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Consuming Inequities: Vegetarianism, climate crisis, and political upheaval in South Africa

Consommer de l'inégalité : Végétarisme, crise climatique et tensions politiques en Afrique du Sud
Chelsie Yount-André and Yanga Zembe

Abstracts

Record numbers of South Africans have eliminated or reduced meat in their diet, in an effort to address climate change. This article offers an ethnographic examination of the ways political and environmental issues play out on the plates of South Africans. Foregrounding the experiences of Black vegetarians, it traces the ways people of different races, classes and genders grapple with the social stakes of eating in a society where ecological crisis overlays a foundation of ongoing political struggles. How are food’s social meanings bound up with the political upheavals and ecological concerns South African society faces? What does it mean to advocate for addressing climate change through consumption practices in a place divided by such vast racial and economic inequities? Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic research on food and eating practices in urban South Africa, this article considers how social inequalities shape efforts to address climate change through consumption, through analysis of the social significance of consuming – and abstaining from – meat amidst South Africa’s vast racial and economic inequalities.

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1In the United Nations 2019 climate-change report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advocated the adoption of plant-based diets to mitigate global warming. This recommendation encouraged already rising interest in vegetarian lifestyles internationally (Schiermeier 2019). Although the shift towards plant-based diets has been most visible in countries of the Global North, an estimated 20% of South Africans claim to be trying to eliminate or reduce meat in their diet (Schimke 2020). Far outpacing other African nations in sales of vegetarian cookbooks and online searches for the term “vegan,” South African media proclaim the country to be “leading the continent into [a] vegan lifestyle,” (Powell 2020, Emecheta 2020). And yet, per capita meat consumption continues to rise in this country whose annual Heritage Day is widely dubbed “Braai Day” for the meat-filled barbecues South Africans hold to celebrate (Oirere 2019; Sihlangu 2019).

2To make sense of the complexities and apparent contradictions in South African eating practices, this article examines the social significance of consuming – and abstaining from – meat, relative to South Africa’s vast racial and economic inequalities, which have only intensified in the post-apartheid era. In a country where food insecurity remains a tangible threat for large portions of the population, the choice to eschew meat can appear, at best, to be a mark of privilege, the prerogative of predominantly White, urban elites. At worst, vegetarianism can raise suspicions about an eater’s political convictions. Understood relative to the historical apathy of White South Africans to the suffering of people of colour during apartheid, some view vegetarianism as a sign that one is more concerned about animal welfare than the plight of disenfranchised people. Laminated onto longstanding inequities of race, class and gender, vegetarianism as a marker of one’s ecological commitment must coexist with food’s diverse, and sometimes contradictory, social meanings.

3For many South Africans, the threat posed by climate change became palpable in 2018 with the drought that led to Cape Town’s water crisis and the impending risk of reaching “Day Zero” when municipal water supplies would dry up. But ecological concerns are by no means the only crisis that preoccupy the country. Covid-19 and its attendant economic downturn have drawn attention to the ways that food functions as a vector of inequalities, as price-hikes on staple foods have widened the wealth gap in South Africa. The entrenchment of inequalities, like the virus itself, has followed the geographic lines of apartheid-era segregation. Food insecurity has surged in areas that are home to the largest numbers of poor Black and Coloured populations (Harrisberg 2020). The racialized effects of the pandemic are unfolding, meanwhile, in the context of global upheaval in attitudes towards racial justice and international calls for equality. The political stakes of the current Black Lives Matter movement have inspired regular protests and re-invigorated the 2015 #RhodesMustFall campaign to decolonize South Africa’s education system.

4This article offers an ethnographic examination of the ways these political and environmental issues play out on the plates of South Africans. Foregrounding the experiences of Black vegetarians, it traces how people of different races, classes and genders grapple with the social stakes of eating in contemporary South Africa, where ecological crisis overlays a foundation of ongoing political struggles. We suggest that a view from South Africa, and the particularities of the moral and political meanings that vegetarianism takes on there, can provide insight into the implications of advocating a plant-based diet as a response to climate change on an international scale, in the face of rapidly increasing global inequalities.

5Scholars of critical food studies have examined the social significance of vegetarianism (the practice of abstaining from meat and fish) and veganism (avoidance of all animal products) relative to race (Harper 2011), class (Greenebaum 2017) and gender relations (Ruby & Heine 2011). These studies have revealed the social tensions that arise surrounding vegetarianism in the context of the family (Roth 2005; Sobal 2005) and on a societal level (Larue 2015; Greenebaum 2018). The act of rejecting meat can call into question shared social identities (Fischler 2015) and upend power relations and economic systems structured around meat consumption (Dubuisson-Quellier 2009). This is precisely why vegetarianism has historically been embraced as a political tool by activists from the Black Panthers (Hassberg 2020), to anti-Vietnam war demonstrators (Belasco 1989) and Ghandi’s followers (Slate 2019). As interest in vegetarianism and veganism has become mainstream, scholars and journalists have documented anti-vegan sentiments and pro-meat activism, demonstrating the ways these tensions map onto inequalities of wealth and education (Cole & Morgan 2011; Gorvett 2020). Social conflicts surrounding vegetarianism and veganism have grown concomitantly with recommendation, on the part of scientists (IPCC 2019), activists (PETA 2020) and mainstream news sources (Harrabin 2019), to adopt plant-based diets to fight climate change. But scholars have yet to examine the ways that social inequalities might shape how these recommendations are taken up on the ground.

