I’ve been travelling in South Africa and Thailand for the past two weeks for work, and as is often the case for me on this kind of trip I have big intentions to get more writing done while on the road than I can actually achieve.
As a general rule I spend about 12 hours a day on this kind of trip in transit, working, and eating (it’s hard not to eat in restaurants, and this takes time) with the other 12 hours available for sleeping and anything else. ‘Anything else’ usually means finding an email connection and doing other priority work that can’t wait, but which I can only do at a sluggish pace as the remote connection I have for my work computer is typically not a strong one. If I type too fast, I just have to sit and wait for the characters to materialise on screen up to a minute later (and I assure you that I am not a fast typist). And did you know that when you open a photo on a computer it actually opens as a series of small, square picture sections that together make up the whole image? You do when those small squares open more slowly, one at a time…
This explains why I’m writing to you here about South Africa retrospectively, now that I have a little more time and space.
Flying into South Africa is unusually spectacular; coming in to land at Cape Town the view from my right hand window seat was dominated by the impressive mass of Table Mountain towering over the city below, blanketed along its top as it often is with a ‘table cloth’ of thick white cloud on an otherwise clear day.
Driving northwards the landscape assumes a much flatter and drier appearance, with little sign of agriculture on the five-hour drive to the Heiveld rooibos co-operative, my first port of call. Revisiting Heiveld more than four years after my first visit, I was reassured to find obvious ways in which the group has improved its operations. Its tea court has been extended and two new buildings – a dormitory, and a kitchen, for the use of tea court staff – have been built. The group also reported on various ways they have been working to better support their members and also their wider community. At the same time, Heiveld stresses that their members cannot really progress unless they can buy more land; on average they have between three and four low-yielding hectares of rooibos under cultivation, and know that at their current production levels they are placing stress on the soil. A large farm next to the tea court has come up for sale and for strategic purposes Heiveld are desperate to buy it, if only they can raise the funds to do so.
Access to water is an ongoing struggle at the best of times, but each of the last two harvests here have also been hampered by a drought which began during 2014.
From Heiveld, I faced another five hour drive north across similarly desert-like land before reaching the Orange River. The river irrigates a narrow strip of land along its banks which is almost shockingly green after the brown monotony of its surrounding landscape (to travel further north, you would enter the Kalahari Desert) and it is here that Trade Aid’s grape-growing partner Eksteenskuil is based. The group’s members all live on three islands in the Orange River which is wide and braided at this point; the river can flood badly, or else run very dry, and either way this creates challenges for local farmers. With Eksteenskuil’s help its members have improved their lives considerably – the mere fact that they now grow grapes for raisin production, instead of traditional crops such as beans and cotton, is testament to this – but challenges remain.
During my visit, the group took advantage of my English language skills to help them draft a letter to protest to government officials against the long delays that many of its members face in acquiring titles to their land. For more than a decade they have been waiting in vain for their claims to be processed and without title to the land they farm they lack security and the ability to take out loans.
On my first night in the district I got a little sense of how hostile the weather can be here; following an oppressively hot and humid day, a violent storm lashed the region overnight bringing lightning, torrential rain and very strong winds. Although the heavy rain apparently caused little damage, the high winds ripped the roofs off a significant number of houses and other buildings.
It’s a late summer’s day, and the temperature is climbing. The semi-desert landscape is arid and dotted with patchy scrub, and it shimmers in a heat haze under a bright late morning sun.
Few people inhabit this relatively infertile region of South Africa’s Northern Cape province. Many of those that do produce rooibos, a low-growing plant that grows only in this part of the world and which has found a wider market as a healthy and tasty caffeine-free alternative to tea.
Here and there on these sandy-soiled hills, 25m wide strips of rooibos plants have been planted out. These rectangular strips of land are roughly 100m long and, as it is late February, the rooibos harvest is in full swing.
On one such strip of land, a group of twenty workers chat happily as they snip away with their sickles at the sporadically-planted rooibos bushes. Grasping a handful of rooibos stalks at a time, they cut them away from the plant and lay them on top of plastic bags they have placed on the ground, and which they periodically lift up and move with them as they progress down each row. Once these piles of cut rooibos stalks are large enough, they are tied together in bundles and placed on the ground in larger stacks which will later be collected up and transported by tractor and trailer to a nearby tea court for processing.
The farm’s owner, Pieter Koopman, is helping to coordinate the work and also helps to cut the rooibos from time to time with the help of his sharp, brand-new sickle. Pieter is a member of the Heiveld co-operative which, since its creation in 2001, has helped to triple his income by his own calculation.
For Pieter and the other members of Heiveld, which has been successful at marketing their tea at higher prices to Trade Aid and other buyers in the international fair trade market, this income is critical. Few cash crops other than rooibos can grow in this region, and prior to the establishment of Heiveld the local small-scale producers struggled to cover their costs of production. Processing and transport costs were high, and local traders controlled the price that the farmers could receive. At times the price the farmers got was so low that they sold their crop at a loss. Discriminated against because of the colour of their skin, these farmers struggled to work their way out of poverty but they saw through rooibos the possibility of a better life.
Today, their co-operative is providing them not just the highest prices received by rooibos farmers in the world, but also a range of other support services including agricultural training. Pieter calculates that he and the other members of Heiveld have tripled their incomes since they found a fair trade market. For these farmers, who live in a region where arable land and water are both in short supply, this extra income is critical.
Reaching the end of one row of rooibos bushes, the pickers turn and head back the other way on the next planted strip. Shortly they will take a lunch break in the shade underneath the trailer but first there is time for them to finish cutting and stacking one more row.