Farm to Table on Stolen Land

Cape Town Dining's Colonial Fantasies. Words by Mary Fawzy; Illustration by Zayaan Khan

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In the film Chinatown, Jack Nicholson’s bumbling private detective Jake Gittes does get one thing right, even if it sends him down the wrong rabbit hole. Locating the book of Northwest Valley land registry in the hall of records, Gittes rips out the page; an investigation of the names on the registry has him stumbling over a conspiracy of dizzying interlocking complexity, involving the California water department, arid farmland, and the dead residents of an old people’s home. Gittes misses that the real conspiracy, the one he was supposed to investigate, is one of ruthless simplicity, of evil rather than power. Someone ends up dying for his mistake, of course.

Still, if you want to examine the structures of power as a journalist, it’s useful to take a leaf out of Gittes’ hall of records book and find out who owns land. Circles of power are generally hidden, but land has to have someone’s name on it, even if it’s a decoy. Push hard enough, and you might find whose name is really on it. Land is the ultimate finite resource and it never goes out of fashion; find out who has land and you are one step closer to finding out where power is centralised. This is why the next two newsletters, including today’s, will examine land ownership.

Today’s newsletter by Mary Fawzy is about land ownership in South Africa, specifically the wine farms of Cape Town and how that phrase ‘farm to table’ elides the question of who owns the farms and who owns those tables. We like to think that colonialism exists in an immutable past, yet its structures remain in the pattern of the land and who has access to it ─ unlike the past this can be changed. Until then, food media should lift up the voices of those who do not have access to land and not perpetuate narratives that erase Indigenous practices. I think of my own dad, who once visited Cape Town in search of distant biological family he never knew. Sick of the same sleek, European restaurants, one day he asked a group of white men sitting on a porch where he could get South African food, by which he meant food made by Black South Africans. They laughed at him; “it doesn’t exist”. Forget it, they may as well have told him, it’s Cape Town.

Note: This article uses the term Coloured to describe race. In South Africa, the term “Coloured” is an official racial category used to denote a heterogeneous group of people who are of mixed heritage. While some find it controversial, many people still use it to identify their race and culture.

Farm to table on stolen land: Cape Town dining’s colonial fantasies, by Mary Fawzy

It is impossible not to feel your own smallness when entering the massive grounds of Cape Town’s Groot Constantia, the oldest and biggest wine farm in South Africa. On first glance, this place may seem naturally endowed with its immaculate scenery – walking routes past ancient oak trees, acres of greenery, Table Mountain looming in the near distance – but the uniform rows of vines betray the amount of labour put into the land. Yet there are no labourers in sight. In the wine cellar, a timeline of history is displayed, beginning in 1679 with the arrival of Simon van der Stel, who became the governor of the Cape Colony. In 1685 the “land is granted to him” by the Dutch East India Company, although the “how” is conveniently omitted. The farm was built and sustained entirely on slave labour, a fact Groot Constantia’s own website compares to the Great Pyramids and the Colosseum. The slogan on their brochure is “Inspiring History, Pioneering Future.”

For both affluent South Africans and tourists, restaurants in these wine farms have become a big part of Cape Town’s celebratory dining culture. In the winelands in the surrounding areas of the Cape – Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Somerset West – old slave quarters have been turned into cafes, like at the famous Spier Wine Estate, one of the most popular wine farms in South Africa. Everything about these places, from their names and the Cape Dutch architecture to the memorabilia, such as colonial maps on the walls as artwork, points to “the old world”. Marketed as harking back to a time when the Cape was a “hospitable refreshment station” to “explorers and travellers” – many of whom massacred indigenous people and enslaved and traded them with impunity (along with the enslaved people they brought from other colonies) – these estates sit on land taken by force and then often handed out for free by van der Stel. In many establishments, the land 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.

In 2019, the restaurant critic Soleil Ho wrote about Le Colonial in San Francisco, a Vietnamese restaurant whose name and decor is a monument to French colonialism, describing how it “prompted diners to take on the positionality of the colonizer.” These wine farms do precisely the same. 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, almost all white patronage. But when one thinks outside of what is “normal” in South Africa, the continued existence of these 17th century rural European farms in the Southernmost part of Africa is truly bizarre.

When challenged, many white South Africans will argue that the restaurants and vineyards of the Cape Winelands are heritage sites and they are displaying the history of the place as a sort of museum. Yet the inaccurate and whitewashed view of history these restaurants and vineyards proffer sustains an environment that seeks only to preserve the comfort and power of white people in a country still suffering from the legacy of Apartheid, a history not confined to a timeline in a wine cellar, but one that continues today.

Since I moved here in 2008, one thing I’ve come to learn is that Cape Town is described very differently depending on who you’re talking to. 