6With a few notable exceptions, scholarship on vegetarianism has largely overlooked the African continent, where research on food has largely focused on questions of food security and nutrition (Mandala 2003; see also de Suremain 2009). Emergent studies on vegetarianism in South Africa (Ngqangashe 2019; Chapman 2015; Sedupane 2017) suggest that social tensions similar to those observed in the Global North also exist in the African context. But they have yet to examine how persistent inequities in the post-apartheid context shape the political and moral significance of vegetarianism in South Africa. How are food social meanings bound up with the political upheavals and ecological concerns South African society faces? What does it mean to advocate climate action through consumption practices in a place divided by such vast racial and economic inequities? Inequities in South Africa reflect the severity of global inequalities at a national level (May 2000; IMF 2020). Analysis of the political and moral meanings of vegetarianism in contemporary South Africa can thus provide insight into the ways social inequalities structure the uptake of consumption focused strategies to address climate change and the ways these recommendations shape, in turn, the social lives of people struggling to cope with multiple, overlapping crises (environmental, economic, health, etc.).

7This article is based on 18 months of ethnographic research on food and eating practices in urban South Africa. The majority of this qualitative research was carried out during a 2017 study in four cities (Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg), which used participant observation and semi-structured interviews to examine the social meanings of eating practices among South Africans. Participants were aged between 20 and 64 years and self-identified as members of what are considered South Africa’s four major racial groups. These data were supplemented by interviews in 2020 focused on the experiences of vegetarians and vegans in South Africa, carried out via videoconference. In total, this article analyses 63 semi-structured interviews (48 individual and 15 groups of 5-10 people), which were carried out in English, Zulu and Xhosa, and lasted 1.5 to 2 hours. Interviews were recorded, transcribed and translated to create 34-60 page transcripts, which were coded and analysed relative to the article’s themes of vegetarianism and the social significance South Africans attribute to eating. Interviews focused on the middle classes, a category that encompasses a particularly wide range of socioeconomic conditions in South Africa (see Phadi & Ceruti 2011). The article draws additionally on Zembe’s ethnographic research over the past fifteen years among impoverished populations in South Africa (see Zembe et al. 2013; Nor et al. 2012) and as a “native ethnographer” (Béteille 2007). Specifically, her experiences living as a vegetarian in South Africa for twelve years informed our investigation of the challenges faced by Black vegetarians.

8Before we turn to examine the social significance of eating, and avoiding, meat in South Africa, we must clarify our use of the term “race”, a concept so highly debated that much research in Western Europe avoids the term (Simon 2012). We use this term for two reasons. First, in South Africa, its emic usage is omnipresent. Although one’s “race” is no longer printed on national identification cards as it was during apartheid, it remains a social division that individuals must navigate in their daily practices like eating, which structures the opportunities and obstacles one encounters throughout one’s life. Second, although “race” does not exist in any biological or genetic sense, it persists as a social construct that has a material impact on individuals’ health and economic conditions (Guillaumin 1981; Balibar 1997; Gravelee 2009). We wish to highlight the parallel between the mutual influence between this social construct and the material conditions that shape individuals’ lives in racial terms and symbolic meanings that eating practices take on in South Africa, to underline the fact that the symbolism attributed to vegetarianism is both organized according to extant inequalities and simultaneously has very “real,” material effects on people’s daily lives.

9In what follows, we will first consider the diverse social meanings of eating meat in South Africa and the ways that eaters enact collective identities and establish power relations through meat consumption. We then analyse the fraught terrain of vegetarianism in urban South Africa and the virtues (and vices) that individuals attribute to this practice. Finally, we examine the ways that the social significance of eating and abstaining from meat shape political and ethical debates in South Africa regarding climate change. The question of vegetarianism in South Africa draws attention to the fact that there is no “neutral” way of eating, any and all food choices may be saturated with political meaning according to context. In the fraught and ever-changing social terrain of post-apartheid South Africa, food choices provide insight into the ways that eaters of all races navigate political economic struggles in their everyday lives. The social significance of food is tangled up in all of these political and ecological concerns, such that eaters in South Africa must navigate a particularly treacherous foodscape (Dolphijn 2004), in which eating practices that appear ethical from one viewpoint may be considered suspect from another perspective.

