- Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea by Sarah Ives
THROUGHOUT THE FIRST HALF OF 2018, the question "who belongs in South Africa?" was fiercely debated in the South African public sphere. Some commentators argued that understanding the politics of race and belonging in their historical and contemporary makings was crucial for countering the lasting apartheid legacies of racialized divisions. This makes the recent publication of Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea timely. In the book, a detailed ethnographic account of the social worlds of rooibos, Sarah Ives analyzes how residents in the rooibos-growing region in the Cederberg area in South Africa's Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces negotiate the politics of race, land, indigeneity, and belonging in the context of economic, political, and, increasingly, ecological uncertainties.
Ives aims to provide an understanding of the world through the commodity of rooibos tea. What makes rooibos such a compelling subject is that it is embedded in assemblages of people, plants, and land that constantly blur perceived boundaries between nature and culture, the Indigenous and the alien, or the wild and the cultivated. Her focus on a plant commodity and human-plant relationships breaks new ground for understanding multispecies formations of race and belonging.
Over the past hundred years, rooibos evolved from a plant harvested in the wild for local consumption into a commodity consumed by tea aficionados worldwide. Marketers characterize rooibos as extraordinarily healthy, natural, and deeply rooted in its habitat. Rooibos's value largely derives from its status as being indigenous to the Cederberg area. While the plant's indigeneity in the region is undisputed, the people who grow it do not smoothly fit into this category. The two dominant groups of rooibos cultivators are Afrikaans farmers and coloured farmers and farm workers (Ives uses the term "coloured" in the way people self-identified). Afrikaans farmers are white descendants of European settlers and to this day own most of the rooibos-producing land. Coloured farmers and farm workers are descendants of Indigenous people, slaves brought from elsewhere, and white settlers. They mostly don't own land, and their livelihoods are made precarious by the lasting apartheid legacies of racism, violence, and poverty. Neither Afrikaans nor coloured people claimed belonging primarily in [End Page 186] terms of indigeneity; instead, they claim a sense of belonging to the land in which rooibos is central. Rooibos is part of people's everyday practices and mediates people's belonging to the land. Ives writes that residents relate to rooibos "as a commodity, as an indigenous plant, and even as an extension of the self."
Throughout the book's five chapters, Ives approaches the question of how people in the rooibos-growing region claimed belonging from various angles. Contextualizing the findings of her ethnographic fieldwork in a historical perspective, Ives provides a detailed account of how people negotiate their identity and belonging in a way that was always precarious, uncertain, and relational. An analysis of the material and symbolic aspects of rooibos cultivation shows how narratives that framed rooibos as a wild plant concealed the labor of coloured and African farm workers and thus further alienated their belonging and naturalized Afrikaans farmers' landownership. In a discussion of the discourses around alien plants and alien people, Ives shows how Afrikaans and coloured residents perceived an invasion of seasonal African migrant laborers and alien plants as a threat to indigeneity and belonging, though not generally, but rather when they appeared to be out of their control. Taking rumor and gossip seriously as data, Ives shows that storytelling about rooibos was an important aspect of narrators' struggles over history, meanings, and relations. Focusing on anxieties, Ives discusses how people negotiate claims to belonging in place in times of increasing ecological uncertainties as climate change threatens to shift the rooibos ecosystem southward. While some residents hoped that technology or adapted wild plants might come to their rescue, the shift of rooted plants and their ecosystem caused them to question their own identities and emplacements.