Steeped in Heritage

The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea

Steeped in Heritage

New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century

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Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 3 illustrations Published: October 2017

Author: Ives, Sarah

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Geography

South African rooibos tea is a commodity of contrasts. Renowned for its healing properties, the rooibos plant grows in a region defined by the violence of poverty, dispossession, and racism. And while rooibos is hailed as an ecologically indigenous commodity, it is farmed by people who struggle to express “authentic” belonging to the land: Afrikaners, who espouse a “white” African indigeneity, and “coloureds,” who are characterized either as the mixed-race progeny of “extinct” Bushmen or as possessing a false identity, indigenous to nowhere. In Steeped in Heritage Sarah Ives explores how these groups advance alternate claims of indigeneity based on the cultural ownership of an indigenous plant. This heritage-based struggle over rooibos shows how communities negotiate landscapes marked by racial dispossession within an ecosystem imperiled by climate change and precarious social relations in the postapartheid era.


"Ives provides an accessible and interesting perspective on the complex, ongoing issue of race relations within South Africa. Recommended." — C. W. Herrick, Choice

Steeped in Heritage is an excellent and highly recommendable account. Offers wonderful scope for comparison.” — Annika Teppo, Anthropological Forum

Steeped in Heritage is likely to be of interest to any scholar interested in anthro-ecological interactions, racial politics, questions of self-hood and belonging, or simply interested in finding meaning in the tealeaves left at the bottom of their cup.” — Sarah Bradley, Journal of Ecological Anthropology

“A nuanced and theoretically engaged analysis. Steeped in Heritage offers a novel contribution to a long tradition of deeply ethnographic political ecology scholarship. This book will interest scholars working on a vast range of issues including indigeneity, environmental change, climate change, agricultural labor, identity politics, multispecies relationships, place-based products, and African studies.” — Emma McDonell, Journal of Political Ecology

"Compelling and prescient . . . Steeped in Heritage is a fascinating exploration of the dynamics surrounding identity and its ties to things and places in a racist, capitalist context."

— Aran Mackinnon, African Quarterly

"Steeped in Heritage is thorough and well-thought-out . . . Excellent and highly recommendable." — Annika Teppo, Anthropological Forum

"Steeped in Heritage is a fascinating and well-written account that refreshingly avoids the dominant paradigms associated with climate change. . . . Instead, it gives us a much-needed analysis of ecological change as a thoroughly social process, inseparable from local politics, which are dominated by structures of race and class. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the contemporary politics of southern Africa or the future of food in a time of ecological crisis." — Elizabeth Hull, American Anthropologist

"Steeped in Heritage is a welcome addition to a burgeoning literature on the intersections of ecology and belonging, race and nature. It elegantly illustrates how inequality and racialization are felt and worked as much as they are imposed and imagined. Extending and challenging conversations in multispecies ethnography, political ecology, and food studies, the book would be an excellent addition to courses on agriculture, land rights, and the messy operations of late capitalism." — Sarah Besky, Environment and Society

"A nuanced, elegantly written study of what it means to own and profit off a crop and the land that sustains it. Ives writes in a lyrical fashion, using the metaphors of cultivation, steeping and sipping to create an interpretive framework. . . . In this vital study of plants and people, commodities and labourers, Ives centres her discussion on the supply side to show where the tea we drink is made." — Abena Dove Osseo-Asare, Journal of Modern African Studies

"The vivid descriptions of fieldwork encounters and their contextualization in current debates in commodity studies and multispecies ethnography make this book a fascinating and enjoyable read. . . . [Steeped in Heritage] is an important contribution to studies of South African history and anthropology, as well as to the fields of commodity studies and multispecies ethnography." — Melanie Boehi, Native American and Indigenous Studies

"Steeped in Heritage is a resounding, engaging and successful ethnography of difference in the time of steepened climate change and uncertain racial futures across Africa." — Graham R.L. Fox, Anthropologica

"[This book] is critical about the precarious times that we live in: why does job uncertainty affect some races more than others? How does climate change contribute to work-related anxiety? These are some of the pertinent questions of our times that Steeped in Heritage helps us to think through." — Saumya Pandey, Anthropology of Work Review

"Steeped in Heritage advances important insights through an innovative and original approach, and will be of interest to scholars studying the politics of identity and race as well as commodities and multi-species ethnography. The ethnography is rich and the book beautifully written." — Hannah Elliott, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“[This book] is a well-crafted multispecies ethnography of the lived realities, and contrasting 'versions' of these realities, in the world of rooibos tea production in South Africa. ... A remarkable aspect of the study is the inclusion of rooibos as 'actor' in the webs of social and ecological relationships between the plant and white and colored rooibos farmers. " — Femke Brandt, Anthropos

Steeped in Heritage provides a fresh perspective on the post-apartheid situation of race relations and identity in South Africa while offering insight into the precarious rooibos economy of the Western Cape region. This book is multidisciplinary and will especially benefit those interested in South African studies, food economies, and cultural and regional identities that derive from commodity production.” — Gina Covert Benavidez, Journal of Global South Studies

Steeped in Heritage is a vivid and insightful account of the complex cultural politics that link people to places via the intermediary of the botanical world (in this case, a scrubby little ‘red bush’). By taking rooibos tea as a window onto our times, it provides an original and enormously illuminating perspective on race and racialization, cultural identity and indigeneity, the globalization of niche commodity markets, and much more. A remarkable book.” — James Ferguson, author of Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution

“This beautifully written ethnography is a major contribution to the literature on commodities. Steeped in Heritage brilliantly brings together the political ecology of a commodity with an astute analysis of the intersection of land-based politics and questions about race, labor, and spatial and economic belonging.” — Paige West, author of From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sarah Ives is a lecturer and postdoctoral fellow in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface  ix
Acknowledgments xiii
Introduction. The "Rooibos Revolution"  1
1. Cultivating Indigeneity  29
2. Farming the Bush  65
3. Endemic Plants and Invasive People  96
4. Rumor, Conspiracy, and the Politics of Narration  134
5. Precarious Landscapes  173
Conclusion. "Although There Is No Place Called Rooibos"  210
Notes  217
References  229
Index  245
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6993-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6986-8
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