Meat matters: status, dignity and power in South Africa

  • 1 Braai Day has, however, come under critique in recent years, especially among Black South Africans (...)

10In his role as the official patron of National Braai Day, Archbishop Desmond Tutu celebrated the unifying force of South African barbecues, noting that in all of South Africa’s eleven official languages, there is “only one word for the wonderful institution of braai” (BBC 2007). Gathering to barbecue kilograms of chicken, lamb, steak and Boewoers sausages is a pastime that transcends race and class divisions in South Africa, allowing braai, in the post-apartheid era to be embraced as a symbol of inter-racial unity1. One is as likely to see the puff of charcoal smoke rising from a sizzling grill at a corporate event held on the lawn of a luxury hotel as in a township, where the country’s most famous shisanyamas (braai grills) are packed with patrons every night of the week. Vegetarianism has, however, always co-existed with this meat-centric national identity, notably among South Africa’s Indian minority, many of whom abstain from meat as practicing Hindus. Yet, even after generations in South Africa, Indians continue to occupy a space separate to representations of South Africanness, the only one of the country’s major racial groups to be identified by the country from whence their ancestors came. Where meat is embraced as an emblem of unity and national belonging, vegetarianism may be construed as a mark of difference, foreignness.

11While meat may be championed as a symbol of shared identity in the context of this national holiday, it is simultaneously a salient marker of all forms of social differences deemed significant in South African society. Anthropologists have long highlighted the ways meat functions as a “natural symbol” (Fiddes 1992), demonstrating how differential access to various types, qualities and cuts of meat both reflect and establish differences of wealth, status and power cross-culturally. Among South Africa’s many Black African ethnic groups, for example, meat is central to processes of redistribution that underpin networks of intergenerational reciprocity among kin and which allow young people to achieve social adulthood. Like elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, one’s ability to feed and otherwise provide for children, elders and other dependents is central to establishing oneself as a responsible adult, ready to be married and head one’s own household (Cole 2011). Eating meat and feeding it to others is a means through which people (especially men) might become “big,” that is assume a desirable status in terms of age, wealth and power. At weddings and baptisms, to celebrate migrant workers’ annual visit home, and even when one purchases a car or home, hosts slaughter animals to honour their ancestors and demonstrate their wealth and generosity by feeding many guests.

12Meat also establishes unequal kinship roles through the daily act of feeding one’s family, gendered work that differentiates working adults from the dependents they provide for, while also distinguishing men from women (see also Sobal 2005; Liechty 2005). In South Africa (like most societies worldwide), women do the majority of food preparation in the home, whatever their racial or ethnic background (Bhana and Pillay 2012). Many women described feeling social pressure to prepare meat-based meals when cooking for their husbands or other male relatives. One Afrikaaner woman in Port Elizabeth commented, “How are you just going to give this big man a salad and say, ‘Hey this is your supper’? Of course, he’s not going to eat that.” Among ethnic groups like Xhosas and Zulus, gendered expectations regarding meat consumption are made explicit through cultural taboos preventing women from eating certain cuts of meat, like iskobho (sheep's head). Men of all racial and class backgrounds emphasized their preference for meat. Many asserted that they would rather go hungry than eat snack foods or salads, which they associate with women and children. As one man in Port Elizabeth put it, “I would never eat a packet of chips on the side of the road the way you see women and children doing.” He explained that “as a Xhosa man of my age … it would be very disrespectful of me to do that.” Framed as an obligatory component of meals appropriate for adult men (but not essential for adult women), meat functions as a site of social constructions of gender that can reinforce inequalities, but also provide a means for resistance. For instance, some Zulu women described deliberately consuming sheep's head to demonstrate their equality to men.

13Meat as a marker of unequal social roles is not limited to gender relations, but permeates South African society, marking racialized notions of class status. Landa, an upper-middle class Black man from Cape Town spoke reflexively about the ways that food not only reflects one’s race and class but can also establish one’s status position. He admitted to trying to familiarize himself with “foods associated with high social status”, explaining that, although he does not eat sushi, he “would like to like it.” He explained that “When eating out with friends, it shows a certain class.” Landa highlighted the ways the impression of status one creates by eating certain foods can have a very real impact on one’s opportunities. “In reality”, he specified, “if you come off as belonging to a certain social class, that could get you access to bigger things, [e.g.] a lucrative contract. It could determine if you get a yes or a no.” Opportunities, he explained, are organized by class and by race, specifying that sushi and other high-status foods are “a step closer to Whiteness.” Whiteness, he stated bluntly, “is associated with class and prestige. Practically, what that means is that the closer you get to whiteness the more you will be accepted in certain spaces, and the more your Blackness will be numbed.”