While many will say that Cape Town is like a European city, they differ on whether that is a positive thing or not. Even its nickname ‘The Mother City’, thought to be a reference to its being the birthplace of South Africa’s civilisation, poses the question: whose civilisation? One thing they all tend to agree on is that Cape Town has a reputation for diversity, and if you measure diversity solely in terms of demographics it is certainly that. The word ‘diversity’ is much used by food and travel writers too, in describing Cape Town’s varied dining scene. But look at the landscape closely, at who owns the restaurants and winelands and it becomes a clear lens into the power dynamics of this city. Cape Town may be diverse, but this diversity doesn’t come with equality.

The inequality of Cape Town’s dining scene starts with land, and who owns that land. Prime and central land in Cape Town (including Constantia) was violently seized by waves of European settlers from the 1600s onward, designated “whites only” under colonial rule, with further out, less desirable land allocated for Black people. Land dispossession was continued through the brutal Apartheid regime, through the 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 pushed far enough away to be out of sight, while remaining close enough that their labour was accessible.

In recent years, a phrase has begun to permeate the Cape Town dining scene: “farm to table”, idealistically linking Cape Town’s best restaurants to the land which surrounds them. While those pristine looking farms with their neat rows of vines, trees and flowers line the most fertile and lush land in the Cape, the densely populated and underserviced townships where the majority of Black and Coloured people live are hemmed around the edges on sandy, flood-prone land ─ a legacy of how successful colonial regimes were in their mission. According to a 2017 land audit, white people, who account for less than 10% of the total South African population, own 72% of land for agricultural use. And when it comes to wine farms, only 3% are Black owned, as the food journalist Ishay Govender uncovered recently in a SAPOC panel discussion. 

While the issue of farmland is an intensely controversial topic in South Africa, the government's efforts at land redistribution since the beginning of democratic South Africa in 1994 have been extremely limited. Instead, a massive nation-building propaganda remains from the days of Mandela’s “rainbow nation” project. The issue is a galvanising topic for the right-wing factions of the white population in South Africa, whose campaign has spread to Canada, the UK and reached Trump, who tweeted in support of them. 

For my friend Carmen Cloete, whose family is from Wellington, a wine land area outside of Cape Town, going to wine farms is always an uncomfortable thing. “I’ve always found it strange going there as a person of colour, that the waiters and the servers will always be brown or Coloured people from the nearby areas, and you just know that they don’t have a stake in the farm.” Having had family who have worked on fruit and wine farms, she knows how exploitative that form of labour is. 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 conditions of alcoholism. 

The report stated that

The farmworkers who produce these goods for domestic consumption and international export are among the most vulnerable people in South African society: working long hours in harsh weather conditions, often without access to toilets or drinking water, they are exposed to toxic pesticides that are sprayed on crops... Farmworkers and others who live on farms often have insecure land tenure rights, rendering them and their families vulnerable to evictions or displacement – in some cases, from the land on which they were born. 

Evidence suggests that working conditions have not significantly improved since this report. In fact, Groot Constantia failed ethical audits by the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association (Wieta) twice in 2017. Both audits state “major noncompliance” with ethical working conditions. The Commercial, Stevedoring, Agriculture and Allied Workers’ Union (CSAAWU) has reported that the abhorrent and abusive living conditions at Groot Constantia are “replicated throughout the Western Cape”. In 2019 they organised a farmworkers’ mass march to the embassies of Norway and Sweden (the largest South African wine importers), calling on them to push for ethical working standards. “Consumers, wine drinkers, you can no longer fool yourself. Ethically produced labels are not supposed to be there to make you feel better – they are supposed to change the lives of workers. But they do not,” said Trevor Christians, from CSAAWU. Now, during the pandemic and the current alcohol ban in South Africa, farmworkers have been hit the hardest and many have been retrenched. While owners are facing lost profits and capital, workers are facing eviction, hunger and homelessness

And yet many of these restaurants and farms, situated on stolen land taken by force and maintained through abusive labour conditions, continue to be hailed as ethical due to their efforts in “sustainability” and “farm to table” ethos. This type of greenwashing, where sound environmental practices are used to sanitize unsound labour practices, have become commonplace in the Cape and a justification for charging exorbitant fees for meals produced on the low wages of farmworkers. For Black people in the Global South, but especially in South Africa, this idea of “farm to table” is insulting: from farms they don’t own, to tables they are not welcome at. 

