- Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea by Sarah Ives
"Which tea would you like? English or Rooibos?" (xiv) A staple of South African hospitality, rooibos tea serves the Rainbow Nation as a source of national pride, cultural importance, and economic significance. In Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea, Sarah Ives, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University, presents a fascinating blend of historical, anthropological, economic, and geographical knowledge about rooibos, the "commodity of contrasts" from South Africa's Western Cape region (22). Ives connects race, heritage, and identity through the lens of rooibos and the community surrounding it. Among her many arguments, Ives emphasizes exploring a "culturally indigenous identity" of the people who claim to have a sense of belonging to rooibos and its economy (31). This theme of identity is challenged as Ives explores the local, regional, and global effects the rooibos industry has had upon South Africa in recent decades.
The book is structured thematically. Five chapters discuss the people who grow rooibos, the local identity of the plant, the role of nonnative intrusions, the regional narratives of the commodity, and the uncertain future of rooibos. The people connected to rooibos farming, with whom Ives lived for a brief time in a rural Cape community, include a complicated mix of Afrikaaners descended from early Dutch settlers, colored or mixed-race people, and blacks, either native Africans indigenous to the area or immigrants from nearby countries. The local identity of rooibos appears at the nexus of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity as each group struggles to lay claim to its inherent connection with the plant. Native rooibos, or "red bush" in Afrikaans, grows wild yet is also cultivated for profit, a paradox Ives addresses. A high point of interest, Ives explains, is the deeply rooted love the locals have for rooibos and the rooibos industry. This cohesion has been interrupted in recent years as migrant workers and immigrants have [End Page 422] come to the area, changing the demographic landscape for the local community. Ives also explores recent ecological changes to the environment caused by non-invasive plant species and highlights the impact of these species on local residents.
These changes in a small community have led to rumors and gossip about the people who work in the rooibos industry. In the second half of the book, Ives investigates the meaning of and motivations behind such rumors. She argues that local gossip is used primarily to connect cultural ownership to the plant and its economy. This relates to her final chapter about the anxiety in the region due to an uncertain future. The growing popularity of rooibos tea in the global market has introduced both a desire to promote and develop the industry and a fear of creating a commodity that may lose its uniqueness in the world economy. This raises the question of how to market the concept of national unity embodied the idea of a new South African Rainbow Nation. If a new national unity is the main message South Africa has for the world, how can different cultural and ethnic groups continue to assert their unique indigenous claims to a native plant and its region? Ives explores this question throughout this book. Her conclusion is one of both "hope and fear" (216). Questions about the relationship between identity and indigeneity have yielded positive results because they have empowered local farmers to embrace their unique connection to rooibos cultivation and production. At the same time, the future for rooibos farming remains uncertain in a changing political, economic, and ecological environment that leaves these farmers in a precarious position. The pride rooibos farmers take in their crop, strengthened by its South African identity, adds deeply to their emotional investment in their livelihood.
Steeped in Heritage combines historical scholarship, interviews, and anecdotes and provides a thorough depiction of the Western Cape region's economic, social, racial, and immigrant status. Seeing the voices of the area's farmers, laborers, and community leaders through recorded...