Farm To Table On Stolen Land
Many of Cape Town’s extravagant culinary establishments are hiding behind an exclusionary faux sustainability ethos with deep historical roots, writes Mary Fawzy
One feels small entering Cape Town’s Groot Constantia, the biggest and oldest wine farm in South Africa. The immaculate scenery and rows of vines betray the labour put into the land, yet there are no workers in sight. A timeline beginning with the arrival of Simon van der Stel, who became the governor of the Cape Colony in 1679 is displayed in the wine cellar. One learns that the land was “granted” to him by the Dutch East India Company in 1679, although the “how” is conveniently omitted. Groot Contsantia was built and initially sustained on slave labour, a fact it’s website casually compares to the Great Pyramids and the Colosseum.
Wine farms are a big part of Cape Town’s celebratory dining culture. In the Cape Winelands—Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Somerset West—old slave quarters have been turned into cafes, like at Spier Wine Estate. Everything about these places, their names, the Cape Dutch architecture and memorabilia such as colonial maps on the walls, points to the “old world”. Marketed as harking back to a time when the Cape was a “hospitable refreshment station” to “explorers and travellers” these estates sit on land taken by force and distributed for free by the governor. In many establishments, the title deed signed by van der Stel is displayed with no mention of who was there first, or the genocide that took place to acquire it: in itself an aggressive defence of colonial land ownership.
As a North African who’s grown up in Southern Africa, I’ve become accustomed to the colonial imagery in certain areas, coupled with the expected, largely white patronage. But thinking outside of what is “normal” in South Africa, the existence of these 17th century rural European farms in the Southernmost part of Africa is bizarre. The whitewashed history these ‘heritage sites’ proffer only preserves the power of white people in a country still suffering from a palpable Apartheid legacy.
While many think Cape Town is like a European city, they differ on whether that is a positive thing or not. All agree that Cape Town has a reputation for diversity – if measured solely in terms of demographics. ‘Diversity’ is also popular with writers describing the city’s varied dining scene. But a look at the landscape, at who owns restaurants and winelands, reveals the power dynamics of this city: diversity doesn’t come with equality.
In Cape Town’s dining scene, the inequality starts with land ownership. Prime land in Cape Town (including Constantia) was designated “whites only” under colonial rule, with less desirable land further out allocated to Black people. Land dispossession continued through the Apartheid regime’s Group Areas Act of 1950, when land was separately allocated to ‘Black, Coloured and Indian people respectively (these different racialised groups became grouped together broadly as “Black”). Black people were resettled far enough to be out of sight, but close enough to be accessible for labour.
The phrase “farm to table” is increasingly used to link Cape Town’s best restaurants to the land around them. While pristine farms line the most lush land in the Cape, densely populated townships sit on sandy, flood-prone land. According to a 2017 land audit, white people, less than 10% of South Africa’s population, own 72% of agricultural land. Additionally, only 3% of wine farms are Black owned, as the food journalist Ishay Govender uncovered recently. While still a controversial topic in South Africa, the government’s land redistribution efforts since 1994 have been extremely limited, although white right-wing factions would make it seem otherwise.
In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report found that the fruit and wine industry in South Africa is rife with human rights abuse, including the “dop system” where owners paid workers in cheap wine, creating generational alcoholism. Other evidence suggests that working conditions have not significantly improved since. Groot Constantia failed two ethical audits by the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) in 2017, which cited “major noncompliance” with ethical working conditions. The Commercial, Stevedoring, Agriculture and Allied Workers’ Union (CSAAWU) reports that the abhorrent living conditions at Groot Constantia are replicated throughout the Western Cape. In 2019 they organised a farmworkers’ protest to the Norwegian and Swedish embassies (the largest South African wine importers), calling on them to push for ethical working standards. During the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated alcohol ban in South Africa, farmworkers have been hit the hardest and many have been retrenched. While owners are facing lost profits, workers are facing eviction, hunger and homelessness.
Despite all of this, many of these restaurants and farms are hailed as ethical due to their “sustainability” and “farm to table” ethos. Greenwashing, where sound environmental practices are used to sanitize unsound labour practices, is commonplace, justifying exorbitant prices for meals produced on the low wages of farmworkers. For Black people in South Africa “farm to table” essentially means from farms they don’t own, to tables they are not welcome at.
Cape Town’s superb restaurants are always mentioned whenever it is voted as one of the top destinations in the world. While the racial dynamics of restaurant labour in the West can be hidden, often with a racial demarcation between chefs and unseen kitchen porters, in Cape Town they are impossible to ignore. Travel media frequents visibly affluent, “previously white” areas of Cape Town. Both local and international “Best restaurant” lists largely feature white-owned restaurants in white-majority areas, while African cuisine is marginalised – if featured at all, reflecting the institutional racism that marks this city. In the travel accolades and “best of” lists that Cape Town is on, there’s no space for the realities of the majority who live and work there. South African food media has made some effort to increase diversity over the last few years, yet it is still dominated by whiteness, and food, land and labour justice are often excluded from the conversation.
This state of affairs led to the formation of a network of people of colour in the food industry called SA POC at the Table in 2019. Founder Ishay Govender cited years of frustration with white-owned media and limited outlook on the numerous culinary cultures of the country. There is also a growing number of chefs, activists and cultural workers promoting African food cultures, which are still seen as inferior to European cuisine. Culinary schools perpetuate this idea, with South African chefs graduating without being taught how to prepare common South African recipes. When a culinary school student tried to cook offal in an exam, the school refused, making him replan his menu. Meanwhile cultural foods belonging to people of colour like gatsby sandwiches, pap (a type of maize porridge) and insects like mopane worms are sometimes appropriated by white chefs and profited from. Black chefs have also spoken about the racism and pigeonholing they’ve experienced in kitchens during their careers. Although Black food cultures are finding space in food media because of these efforts, they are still in a minority.
The forced removal of people throughout Cape Town’s history has deeply impacted its foodways, cutting people from their food systems and forcing them into the colonial ways of farming, producing and eating. Today, colonial trauma continues with the corporatisation of food and the exploitative labour required to access it, from the farms to the processing plants and the abusive environments of professional kitchens.
The restaurant landscape is always going to be dominated by those with access to capital, and in South Africa without reparations, restitution and a thriving anti-capitalist movement, the beneficiaries of colonialism will continue to have the power and to wield it exploitatively. Instead of raving about Cape Town as the “ultimate foodie destination”—or being complicit in oversimplified farm-to-table fantasies—legacy food and travel media should be actively asking this question. If hundreds of years later, the people who own the land and the restaurant are the descendants of colonial settlers, and the people who work the land and the restaurant are descendants of the colonised, then what has actually changed?
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