Honours graduate Gina Hendrickse reflects on the many modes of maize in South Africa.

Maize meal plays an incredibly important cultural and socio-economic role in the lives of many South Africans, so much so that it is perceived and advertised as a ‘proudly South African’ staple. Maize, however, does not originate from South Africa or even Africa. The history of this beloved staple food is somewhat mysterious, but some think it was introduced to the continent through Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century. The strong connection between milho, the Portuguese word for maize, and the Afrikaans mielie further reinforces this. Since its introduction to the continent, maize has become very important in the African and South African diet, making up to 40% of all calories consumed in South African households, largely in the form of maize meal or pap. The versatility and affordability of this staple make it a popular choice for many households – maize can be consumed day or night, sweet or savoury, and in various forms, including slap pap, umphokoqo, umvubo, amageu, umqombothi and the list goes on.

Prior to its arrival on African soils, maize played a crucial role in ancient Mayan and Aztec societies, viewed as a sacred symbol of life. In South Africa, maize also occupies a deeply symbolic space in the hearts and minds of many people, representing both tradition and aspiration. Maize did not dominate the South African foodscape overnight, it was the mining industry that fundamentally shifted the status of maize from a seasonally farmed crop to a “bulk source of cheap calories” in order to meet the food demands of the mining hostels and to support the increasing industrialization during the late nineteenth century. The maize industry, as a critical part of the broader “organized agriculture”, was also intimately connected to the apartheid regime and benefitted from both National Party and Broederbond patronage.

Since the birth of a democratic South Africa, the state’s relationship with the maize industry has created an environment in which the vast majority of white maize grown in the country is genetically modified (GM).  The lack of transparency around GM maize meal in South Africa, as well as weak frameworks for implementing GM labelling, has resulted in a poor understanding of what GM means and the implications that eating these foods might have. South Africa was one of the first countries in the world with a GM food as its staple, yet many consumers are none the wiser about the politics behind their pap.

In order to understand people’s relationships with maize and what it symbolizes in the South African context, I analyzed advertisements created by major maize meal brands in addition to conducting individual interviews with urban maize consumers. The media analysis of print and television adverts was extremely interesting as it gave me insight into the kinds of tropes and narratives mobilized by maize meal brands in order to sell their products. These advertisements center on the themes of community, the nuclear family, tradition, heritage, convenience and value for money. Gendered stereotypes of women (mothers, grandmothers, sisters, wives) engaged in the reproductive labour associated with food preparation (pap in this case) were very prevalent. The role of the mother and its associations with home-cooking, comfort food and nostalgia constituted the main campaign theme of one of the major maize meal brands in South Africa.

I carried out individual interviews with people who identified as past or present maize meal consumers, so as to understand whether the romanticized images of maize presented in the media resonated with the broader public. These interviews affirmed the deeply symbolic nature of maize to South African consumers. Food is an incredible powerful system of communication, which is encoded with power dynamics, notions of identity as well as memories. Food is able to captivate one’s senses – taste, touch, smell and even sound – in a way that few other commodities are able to. This makes it an incredible powerful vehicle for nostalgia and emotion – transporting people back to a specific time, place and memory.

The interviewees shared with me special memories around the preparation of pap, who taught them how to cook this dish and where and when they would eat it. The respondents also distinguished between the different ways in which pap can be prepared and how this often runs along cultural lines. They explained that you can tell where someone is “from” based on the consistency of the pap and explained the differences between how Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi or Zulu individuals prepared pap. One interviewee explained that Pedi individuals roll their pap in marble-like balls and I learnt that Xhosa pap is drier than the pap one will find in Johannesburg and is shaped more like “bolletjies” (little balls). Some respondents expressed a strong sentiment that maize is from the African continent and an important part of the African identity. One interviewee remarked “Maize, it’s us. It’s African. That’s how I feel. Maize stopped us from suffering from starvation”.

However, not all of the respondents shared this sentiment and others viewed maize as a staple due to socio-economic conditions, rather than cultural significance. One respondent believed that maize had come to occupy a dominant place within the South African diet because of inflicted poverty at the hands of the colonization of our food system and systematic erasure of indigenous foodways. A heritage food dietician was disapproving of the highly processed maize meal commonly sold as a staple and believed that maize for human consumption was less nutritious than maize fed to livestock. This is because the germ and other nutritious material is stripped from the maize and goes into cattle feed, while the left-over “white powder” is then packaged as maize meal. The nutritional benefit of this staple is further blurred by its fortification, which leaves consumers with the impression that is a healthful and wholesome food.

The way in which maize meal marketing commodifies culture and tradition distracts from the reality of the maize industry which is dominated by multinational seed and chemical companies and their interests. The lack of awareness and transparency with regards to the genetic modification of maize meal infringes on consumer rights as there are weak frameworks for enforcing GM labelling and thus limited opportunities for consumers to hold food producers and manufacturers accountable for the health and safety of the foods which they are selling. While maize is a critical staple in South Africa, for both cultural and socio-economic reasons, a lot more work needs to be put into understanding and interrogating the politics underlying this food in order to protect and respect consumers.


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