By Robert Kriger
On Mandela day, 18 July 2018, Renata Coetzee’s celebrated book – A Feast From Nature – was relaunched to bring wider attention to her contribution towards building national and international awareness of the culinary heritage of various cultural groups in South Africa. In collaboration with the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, consultant Truida Prekel and African Sun Media, the University of Pretoria’s department of consumer and food sciences presented a four-course dinner with recipes inspired by Coetzee’s decades of research on indigenous food.
The following talk, “Cultures and Cuisines: A Peek at Our Early History”, was delivered by Robert Kriger at the event.
Paging through ‘A Feast From Nature’, I recognised several of the plants and animals that I had known, or touched, and smelt some of the flowering plants in my early childhood when I lived with my grandparents on the Moravian Mission station, Mamre. Situated on the West Coast, Mamre was established in 1808 and is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its church building this year.
So, I decided to conduct my own small oral history project and called my mother, Sylvia Vlotman, who will be 90 years on Tuesday, July 24, who lives alone in a small cottage in Mamre and who had, herself, spent her early childhood there in the 1930s in the care of her grandfather, Papé, whom I knew for seventeen years!
“Could she recollect any of the veldkos (plant foods), game, or herbal- or plant-based medicines which had been used in Mamre in the 1930s?”, I asked. As she recounted those memories she would add some comment about the person who had dispensed medicine, or who had come by to share the latest “kill”. The first thing she mentioned was kamfer water which she hated. As it was always at hand in the medicine cupboard, Papé gave one a tablespoonful for whatever condition one may have had. Then there was the (wonder) stert-salf, made of sheep’s tail fat and used to treat most open wounds. At least once a week one enjoyed the delicious “sout bokkoms” – a sun-dried salted mullet which was called “harders” on the West Coast. Like me 20 years later, my mother and friends would playfully forage the fields in summer for suur-vye, the fruit of a ground-cover succulent. The children would suck out the seeds from the fruit, while the mothers would make suur-vye konfyt for the annual church bazaar or for special occasions. What my mother recalled with horror – but which I loved – was kossie-kossie: the blood of a freshly slaughtered pig cooked in a bladder with raisins, sugar and Royal baking powder! What my mother liked and which I did not then, was the waterblommetjies bredie. In winter this pond weed had to be collected from the nearby Papkuilsvlei and then cooked with mutton. Needless to say, I only ate the meat!
After some prompting my mother recalled where the koekemakranka fitted into our Westcoast culture, how it was used for its wonderful fragrance. This immediately evoked memories of the Sunday closest to the 8th August which is celebrated each year as Kinderfees (Children’s Festival) by Moravians across the globe. In preparation for Kinderfees, we schoolchildren would fan out for miles into the veld to collect bunches of wild flowers (fynbos), sprigs, etc. to decorate the church for this special fest. The koekemekranka, which we rarely found, would have special spots placed on the high window-sills spreading its wonderful scent throughout the church even screening that of the highly-awaited honey-glazed mos-bolletjies and sweetened tea. My mother reminded me that we had to take care never to damage the bulbs in any way, and only to pick the fruit (die pypie) when it was deep yellow or red.
What this brief recollection reveals, are several layers of our complex history with cultures, cuisine, plants, game, and home-made remedies reflecting several phases of the Cape’s pre-colonial, colonial, and recent histories. Mamre had been established in 1808 at the request of the English colonial governor, Lord Caledon, at a former Dutch VOC outpost, Groenekloof, which was in close proximity to two Khoi-Khoin settlements, Louw’s Kloof and Cruywagens Kraal under the leadership of Kaptein Klapmuts. Per concession of a Crown Land grant, Groenekloof and the adjoining areas under Kaptein Klapmuts were ceded to the Moravians, a matter which was to be a recurring controversy between Kaptein Klapmuts and the missionaries until the creation of Union in 1910.
With the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, there had been an influx of discharged Khoi soldiers and former slaves into Mamre including so-called Prize Negroes. The last mentioned were people originating from East Africa, Madagascar, India, and Mauritius sold into slavery and who were on Dutch, French and Portuguese ships intercepted by the British Navy in the Indian Ocean and landed at Cape Town. Papé’s father had been on one of these ships.
When my great-grandfather was born there in 1873, he and his family were members of an emergent creolised community under British colonial rule, governed by a brand of German Protestant religious and social order with deep cultural under-currents and political resistance from its indigenous, freed slave and ‘mixed’ population. Some of these tensions are touched on by Prof Willie Pick, a former President of the MRC and whose family is from Mamre, in the first few chapters of his memoirs. These tensions are still evident and resurfaced recently at the 200th anniversary celebrations when descendants of Kaptein Klapmuts called for the re-negotiation of the Genadendal Accord of 1998 which had been signed by Nelson Mandela and the then President of the Moravian Church and which saw the state return thousands of hectares of land to the Moravian Church without having had consultations with the affected communities mainly in the Western and Eastern Cape. A similar re-negotiation process led by SALGA is currently unfolding at another former mission station, Elim, as I speak.
I have related this brief personal and historical sketch as a backdrop to that which I now wish to raise in the main part of my contribution as we consider this particular work produced by Renata Coetzee. For, although the author has attempted as of page 194 to provide the reader with insights of those vestiges of indigenous cuisine by means of narratives, the ruptures as mentioned in the Foreword remain invisible.
Earlier this year Prof Julian May requested that I share my thoughts on whether the UWC – UP Centre of Excellence on Food Security should support the re-print of Renata Coetzee’s book ‘A Feast From Nature’. My immediate response was expressing a measure of caution. I felt that caution was required in the light of some of the societal issues raised by the research, albeit unintentionally.