14Although Landa spoke with particular awareness, his assessments resonate with those of many South Africans regarding meat and social status. Meat as a marker of social mobility is not specific to people of colour, nor to South Africans, but holds salience on an international scale, as evidenced in rising rates of meat consumption as incomes increased in Europe and North America over the 19th and 20th centuries and in contemporary China (Warren 2018; Klein 2016). But meat’s capacity to make one’s transition out of poverty visible holds particular significance for South Africans of colour, many of whom have personal histories of childhood deprivation during the apartheid era. The globalization of the food industry during apartheid meant that Blacks in South Africa were excluded from forms of consumption emblematic of global modernity, prohibited from entering the shopping malls and neighbourhoods where international fast-food chains were located (Chavalier 2015). For many people of colour, meat consumption marks status in ways that are bound up with questions of dignity. A Black man from Port Elizabeth spoke, for example, of the pride he feels bringing home a meat-filled “triple decker” pizza to his family on payday. “I tell them, ‘Don’t cook tonight!’ It makes you feel like you have definitely moved forward in life, you are affording your mother all these things.” Other participants described the embarrassment they would feel eating meats associated with poverty, like chicken feet or tinned fish, in front of their colleagues at work. One Black woman in Pietermaritzburg laughed as she admitted that if she brings tinned fish to work, she eats alone in the privacy of her office, lest her colleagues think, “She is a doctor, but she eats poor people’s food!” Meat was a central ingredient in the “rich” or “modern foods,” like burgers and pizza, that she described feeling comfortable eating in the staff room.

15Even braai, framed as a great unifier in South Africa, makes class-differences plain in the types of meat cooked and the sorts of foods that accompany it, be they gourmet salads of quinoa and avocado, or beers floating in a bucket of ice, standard fare at shisanyamas. But even at these braai grills, a fenced off section marked “VIP” separates those with the means to spare no expense on their evening out. Lounging on sofas, rather than the usual picnic tables, and waited on by staff, they are spared the bustle of the crowd. Indeed, the ability to host a backyard braai or to patronize a shisanyama at all demands disposable income, thus excluding the poorest South Africans. Yet lower-class South Africans go to great lengths to regularly consume meat, often at the expense of dietary diversity. Meat is one of the largest budgetary expenditures in poor households, where meals often consist exclusively of meat in gravy and a starch, like pap (maize meal porridge), rice or bread, while fruits and vegetables are considered luxuries (Kroll 2016). In poorer areas, the failure to eat meat may be taken as a sign that a family is truly struggling to get by. For people of colour – even those considered middle class – efforts to position oneself through meat eating often hinge upon the desire to distance oneself from signs of abject poverty and the humiliation endured during apartheid.

16In recent decades, the relationship between meat and social status has shifted with the emergence of vegetarianism as a symbol of privilege, in South Africa and internationally (De Labarre 2004). Meat became cheaper and more widely accessible with the expansion of industrial agriculture (Montanari 1995). This trend reached the global South with the globalization of the industrialized food system, part of a wider dietary shift that nutritionists and global health scholars call the “nutritional transition” (Popkin 1997). Dietary changes associated with this “transition” are linked to escalating rates of obesity and heart disease worldwide (Popkin 2001). In South Africa and other low-income countries, this resulted in a “double-burden of malnutrition,” the coexistence of obesity and undernutrition as public health issues (Modjadji & Madiba 2019). As meat consumption became an everyday practice across the social classes, vegetarianism became (for some) a mark of distinction and prestige. Processed foods were cheap and readily available, whereas new plant-based proteins and vegetarian products were relatively costly. These economic divisions were overlaid with moral messages. Fast foods became emblematic of the ills of modernity, the harms the global food system wreaks on individual and planetary health. Vegetarianism emerged as a form of virtue signalling.

17Although the notion of a nutrition “transition” effectively captures a statistical trend towards increased meat consumption associated with economic development, it also obfuscates the contours of this shift and the persistence of groups who remain unable to eat as much meat as they would like. More problematic, by conceptually linking meat consumption to notions of “development,” the term works to situate people relative to one another on a temporal scale, tied to morally charged notions of “modernity” (Latour 1991). As international scholars and politicians increasingly advocate for the reduction in meat consumption, the notion of a “transition” as a temporal passage rather than a function of wealth inequities risks treating those who yearn to eat more meat as “backwards” or “behind.”

18In South Africa, vast differences in people’s material conditions have resulted in the coexistence of multiple, sometimes opposed, moral meanings associated with meat, organized along racial lines. A practice like slaughtering a cow at a wedding, may be interpreted as a sign of generosity, evidence that one is a dutiful kinsmen and responsible adult. But the same practice may elsewhere be construed as “traditional”, which, whether criticized as “backwards” or exoticized, separates it from images of modern South Africa. If the diverse interpretations of meat consumption are morally charged, so too are the many social meanings associated with vegetarianism, which we explore in the next section.

