Rooibos Roots and the search for justice

By Sylvia Vollenhoven

The people of the Cederberg belt have achieved what few communities globally have managed. They have fought a battle for something entirely intangible… recognition of the Traditional Knowledge associated with Rooibos, the lifeblood of many of the hamlets.

The film Rooibos Restitution that tells the story of the historic struggle of the people of the Cederberg to win recognition for the Traditional Knowledge of the Khoi and San will premiere at The Baxter Theatre on Thursday January 31st at 8 pm. The screening is a fundraiser for Wupperthal disaster relief and is being coordinated by the Natural Justice NGO. Booking via Webtickets.

The road from the coast to Wupperthal is gently undulating. Getting there is a slow ascent of the Cederberg Mountains. No mean feat but the reward is great. The journey into the heart of this historic hamlet comes with remarkable revelations and breathtaking vistas.

The people of the Cederberg belt have achieved what few communities globally have managed. They have fought a battle for something entirely intangible… recognition of the Traditional Knowledge associated with Rooibos, the lifeblood of many of the hamlets.

Drinking Rooibos, bathing in it, washing your hair and sometimes even eating the little red sticks (‘stokkies tee’ like my grandmother used to say), is something we’ve taken for granted. As a kid I was embarrassed that it was all we had in the tea tins. I longed for the sophistication of the more expensive ‘Ceylon’ variety or even the adult privilege of a cup of coffee.

Now it turns out my grandmother was taking care of our health and preserving a heritage that has earned the Khoi and San people global recognition in recent times. And the story of this recognition starts here in Wupperthal.


Wupperthal, surrounded by the Cederberg Mountains. Image Ryan Lee Seddon

Fire Devastation

The Natural Justice NGO and the funders who have supported the people of the Cederberg –mainly the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa – commissioned me to Direct and produce a film telling this fascinating story. As we were recently planning the release of the film, the village was devastated by fire during the 2018 festive season.

As a result, Natural Justice and their partners – that also include the Open Society Initiative and the ABS Capacity Development Initiative – are now using the premiere of the film to raise funds for Wupperthal disaster relief.

In places the road to the village is no more than a winding bit of gravel. Tumbling down the mountainside is a very real threat. The tale of how the Khoi and San growers are making history with the Rooibos plant in these remote settlements has many twists and turns, just like the uphill road from Clanwilliam.

Barend Salamo, the unofficial mayor of the village and also chairperson of the Wupperthal Co-op called Rooibos Originals that represents local growers, tells the groundbreaking story with a no-nonsense style that is prevalent among the mountain people.

“Our mother did not always have enough breast milk and she gave her children Rooibos tea as a substitute for breast milk. Rooibos tea runs in my veins, it’s a part of us. That is why, when you talk about Rooibos tea, you’re talking about our heritage, it’s part of our existence.”

It’s a long way from being suckled on stokkies tee to traveling the world to negotiate Rooibos deals. But the work of Barend, the other Rooibos growers in the Cederberg and the host of funders and stakeholders with whom they have been working, has been made easier by international protocols.


Barend Salamo, Chair of the Wupperthal Rooibos Originals Co-op. Photo Denver Breda

Khoi & San Holders of Traditional Knowledge

Firstly, there’s the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). This is a framework that ensures fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from industries like Rooibos. Then there’s the Nagoya Protocol that governs how access to Rooibos and Benefit Sharing should be implemented at a national level.

The South African government supplemented these global regulations with a special investigation, dubbed the TK (Traditional Knowledge) Report. The report states with regard to Rooibos and Honeybush:

“There is no evidence that disputes that the Khoi and San are holders of Traditional Knowledge… The TK for Rooibos and Honeybush rests with the communities who originate in these areas.”

Armed with this level of support the people of the Cederberg approached the commercial Rooibos industry. Their aim was to pressurise the industry into signing what is known as an ABS Agreement (Access and Benefit Sharing). It has taken many years, much heartache and tough negotiations. But that deal is finally about to be signed.

This means that in order to exploit Rooibos commercially, benefits will have to be paid to South Africa’s Khoi and San communities.

Lesle Jansen is an environmental lawyer with the Natural Justice NGO. She and her organisation are key movers in this landmark fight for recognition and benefits. The mission of Natural Justice is to conserve and preserve biodiversity by supporting indigenous people and local communities.

Jansen says: “It’s about benefits, but it’s more about the dignity. Its giving back and its some form of healing and restitution to get that acknowledgement. Phase one has been to secure the rights, which has been a massive fight. Phase two is what are you going to do with those rights. It was so much hard work just to get here.”

Professor Rachel Wynberg holds a research chair at the University of Cape Town, advising government and civil society on biodiversity. She looks at social and environmental issues relating to natural products, with a focus on justice questions.

She says: “Rooibos epitomises some of the opportunities but also the fraught issues that are involved in the South African natural products industry. Fraught issues like access to land, exploitation of traditional knowledge without giving adequate recognition.”


Amelia Koopman, Chair of the Kleinvlei Rooibos Co-op. Image Ryan Lee Seddon

Far Reaching Implications

If you find the mountain passes from Clanwilliam to Wupperthal fraught with danger, the winding animal path to nearby Kleinvlei will truly test your faith. Amelia Koopman who chairs the local Rooibos Co-op in this village says as children they walked barefoot over the mountains to get to school. She is one of the few women involved in the many years of tough negotiations between the Rooibos growers of these villages, the Khoi and San people and the commercial industry based mainly in Clanwilliam. She says the government research and the final recognition of their Traditional Knowledge has far-reaching implications.