In the first instance, currently the power relations of national identity, of ethnicity, land ‘ownership’ and ‘culture’ are thrown into the public domain with such reckless abandon from some quarters that we seem to be in danger of falling apart as a country with an invaluable tapestry of diverse cultural heritage, an issue which had been very dear to Renata.
For this reason, I would welcome into the conversation of an appraisal of ‘A Feast From Nature’, a discussion of the ‘Code of Research Ethics’ that the South African San Council published in March 2017. The San Council identifies respect, honesty, justice and fairness, and care as the core process issues when working with local indigenous communities. I think that we would all agree that Renata Coetzee upheld all these values in her research across the decades. So, what would I like to be brought into the discussion? Leanne Snyders, director of the SA San Council has this to say:
“One of our respected leaders Andries Steenkamp said:
‘Researchers must not come in through the window. Only skelms (bad people) come into your house through the window. They must knock at the front door and wait to be let in.’
That’s what this code is about. It is for us to decide to open the door. It’s to stop exploitation.”
In other words, the San Council is pointing out that research be conducted within the context of a balance of power, between equal partners. Many of you may be aware of controversies about indigenous knowledge, intellectual property, commercialisation, bio-piracy, and outright unethical profiteering which have engulfed indigenous communities around the globe including here in South Africa. I mention, for instance, the issues regarding the Hoodia and Buchu plants or that of genomic research in various San and Khoi communities of SA, Namibia, and Botswana several of which are yet to be resolved.
It is interesting to note that this code, which had been developed in a consultative process of nearly 20 years with San communities in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia has in the meantime been debated and accepted internationally, but has yet to receive official recognition from the three southern African countries in which it had been developed.
At this point I would like to focus on the position of the Khoi-Khoin informants in this work. Renata Coetzee does not use the term “informant” in her bibliography. Instead the informants appear under the sub-title “Personal communications” together with specialists such Himla Soodyall or Phillip Tobias who are identified by name and field of specialisation. The Nama, Griqua and Hessequa informants are identified solely in terms of their gender (women) and ethnicity (e.g. Nama), with no reference to their person or field of specialisation. This omission raises serious questions around research ethics and contemporary political issues around power relations in research. By identifying her informants solely as nameless “Nama, Griqua and Hessequa women”, Renata Coetzee has actually rendered them invisible and voiceless in a study about their own food culture – with no chance to voice their opinion on a body of work in which they had been active participants. What lessons can we as researchers and students, as the academy and as a society in transition learn from this omission?
I mention this, as it raises a wide range of research policy, ethics and contemporary political issues and sensitivities which have been in the public domain since the publication in Nature in 2010 of the article “Complete Khoisan and Bantu genomes from southern Africa”. Andries Steenkamp, the leader of the San Council, who died two years ago, and who had been instrumental in negotiating the research code, in collaboration with a legal representative of the San, Roger Chennells, carefully documented the “defences” used by Nature, the researchers, the three implicated research institutions and research funding agencies and which has since been published posthumously by Springer Verlag – open access at https://www.springer.com/gb/book/9783319647302 .
My second point is related directly to the first caution: both in our colonial pasts and in our most recent history the roles played by scholarship such as anthropology, history, or that of scientific research into plant biology or the bio-piracy practised by the pharmaceutical industry which were (and are!) aided and abetted by the Academy – whether ‘liberal’ or ‘volks –eie’ in ethos.
In preparing for this short talk I recalled an article by Professors Andrew D. Spiegel (UCT) and Heike Becker (UWC), former chair of the learned society Anthropology Southern Africa (ASN), entitled South Africa: Anthropology or Anthropologies? It was published in the American Anthropologist in 2015. I want to make reference only to the authors’ key objective, namely to outline a path to ‘decolonise’ and transform the discipline and the associated institutional structures such as the research ethics’ committees. One way, the authors propose is to enter into a totally transformed relationship with the research subjects which, amongst others, entails a consciousness of the researcher’s own positionality and status within the research process. Small wonder then, that members of the ASN assisted the SA San Council with the drafting of the research code and the creation of the San Council Trust which overseas development projects in San communities and the disbursement of grants and royalties obtained from their intellectual property.
A third caution pertains to the academic discipline of history and its relation to oral traditions and indigenous knowledge systems. This caution speaks to the current call for the decolonisation of the academy especially as it applies to the curricula taught at our institutions of higher education. The discourse on the accuracy of the (colonial) archival records, e.g. the ‘invisibility’ of the indigene, and the contemporary narratives within the oral tradition of the pre-colonial social order is underway, but it is in the main struggling to find entry into the various Humanities departments where ‘truth’ remains largely associated with claims to universality by modern Western scholarship
The fourth caution refers to the natural sciences, which, particularly in concert with powerful pharmaceutical, food and chemical conglomerates, have and continue to remain a major challenge for indigenous communities across the globe with regard to the exploitation of intellectual property. Here in South Africa we have had our own experiences with the widely published exposure of the misuse of IP relating to the Hoodia plant for commercial purposes by the state-owned entity, the CSIR! Although an agreement has in the interim been brokered between the SA San Council and the CSIR, the 6% royalties brokered in 2003 has been heavily criticised in view of the multi-billion Dollar profits the USA chemical and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer could make once clinical trials of this appetite suppressant have been concluded.
I have chosen not to focus on the culinary aspects of this work as this will be done by the next speaker and, we will have the opportunity to have the tastes directly on our palettes! What I believe this labour of love has elicited, is to excite our interest and encourage further and deeper scholarship, scientific research, and innovation under an ethos of inclusivity as propagated by the San Council. This issue will be addressed by Julian May in his contribution.
For all of this we are deeply indebted to the late Renata Coetzee. May she R.I.P.
I thank you.