Vegetarian values: the fraught moral terrain of abstaining from meat

  • 2 https://businesstech.co.za/news/business/366152/more-south-africans-are-going-meat-free-say-checker (...)
  • 3 https://www.woolworths.co.za/content/howto/new-in-taste/ask-a-vegan/_/A-cmp209693

19The growing popularity of vegetarianism in South Africa is visible in the ever-wider selection of plant-based items on supermarket shelves and vegetarian restaurants, now easy to find in city centres. This movement, which began among elites in Cape Town, has now grown to encompass urban centres across the country (Singh 2019). Today even mid-range supermarkets like Checkers and Pick’n Pay stock foods like vegetarian sausage, reportedly by consumer demand2. In the minds of many South Africans, however, vegetarianism remains a dietary choice associated with privilege and, especially, with “whiteness”. Indeed, vegetarian restaurants are concentrated in upper and middle-class areas, predominantly home to Whites. While upscale grocery stores like Woolworths cater plant-based diets, going so far as to offer a guide for “Plant-based living”3, supermarkets in Black and Coloured townships rarely carry meat-substitutes or a large selection of vegetables.

20There exists, however, a growing movement of people of colour who embrace plant-based diets for health reasons and, often, with the explicit political aim of “decolonising” their diet. This approach links vegetarianism to goals like ending the colonial legacy of dependence on food imports and rejecting processed foods circulated on a global food system which, they argue, is not sustainable for health or the environment. Many Black vegetarians take part in international online communities of vegans of colour, aimed at “resisting mainstream notions of veganism as separate from race/racism/racialization,” arguing that “All oppressions are connected” (Harper 2011: 221). This approach resonates with a robust body of research in South Africa which advocates food sovereignty in order to achieve a “just transition” away from global capitalism towards a more sustainable system (Bennie & Satgoor 2018). Distinguishing themselves from plant-based trends among White South Africans, many Black and Coloured vegetarians suggest that their practice represents a return to Africa’s historical culinary traditions, when livestock was slaughtered only on special occasions. Indeed, the experiences of vegetarians in South Africa, the obstacles they encounter and the values that drive them, often diverge along racial lines.

21In a nation in which meat plays a central role in the collective identity, vegetarianism can be an alienating choice. Beyond the practical difficulties posed by the fact that one cannot share in eating dishes that include meat, vegetarianism is often perceived as saturated with moral judgements (Minson et al. 2012). Many vegetarians regretted that their dietary choices complicate social interactions. A source of tension at family meals and holidays, some admitted that they eat with relatives less frequently and receive fewer invitations to social gatherings like braais as a result of their vegetarianism. Vegetarians of all races described encountering criticism and confusion, given that the practice remains relatively unusual in South Africa. But the intensity of resistance that one encounters varies relative to the colour of one’s skin. Indian South Africans often benefit from social support, since vegetarianism is common among Hindus. Even non-Hindus are able to escape curiosity and critique thanks to social awareness of this religious practice. Black and Coloured South Africans, however, encounter particular resistance, in their own communities and from White South Africans alike (Greenebaum 2018; Harper 2011).

22In their communities of origin, Black and Coloured vegetarians described their dietary choices to be a source of social tension. “Because of its association with whiteness, removing meat from our diets feels like not just losing our culture, but adopting the White culture, and no one is comfortable with that” explained Yoninah, a Black vegan woman who runs the Facebook page, Vegan Ekasi or “Township Vegan.” Black vegetarians described family members who had accused them of trying to “act white” or who worried that they had converted to Rastafarianism and would henceforth spend their time idly smoking marijuana (Nokoyo 2016). Some described relatives who had warned them that abstaining from meat would leave them malnourished or could even kill them.

23Class inequalities compound the issues that vegetarians of colour encounter. Their relatives often lacked the knowledge and resources to accommodate a vegetarian diet, resulting in interactions that caused great embarrassment for vegetarians and their relatives alike. Reflecting on her own experiences as a vegetarian, the second author concluded that the “few times [she] regretted becoming a vegetarian was when visiting poor relatives.” Many years later, she remembered clearly her family members’ “awkward, shocked responses” upon learning of her dietary restrictions. When they wondered whether she avoided meat because it made her ill, she felt even “more self-conscious and shame-filled”, as the health and ethical reasons which motivated her vegetarianism suddenly appeared “shallow and even silly” in front of relatives who struggled to get by. On one memorable occasion, after traveling all day, she arrived at her aunt’s rural home too late to warn her host of her new dietary restrictions. Painfully aware that her aunt, who survived on a meagre government allocation, had killed her fattest chicken to honour her visitors and likely had no vegetables in the pantry, she contented herself to eat maize porridge and gravy.