Whenever Cape Town is voted as one of the top cities in the world by the travel media, there is always mention of its superlative restaurants. In 2019, the academic Oscar Van Heerden wrote in the Daily Maverick about his experience traveling along the coastal road from Muizenberg to Simon’s Town eating at some of these restaurants. He calls them “lily white... what I mean by this is I am frequently the only Black person in the place... except of course for the waiters.” 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 – unless you are so embedded you can’t see them. Van Heerden is scathing of the way Cape Town is written about, by both South African and foreign media, pointing out that it perpetuates this status quo of unseeing. “What is most disturbing for me is that none of the white people can see that there is a problem. They’d rather believe crap like Cape Town has been voted the best tourist destination in the world for the umpteenth time by the Guardian.”

The Cape Town that the travel media most often describes is the areas that were considered “previously white”. These areas are visibly the most affluent, with proportionally more government services – well-maintained roads and lighting, beautiful greenery, and the ever present private security apparatus – while other areas struggle to receive even basic sanitation. “Best restaurant” lists, both local and international, reflect the institutional racism that marks this city. They’re made up almost entirely of white-owned restaurants, in white-majority areas, while African food is marginalised – if featured at all. 

When I started writing about food in South Africa, I quickly realised that mainstream food and travel publications were only looking for stories about Cape Town that upheld the image of the city as a “happy melting pot” or that put a positive spin on critical issues. There were some aspects of Cape Town’s inequality that they didn’t want to hear about. I had to tone down anything too “political” unless the publication was specifically leftist. Among all the travel accolades and “best of” lists that Cape Town is on, there’s no space for the realities of daily life for the majority of the people 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 completely dominated by whiteness, and issues of food, land and labour justice are almost wholly excluded from the conversation. 

In 2019, this state of affairs was the catalyst for the formation of a network of people of colour in the food industry called SA POC at the Table. Founder Ishay Govender cites as the reason for starting it “years of frustration, mainly with white-owned media that lent itself towards a white audience and a very limited outlook on the numerous cultures that make up the country.” 

There is also a growing number of chefs, activists and cultural workers trying to promote 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. Chef and food stylist Amanda Manyatshe recalls that at culinary school, African foods were not valued or taught. “Unless it’s the approved mlungu (white people) food then certain types of offal were not allowed and it’s taboo to be eating it in fine dining.” When a 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. Manyatshe has seen her ideas and work being used without credit, while other Black chefs have also spoken about the racism and pigeonholing they’ve experienced in kitchens during their careers. Although Black food cultures are gradually beginning to have a voice in food media because of the work of some dedicated Black chefs and writers (and because of the legacy of an older generation of chefs who paved the way in impossible times, like Dorah Sitole and Cass Abrahams) gatekeeping in the food industry means that they are still in a tiny minority. It is astounding that African food and the voices of African food workers are being marginalised in an African country.

After reading Ho’s piece, I felt dazed thinking about all the “Le Colonials” we have in Cape Town. They are in every corner of the city, from the winelands, to restaurants, to the trendy coffee shop built on a mass grave, advertising itself as “a taste [of] how good slavery can be… (To artisan coffee of course, in this case!)”. All over Cape Town, establishments are named after slave-owning colonial settlers, housing their pictures, stories and uncritically celebrating their lives and the Cape Colony as a whole. Large slave bells (bells that were rung to call enslaved people to work) are often seen on wineland properties without context, becoming popular Instagram photo backdrops. When your positionality is that of a colonised people, you realise that such places were never intended for you. Yet you’re supposed to fit yourself into the narrative, somehow without taking offense. We’re so used to seeing it in South Africa but we need to remind ourselves: this is not normal, this is not okay.

While Black chefs, food bloggers, writers and activists are challenging these attitudes in the Cape and the rest of South Africa, the problem of inequality lies in the deep fractures and dysfunction of the current capitalist system of colonial power and the divisions sewed by Apartheid. The forced removal of people throughout Cape Town’s history has deeply impacted its foodways, cutting people off 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. A unified workers movement is needed for all who work in the food and beverage industry, from cultural workers, factory and farm workers to wait staff, cooks and dishwashers. 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?


Mary Fawzy is a food and culture writer based in Cape Town. You can find her at @purple_turnips on Instagram and Twitter

The illustration is by Zayaan Khan, an artist, food activist and seed librarian based in Cape Town. You can find her work on her website

Additional Reading

For next week’s newsletter, please consider watching Young Black Farmers on All4, as you will get a much richer experience of the article

Local food culture by Nobhongo Gxolo

South African chefs and representation, by Ishay Govender

Profile of Cass Abrahams

On Spatial Apartheid

Profile of Zayaan Khan

Report on Human Rights Abuses on South African Farms

Longread on South African inequality, by Aryn Baker

On why African food is difficult to fine in Cape Town, by Alan Greenblatt

The myth of the new South Africa, by Sisonke Msimang