes,
CONCLUSION "Although There Is No Place Called Rooibos",

What People are Saying About This

Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution - James Ferguson

Steeped in Heritage is a vivid and insightful account of the complex cultural politics that link people to places via the intermediary of the botanical world (in this case, a scrubby little ‘red bush’). By taking rooibos tea as a window onto our times, it provides an original and enormously illuminating perspective on race and racialization, cultural identity and indigeneity, the globalization of niche commodity markets, and much more. A remarkable book.”

From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea - Paige West

“This beautifully written ethnography is a major contribution to the literature on commodities. Steeped in Heritage brilliantly brings together the political ecology of a commodity with an astute analysis of the intersection of land-based politics and questions about race, labor, and spatial and economic belonging.”

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