24The shame of having to ask disadvantaged relatives and friends to accommodate their dietary preference was a bitter struggle for Black vegetarians. In stark contrast with demonstrations of one’s wealth through the slaughter of animals and the generous redistribution of meat, to many people of colour, vegetarianism can appear to be a mark of privilege that signals social distance and foreignness. Vegetarians often find it difficult to take up the role of generous benefactor through sharing food, although some described preparing meat that they do not eat or even hosting braais to avoid social exclusion (Ngqangashe 2019)

25Vegetarians of colour often noted that White South Africans were generally willing to accommodate their lifestyle and reported that finding food in “White neighbourhoods” was often easier than in Black and Coloured areas. At restaurants and dinner parties among educated, middle-class South Africans, it has become increasingly common to inquire in advance about guests’ potential dietary restrictions. But navigating these “White public spaces” (Page & Thomas 1994) comes with its own challenges for vegetarians of colour. For those who can afford to eat out, selecting a restaurant is a complex task, requiring one to calculate in which eateries they are likely to stick out as the only person of colour.

26Vegetarians of colour also described their discomfort at White people’s surprise when learning of their dietary choices. A Black vegan woman in Johannesburg explained that White people sometimes appeared suspicious upon learning of her dietary choices, asking prodding questions, as if they were unconvinced that she understood what veganism implied and sought confirmation that her diet was truly free of animal products. She complained that White South Africans had a tendency to offer unsolicited advice on veganism, which she found patronizing and a reflection of White people’s perception that they “own” veganism. A Black woman in Pietermaritzburg recalled the confusion that arose once when she stayed at a White-owned guest house in KwaZulu Natal. Although the owners (Afrikaaner) had confirmed that they would accommodate her dietary restrictions, she arrived at the establishment to learn that they had served her Kentucky Fried Chicken. Having never before encountered a Black vegetarian, the owner explained that when he heard of her dietary restrictions, he assumed that she meant that she avoided red meat, not chicken.

27Even online communities designed to support those who adopt a plant-based lifestyle can present a challenge to vegetarians of colour. Alice, a middle-class English woman in Cape Town who is active on an inter-racial vegetarian forum online, described her struggles to make clear to other White people how their suggestions could appear insensitive to lower-class vegetarians and people of colour, for whom the foods they recommended could be prohibitively expensive. Even the act of “sharing recipes on cooking lentils”, she explained, is “sensible on one level but doesn’t take into account the issues of time poverty” which disproportionately affect disadvantaged South Africans. She also noted that she discouraged online discussions of animal cruelty, explaining that this is a “tender issue” in South Africa that could impede supportive exchanges among vegetarians of different races. Alice explained that “issues of meat” could be very “triggering” in South Africa, revealing speakers’ unconscious biases and racist presuppositions. Her suggestion that discussions of meat and animal welfare represent potential “triggers” – i.e. subjects associated with past trauma that prompt a spontaneous and acute response – points to the ways that the values underpinning vegetarianism are bound up with the country’s brutal history of racism.

28Animal welfare represents a point of tension that divides vegetarians in South Africa into racialized categories (Cordeiro-Rodrigues 2020). This issue is polemical because the choice to focus one’s activism on the welfare of animals in this context of severe and persistent racial inequities can be construed as a mark of White privilege and apathy to the suffering of people. Most Black and Coloured people described health to be their primary motivation in becoming vegetarian. Some explicitly traced this to anti-racist political struggles, explaining that the country’s food system, established under settler-colonialism and industrialized during apartheid, put people of colour at disproportionate risk of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease. In this context, they asserted, rejecting meat, high in saturated fats, was a revolutionary act.

29Many people of colour viewed vegetarianism that was motivated by ethics of animal welfare to be a cause incompatible with struggles against racism, given that, historically, concerns for Black lives have rarely coincided with concerns for animal welfare on the political agendas of White activists. Furthermore, Black people often perceived the suggestion that eating meat constitutes cruelty against animals as a judgement aimed particularly at African communities’ practice of slaughtering animals to honour ancestors (Thamm 2016). Yoninah explained that on her Vegan Ekasi page she wouldn’t be comfortable associating veganism with animal conservation, because Black people love animals as pets, but feel strongly about eating animals as part of their lifestyle.” She continued, explaining that she does not promote veganism to address ecological concerns at all, because “conservation as a movement is considered a White issue.” Yoninah equated questions of animal welfare with the “conservation movement” and ecological concerns more broadly, an elision that is common between people of colour and Whites alike. As “White issues,” concerns about the environment and animals appeared, to her, to be at odds with her aims in encouraging other people of colour to adopt a plant-based lifestyle.