“Dit was verskriklike baie narvorsing wat gedoen was om seker te maak dit is die Khoi en die San se Tradisionele Kennis. Ek het net gedink ‘dankie’, al kry ek nie geld waarde nie ek kry die waarde van my Voorouers. Al sal ek nie daai groot geld benut nie maar net daai trots om te weet die kom van ons af, dit was al vir my al klaar a prys. Dit kan help om ons kinders verder te laat leer. Dit is belangrik dat ons kinders (ons was eers kleurling nou Khoi en San) dat ons kinders daai self vertroue kry wat die kommersiele boere gekry het. Jy kan a boontjie plant en ‘n sak boontjies wen.”

[A great of amount of research was done to establish that it is the Traditional Knowledge of the Khoi and San. I thought ‘thank you’, even if I don’t get monetary value I am enjoying the wealth of my Ancestors. Even if we don’t receive big money payouts, we have the pride of knowing this comes from us. That was for me a reward in itself. It can help with our children’s education. It is important that our children – we were first coloured now we are Khoi and San – have that self confidence that the commercial farmers have been given. You can plant one bean and win a whole bag of beans.]


The remarkable Rooibos, a Fynbos bush that refuses to grow anywhere else in the world. Image Ryan Lee Seddon

Thriving In Adverse Conditions

There is something quite uncanny about how closely the characteristics of the Rooibos plant mirrors the ways of the people of the Cederberg Mountains. Many foreigners have tried but this variety of fynbos simply refuses to grow anywhere else. In adverse conditions, like mountain fires, the plant thrives.

Amelia Koopman works very closely with Barend Salamo in Wupperthal. He adds:

“We don’t have papers, but we can tell you precisely what you can use Rooibos for, and what you can use for ailments. We did not learn it from books, we learnt it from our parents.”

A turning point in their long struggle has been the decision by the Swiss Multinational Nestlé to start making payments in terms of an ABS agreement with them. Cecil le Fleur who is the chair of the National Khoi & San Council says:

“We must admit we never had problems persuading Nestlé to enter into agreement with the Khoi and San negotiating team. We used our good relationship with Nestlé to persuade (South African) producers to come to the table. Nestlé then started to make payments. Till now we received two payments. Given the fact that we have received the acknowledgement from the Rooibos Industry we will enter into more serious talks on how the real Access and Benefit Sharing Agreement will be rolled out. The parties that will be involved will be the National Khoi & San Council, the San Council and the Rooibos Council…. And in an overarching role, the government’s Department of Environmental Affairs.”

He explains further: “The thing that the company needs is a permit (to exploit Rooibos) and that permit requires of the company to have a Benefit Sharing Agreement with the community that claims to be the knowledge holders of the product that they are using.”


The people of the Cederberg have fought a battle on behalf of all of us. Photo Denver Breda

Barend Salamo connects this 21st Century progress the community has made with the ancient heritage of the Khoi and San people:

“The Khoi and the San learnt from animals and there is a relationship between us and plants that no-one can take away from us. It’s a deep anchor. You just need to remind our people, you don’t have to teach them to awaken the spirit within them. If you talk about the Khoi and the San, they are not only in Wupperthal, they are spread across the country. It will be interesting to see how this benefit that will come out of this process will be shared.”

The people of the Cederberg have fought a battle on behalf of all of us. The people of these small mountain villages have achieved something never before done in South Africa. They have staked their claim to legal ownership of something entirely intangible… The Traditional Knowledge of our Ancestors. And they’ve won. There are few places in the world where such a claim has succeeded.

Not only that… They’ve fought for a share of every rand earned by the big Rooibos companies who have misappropriated Khoi and San traditional knowledge in the past.

This could well be one of the most important steps to redress historic injustice. And it’s all because of a finicky fynbos bush that refuses to grow anywhere else in all the world.

When we drove down the mountain at the end of the final day of shooting the Rooibos Restitution film, we were excited about the prospects for the future of Wupperthal. The fire in December 2018 left us heartbroken. But like the Rooibos plant after the seasonal mountain fires, the people have rallied. They are using the tragedy not only to rebuild Wupperthal but to launch a land claim that will turn their fortunes around.

After all they have achieved, they still do not own the land on which they grow the Rooibos. But that is a story for another day and requires another slow ascent of the breathtaking Cederberg Mountains.

The film Rooibos Restitution that tells the story of the historic struggle of the people of the Cederberg to win recognition for the Traditional Knowledge of the Khoi and San will premiere at The Baxter Theatre on Thursday January 31st at 8 pm. The screening is a fundraiser for Wupperthal disaster relief and is being coordinated by the Natural Justice NGO. Booking via Webtickets.

More stories in Issue 107

Contributors

Sylvia Vollenhoven

A writer, award-winning journalist, playwright and filmmaker. In 2019 appointed the University of Johannesburg’s first ever Professor of Practice. Commissioned by the Volksoperahuis of Amsterdam to write Krotoa Eva van de Kaap, a play that premiered in the Netherlands to standing ovations before touring South Africa. Her seminal dance drama about Khoisan identity, The Keeper […]

Links

San, Khoi & Rooibos Factsheet

The San and Khoi people are the original knowledge holders to the uses of rooibos. Known scientifically as aspalathus linearis but called “rooibos” by the locals, the plant has been used by the San and Khoi for generations as a remedy for a wide range of ailments. The fine, needle-like rooibos leaves are high in antioxidants and caffeine-free. It can relieve allergic symptoms, provide an energy boost and help heal damaged skin. This was confirmed by a traditional knowledge study the South African government commissioned during 2014.

Visit Site

Rooibos Robbery: A Story of Bioprospecting in South Africa

Foreign and local companies have sought to exploit Rooibos without acknowledging the Khoi and San people as the holders of the Traditional Knowledge. This is just one story of a fight against bioprospecting…

Visit Site

Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter and get notified of new issues.