We celebrate the compensation agreement between the rooibos-tea industry and South Africa’s Indigenous peoples (see Nature 575, 258; 2019). As researchers in the field, what concerns us are those left out of the story: small-scale farmers who have worked rooibos land for generations.
It is their oral histories that informed how rooibos seeds were originally unearthed by following the paths of ants (a finding that led to the birth of the industry at scale), and how rooibos was used alongside breast milk to nurture their children. Yet these farmers do not fit neatly into the compensation-agreement narrative because most do not self-identify as Indigenous San or Khoi. Traditional knowledge does not necessarily have a clear-cut ethnic provenance.
Although some small-scale rooibos farmers are descended from San and Khoi, many trace back to slaves and labourers brought in from other parts of Africa and from southeast Asia. The group was largely left out of the compensation negotiations and was eventually included only through a gesture by the National Khoisan Council. Whether the group will benefit in practice remains to be seen.
If not, these communities will be further marginalized: by their exclusion from an Indigenous heritage, by their dearth of land and resources, and because they lack the power of a government-recognized council.
Nature 577, 318 (2020)