30White South Africans, both English and Afrikaaner, are largely aware that for people of colour, calls to activism for animal welfare can often trigger the traumas of apartheid. But they vary greatly in their interpretations of this aversion and the sensitivity they display to the racialized tensions that vegetarianism can spark. Although some White vegetarians and vegans remain staunch supporters of the fight against animal cruelty (Ngqangashe 2019), most of the White vegetarians we spoke to were more sensitive to the qualms that people of colour might have with the choice to focus on animal cruelty. Many White South Africans described feeling shame vis-à-vis people of colour when it came to food. An upper middle-class English woman in Pietermaritzburg described carefully limiting the amount she spends on food, stating that “it just does not feel right when you … think of people in this country who do not have enough food.” Some White vegetarians described learning, to their dismay, that Black colleagues had taken them to be affiliated with the conservative Democratic Alliance Party – a minority party that caters to the interests of privileged Whites – after learning of their efforts to enact environmental activism through consumption. One middle-class Afrikaaner woman reported that she had abandoned vegetarianism upon taking a job in a racially diverse workplace in Johannesburg. She described this as a “very conscious decision” to avoid “othering” herself as a privileged white person at work. Clarifying that her colleagues did not judge or ostracize her for her dietary practices, she explained that “where power dynamics come into play”, she felt it important to avoid “giving the impression that you don’t want to engage in the same class struggles that affect the majority of people in this country.”

31Each of these examples point to a sense among South Africans – whatever their race, whether vegetarian or not – that vegetarianism driven by the ethics of animal welfare is a “White issue,” difficult to reconcile with anti-racist efforts. In the post-apartheid context, racialized understandings of vegetarianism, like the notion of “race” itself, are powerful social constructs that shape material realities, influencing whether or not one maintains a vegetarian lifestyle and shaping the ways that people understand and explain their own dietary choices. In the final section, we explore how these dichotomous views of the values that underpin vegetarianism shape political and ecological debates.

Plant-based diets and political struggle: the tangles of climate solutions

32Calls to combat climate change and to “decolonise” institutions in South Africa have both gained urgency over the past decade. Debates about food relative to climate change do not take place in a bubble, but unfold on the uneven social terrain of imbricated inequalities of race, class, and gender. Political struggles endow food with, sometimes polemical, moral meanings and food fights fuel, in turn, political debates. An example of how one politicized debate about vegetarianism unfolded at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2015 makes plain the complexities inherent to efforts to fight climate change through consumption practices.

33In South Africa, 2015 was a year marked by student protests collectively described as the “Fallist movement,” aimed at “decolonising” the academic system. The “Rhodes must fall” campaign fought for the removal of a statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, while the “Fees must fall” movement called for a reduction in tuition fees to make university studies more accessible for disadvantaged South Africans. As students waged these protests on the UCT campus, some members of the Faculty of Humanities put forth a proposal so that meat and animal products should cease to be served at all faculty events, to take a stand against the “suffering, cruelty and killing involved in producing food from animals” (Cordeiro-Rodrigues 2020: 4). The proposal, which was immediately interpreted in racial terms, gave rise to a polarized debate. Reluctant to discuss the vegan proposal at the faculty meeting, the Dean of Humanities stated that he was uncomfortable with the proposal because dietary choices are “informed by cultural considerations of individual staff members” and to accommodate cultural diversity the Faculty must “tolerate and protect diversity with regard to dietary preferences” (Thamm 2016).

34Those who supported the proposal argued that there are limits to tolerance. Likening meat eating to racist and sexist practices, they claimed that it too imposes wrongfully on its (animal) victims. Asserting that “the entrenchment of cultural practices [was] not a guarantee of their goodness,” proponents of the ban suggested that cultural heritage does justify practices like ritual slaughtering and meat consumption (Thamm 2016). Other faculty members responded that these arguments, like the proposal itself, were fundamentally racist. Some argued that because diet is “inextricably bound to identity”, the proposal amounted to an effort to impose Whites’ values on faulty and students of colour. Given the tumultuous political context, they suggested this could be construed as further evidence of White dominance at UCT and lead to more violence on campus. Another faculty member likened the proposal to normative instructions that “White saviours” have long forced upon Black workers (Cordeiro-Rodrigues 2020: 4). The proposal was ultimately rejected in a vote of 50 to eight, with an additional 25 abstaining (Thamm 2016).

35This debate at UCT makes plain how dichotomous racialized meanings of vegetarianism in South Africa fuelled the polarization of the discussion. Faculty members on each side saw in the other’s arguments well-worn tropes about certain “types” of people, their food and their politics. Opponents perceived the call for veganism to be inherently anti-Black, seeing in it the paternalist recommendations of “White saviours” apathetic to racial inequalities. Proponents meanwhile saw resistance to their proposal as rooted in the “entrenched cultural practices,” i.e., the anachronistic “traditions” of Black Africans. In their defence of the proposal, they confirmed many of the misgivings that people of colour voice regarding the ethics of animal welfare, equating the suffering of animals with that of humans and asserting that meat eating represents a crime tantamount to racism. Cordeiro-Rodrigues (2020) argues that amidst the ongoing political struggles against institutionalized racism at UCT, proposal advocates’ choice to highlight animal suffering while ignoring other forms of oppression amounted to an “disavowal” of non-White faculty. Indeed, the wording of the proposal itself set the key for a polarized debate, such that faculty members could slip into scripts familiar to South Africans, one that emerged repeatedly in our own study when vegetarians of colour articulated their reluctance to align with ecological issues.

