Let's Think

Rooibos, whose tea is it anyway?

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As attempts to rewrite the history of South Africa, are now going back to who knows where, not even the favourite brew from my childhood days, rooibos tea, is holy anymore.

For us, as one of those “bywoner” (poor sharecropper) families from the “Colony” or the Cape Province, as it was known then, which in the early 1950s migrated north to the then fast industrialising Transvaal, rooibos tea was an important link to our roots in the south of the country.

I can well remember the excitement at home when, every six months or so, my father mounted his bicycle to go to Vereeniging railway station to collect the hessian bag of rooibos tea (or “bossiestee” as it was then called), harvested from the veld by the Boland family.

Since then, “bossies” tea has become rooibos tea and a R300 million-a-year industry, based upon Aspalathus linearis, a leguminous plant from the Fabaceae family that occurs only in South Africa’s fynbos region.

It sustains some 350 commercial farmers, employs in the order of 5 000 people, with up to 15 000 tonnes of tea being traded per year and has developed an international footprint.

‘Criminal’ background

Now I’m being told that my father on his bicycle was part of a criminal supply chain, dating back over centuries, that stole the “bossies” from the San and Khoi people. Some of the benefits from the industry now needs to be redistributed to the descendants of those original inhabitants of the Cape, we are being told.

What we are not being told, is how and on what basis those descendants will be identified and what basis they will be compensated for their “traditional knowledge” which contributed to the development of the industry.

If lineage is to be the basis, how much San or Khoi ‘blood’ in your veins (as in DNA) will qualify you for compensation? This for me a very important question, because, like many other South African “white” families, ours can count some of that “blood” in our lineage.

If original “traditional knowledge” is to the basis of retrospective compensation, what about the Pretoria housewife Annekie Theron, who accidentally discovered that rooibos had a soothing effect on her hyper-allergic baby. Her discovery formed the basis on which from which the international market for the industry was launched.

Ironically, against the background of the present student protests over fees, Theron, who died in March of this year at age 86, in her youth dreamt of becoming a medical doctor but could not afford the university fees.

And, what about the contribution of those who turned this “bossie of the veld” into a commercial industry in the first instance – like Barend Ginsberg, the Russian immigrant who first established the industry in the early 20th century based on a dream of making rooibos, which he called “Mountain Tea” the “Ceylon of the Cape”? 

The industry took off around 1930 when a local medical doctor in the town of Clanwilliam, Piet le Fras Nortier, conducted research on rooibos on his farm in the district. (Until then the leaves were harvested only in nature for a traditional local brew.) For his research he needed seeds, which due to their tiny size, were hard to come by. He paid local villagers £5 for a matchbox of seeds. Then an aged Khoi woman found ants stashing the seeds in their nest and that problem, at least, was solved.

Years of research followed in an effort to get the seeds to germinate so that commercial farming with rooibos could be established. A strong local market developed and, eventually, so did the international industry.

In 1948 The University of Stellenbosch awarded Dr Nortier an honorary doctorate D.Sc (Agria) in recognition for his valuable contribution to South African agriculture, but today, locally, his contribution seems to be forgotten.

However, in Selangor, Malaysia, one finds a Dr. P. Le Fras Nortier Rooibos Museum, with its own website and Facebook following. On there one will find Dr Michael Rosenbaum of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, singing the praises of rooibos tee.

Reinventing the past

This short summary of the history of the rooibos industry illustrates the absurdities harvested from the present trend to try and reinvent South African history, and then on a selective basis.

As illustrated by a more comprehensive analysis elsewhere, of what is happening with real estate property patterns in the country, it is not possible to improve the past. Only a comprehensive re-evaluation of the legacies of the past – including all factors, and not only European colonialism – and learning lesson from it can we build a better future.

Attempts to ‘milk’ the past will only serve to take the eye off the task of the present generation of building a better legacy in developing the country for future generations.

Maybe we should all take pride in Dr Nortier and his Khoi collaborators and make sure that the Annekie Therons of today don’t have to give up on their dreams or miss out on realising their full potential.

by Piet Coetzer

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