Plates over Pills: Alternative eating for better health

While not romanticising South Africa’s precolonial agricultural past (think drought-prone land, cattle diseases, locust plagues), the foreword explores the nutritional diversity that was drastically interrupted by apartheid land dispossession laws. Prior to this, South Africans’ diets were rich in soured milk, sorghum beer, millet, pumpkins, beans, tarot root, sweet potatoes, rare servings of meat (when the beast had died of natural causes or been sacrificed for rituals), wild herbs and more.

Apartheid spatial planning, aggressive land ownership laws, an exploited migrant labour workforce, dislocated family structures and controlled farming practices were some of the factors that gradually forced traditional, nutritious foods out of the mainstream diets of urban South Africans.

The apartheid government also funded “state-supported maize monopolies” – meaning maize (a nutrient-deficient, “empty” starch) became the principal carbohydrate for most South Africans.

“This is isn’t about reinvention,” says Nelwamondo. “This is about bringing back real food.”

Blackjack, for example, is rich in Vitamin B and has antihypertensive properties. Baobab has 10 times the amount of vitamin C as oranges, and twice the amount of calcium as milk. It is also rich in antioxidants and fibre. The bambara groundnut is known as a “complete food” containing 63% carbohydrates, 19% protein and 6.5% fat, and it grows well even under arid conditions.

Wild Amaranth

For Nelwamondo, there are agricultural traditions and lessons to be taken not only from Africa, but from indigenous communities all over the world. However, she is something of a pioneer in this campaign, coming up against ubiquitous fast food chains and processed meals that now dominate the tastebuds of South Africans across the country.

In her home town in Thohoyandou, Nelwamondo says “you must be seen in the KFC at the end of the month”, speaking to the ways in which fast foods have become markers of socio-economic aspiration.

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