A worker piles up leaves of rooibos tea for drying. Local people have been marginalised in the industry. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Rachel Wynberg 

There are political, environmental and social controversies associated with that most delectable of South African beverages: rooibos tea. The industry is based upon Aspalathus linearis, a leguminous plant from the Fabaceae family that occurs only in South Africa’s fynbos region. The debate enfolds both the plant itself and the traditional use and knowledge that fostered the growth of this lucrative industry.

Rooibos was first commercialised at the turn of the 20th century and is now a R300 million-a-year local industry. It employs 5,000 people and trades up to 15,000 tonnes a year.

But these economic feats have been accompanied by dispossession and adversity stretching back over centuries through colonialism and then apartheid when the government imposed a 40-year monopoly on rooibos.

The inequalities continue. About 350 commercial farmers produce 98% of the harvest. Less than 7% of land on which rooibos tea is grown is controlled by coloured – the name given to mixed race descendants of settlers, former slaves and Khoi or Bantu people – farmers who produce about 2% of tea volumes. Despite their involvement in fair trade, many of these farmers remain economically, politically and geographically marginalised.

Laying claim to rooibos

There are claims that the rooibos industry grew on the uncompensated back of traditional knowledge. This has led to the launch of demands by indigenous San and Khoi for a stake in rooibos benefits.

This is in line with South Africa’s Biodiversity Act and its 2008 Bioprospecting, Access and Benefit Sharing Regulations. Growing from the international Convention on Biological Diversity and its Nagoya Protocol, the law states that benefits arising from use of indigenous biodiversity should be shared with resource custodians and traditional knowledge holders.

In 2010, the South African San Council, one of the organisations representing first indigenous peoples of Africa, wrote to the Director-General of Environmental Affairs to claim their rights as primary knowledge holders of rooibos and honeybush tea. They were joined, in 2013, by the National Khoisan Council – established by former President Mandela to create a platform for Khoisan historical leadership in South Africa’s Constitution.

Government-commissioned research supported claims by San and Khoi. Its report urged those involved in using rooibos or honeybush to negotiate benefit-sharing agreements. These agreements set out the terms under which genetic resources and traditional knowledge should be used and their benefits fairly and equitably shared.

The report caused ructions. The rooibos industry dismissed it as lacking credibility and commissioned its own report, unpublished to date. At the same time it continued to use images of San and Khoi in the marketing of rooibos. Negotiations are now underway to seek resolution between the rooibos industry and the San and Khoisan councils.

Whose knowledge counts?

There is a tension between achieving historical and restorative justice for the San and Khoi and recognising the long chain of those who have contributed knowledge in different ways.

The San and Khoi indisputably inhabited rooibos-filled landscapes, but by the end of the 18th century the numbers of San had been decimated. Yet their knowledge of local plants was unquestionably passed on.

Important questions have thus been raised about claiming priority, or who was first.

Tryntjie Swarts, for example, was a local woman who located the elusive rooibos seed in ant nests in the 1920s, which led to the industry’s expansion.

Russian immigrant Barend Ginsberg first established the industry in the early 1900s, his dream being to make rooibos the “Ceylon of the Cape”.

Annekie Theron was a Pretoria housewife who accidentally discovered that rooibos had a soothing effect on her hyper-allergic baby. This led to a dramatic increase in demand.

rooibos-industry-cheap-labour

The rooibos industry has largely been built on the back of cheap labour. Rooibos Limited

Researchers and innovators have demonstrated the health-giving properties of rooibos and have pioneered different processing techniques. Local farmers have contributed production innovations.

There are questions about who should benefit from agreements under the Biodiversity Act. San and Khoi councils have been proactive in their demands but until recently have not included local coloured rooibos farmers.

These farmers are typically mixed-race descendants of settlers, former slaves and Khoi. They do not easily identify as indigenous or associate themselves with contemporary San or Khoi political structures.

The plant, not the culture, serves as the economic anchor for many. Now there are moves to include these rooibos farmers in benefit-sharing agreements.

Adding value

A potentially larger set of issues also requires resolution. The Biodiversity Convention and Nagoya Protocol are underpinned by the principle of fair and equitable benefit sharing. This is between technology-rich countries of the global North and biodiversity-rich countries of the global South. These principles of remedying global injustice have been all but ignored for rooibos.

For example, flavonoid C-glycosides of the plant have anti-oxidant properties thought to protect against cancer, heart attacks and strokes.

These are attracting growing international interest but this bioprospecting, meaning the search for useful chemical compounds and genes from biodiversity, has yielded few benefits for South Africa.

By 2016, 141 patents had been filed for rooibos, most by Japanese and other foreign companies. These cover a range of uses from pharmaceuticals to teas and cosmetics. Many of these remain inactive but they raise questions about how material was obtained and compliance with South Africa’s Biodiversity Act.

Rooibos tea is a commodity, but research and development for new products is characterised as bioprospecting and requires a permit. A controversy involving food giant Nestlé brought these issues to the fore.

The fact that more than 95% of rooibos is bulk exported without value-adding is also cause for concern. A step in the right direction is the recent granting of geographic indication status for rooibos. This is an important way to secure the plant’s origin in the market.

There are also invisible injustices, which must be attended to. A central motivation for bioprospecting is that it should enable biodiversity conservation to pay its way by creating incentives to conserve the resource. Yet the conservation of rooibos as a genetic resource, as a habitat and ecosystem, and as a landscape has been all but ignored in the business model of rooibos.

Because the crop is an indigenous species, it is often promoted as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional agriculture. But thousands of hectares of natural mountain fynbos, constituting one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, are ploughed up every year to grow uniform plantations of rooibos tea.

The footprint for cultivated rooibos has grown from 14,000 hectares in 1991 to over 60,000 hectares today. Chemical inputs are also a concern and soils have been depleted.

The vision

Implementing access and benefit sharing in the rooibos industry requires a unifying, integrative and inclusive vision.

Such an approach needs to:

  • recognise the historical and existing injustices of the sector;
  • acknowledge the significant contributions that have been made by traditional knowledge holders, researchers, individuals, farmers and commercial enterprises;
  • regulate research and development to optimise benefits from bioprospecting;
  • take action to deal with the environmental problems;
  • embed access and benefit sharing within a wider developmental agenda involving access to markets, credit and land; and
  • set in place restorative measures to transform the industry.

It is clear that the rooibos industry is poised for transformation. Decisions taken today will not only influence the local industry, but will also have an impact across the seas. Access and benefit sharing, while fraught, irreconcilable and fractured, could catalyse just the kind of forum needed to turn challenges into opportunities for growth, redress and a rethink of the rooibos industry.

The research described in this article is based on a recent published review.