  • 4 Commentary papers included in the journal’s short “front section” are not peer reviewed.

36The notion that aligning with anti-racist causes could seem at odds with concern about the environment is an unsettling one in South Africa where the escalating threat of climate change coexists with urgent calls to address social inequities. This racialized dichotomy, evident in the values voiced by vegetarians, is projected outward onto diverse social contexts, used to explain people’s beliefs and behaviours along racialized lines. This was evident in a controversial paper by UCT professor of economics, Nicoli Nattrass, titled “Why are Black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?”. The author examined this question through an “exploratory survey” of UCT students in which she analyzed attitudes towards conservation according to an “anti-conservation” or “Fallist” index (Nattrass 2020: 1). She measured “Fallist opinions” according to whether students agreed with the statement “conservation biology and national parks should be scrapped” (Nattrass 2020: 1). But, as her critics point out, she offers no evidence that this opinion accurately represents the sentiment of students who took part in these protests. Nattrass’s commentary4, published in the South African Journal of Science in May of 2020 sparked such public outcry and academic critique that two months later the journal published an unprecedented special issue featuring twelve scholars’ responses to Nattrass’s original commentary. Criticism of the paper coalesced around the notion that through faulty methods and a flawed study design, Nattress presented a “Race-based explanations by any means” (Adesnia 2020: 8) and reproduced racist stereotypes of people of colour as materialist, more focused on economic gain than ecological concerns. The practices of eating or abstaining from meat are located at the nexus of fraught political debates surrounding conservation and racialized questions of animal welfare activism.

Conclusion: The questionable ethics of climate action focused on consumption

37The transition towards a plant-based diet in South Africa is taking place in a polarized political climate. Although interest in vegetarianism and veganism may be at an “all time high” (Onet 2019), meat remains a key symbol of national belonging, wealth, power and, importantly, dignity. For people of colour in particular, meat is an important mark of achieving social mobility that they were denied under apartheid and overcoming oppressive power relations.

38News reports celebrate the shift towards plant-based diets, portraying modern South Africa as leading the continent in a virtuous transition, beneficial for the entire planet. As it was taken up by international media, the IPCC’s recommendation came to occupy the moralized space of dietary instructions, the latest in a long series of normative suggestions by experts, the media and marketers regarding the foods one “ought” to consume (Yount-André 2021; Lepiller & Yount-André 2019). These moral messages have already worked to place blame for obesity and other public health issues driven by the industrialization and globalization of the food system on the shoulders of individual eaters who lack the time and money to consume healthier foods. Encouragements to fight climate change through consumption take these moralized messages to a new scale: that of planetary health. Focused on individual consumption, virtuous messages of climate action become another vector of food-focused judgements, used to scapegoat precarious populations who are most vulnerable to the effects of ecological breakdown.

39The view from South Africa provides insights into the ways climate interventions focused on consumption unfold on the world stage. Attending to the ways race and class shape experiences of vegetarianism in South Africa throws into sharp relief the fact that people are unequally able to make a shift towards a plant-based diet. This is not only due to constraints of time and money, but also because the social consequences of taking up a vegetarian diet vary greatly relative to one’s social position. The current ecological crisis, like the social inequities we have examined here, are both rooted in global capitalist relations, which thrive on inequalities and externalize the costs of capitalist accumulation onto the environment and racialized bodies to increase profits. The case of vegetarianism in South Africa demonstrates how calls to climate action focused on individual consumption risk doing more harm than good, illustrating that a transition towards sustainability can only be tackled on a systemic level.

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Notes

1 Braai Day has, however, come under critique in recent years, especially among Black South Africans who reject the term, arguing that a focus on braai rather than “Heritage Day” represents an attempt to mute national dialogue on ethnicity and (Black) cultural heritage.

2 https://businesstech.co.za/news/business/366152/more-south-africans-are-going-meat-free-say-checkers-and-pick-n-pay/

3 https://www.woolworths.co.za/content/howto/new-in-taste/ask-a-vegan/_/A-cmp209693

4 Commentary papers included in the journal’s short “front section” are not peer reviewed.

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References

Electronic reference

Chelsie Yount-André and Yanga Zembe, Consuming Inequities: Vegetarianism, climate crisis, and political upheaval in South AfricaAnthropology of food [Online], 17 | 2023, Online since , connection on 26 February 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/aof/14021; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/aof.14021

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About the authors

Chelsie Yount-André

anthropologist, Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna, chelsie.yountandre@unibo.it

Yanga Zembe

public health, University of KwaZulu Natal, zembezondiy@ukzn.ac.za

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