Farming the South African “Bush”: Ecologies of belonging and exclusion in rooibos tea

by Sarah Ives

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As rooibos tea’s economic value has risen, its status has gone from a wild plant to a culturally significant product against which some residents of the South African rooibos-growing region measure their sense of belonging and indigeneity. I examine how “coloured” residents negotiated the region’s fraught history of cultural indigeneity as well as its celebratory relation to ecological indigeneity. With the majority of land still in white South Africans’ hands and more than a quarter of the population without work, indigenous claims have taken on increasing importance as political rallying points and means of economic survival. Although “coloured” people, members of a South African racial category denied nativity to any place, could potentially benefit from claims of indigeneity, many rejected a temporally and spatially incarcerating idea of cultural indigeneity. Instead, they found economic possibilities in and metonymic identification with an indigenous plant.