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Food Links, 27.12.2013

Christmas in a Camp

Earlier this year I went to the launch of Elizabeth van Heyningen’s The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War: A Social History at the Book Lounge in central Cape Town. The result of years of hard work in archives scattered around South Africa and Europe, this book has become – and will remain for some time – the standard history of the camps established for Boer and black civilians during the South African War (1899-1902).

Instead of the usual collection of hipsters in search of free food, academics in need of free wine, and people from the publishing world, this was attended by a largely elderly, white and Afrikaans audience. (I was easily the youngest person there. I am 31.) When Elizabeth and Albert Grundlingh, who hosted the event, opened the floor to questions, she received question after question about why she does not describe the deaths of so many Boer women and children in the camps as genocide.

There were 14,154 officially recorded deaths in the camps for black civilians, but it is likely that the number was closer to 20,000. Estimates of deaths in Boer camps range from 25,000 to 34,000. In these camps, 81 per cent of deaths were children. Despite these incredibly high numbers, as Van Heyningen explained, the camps were not part of a deliberate British policy to exterminate the Boer population. (In contrast, for example, to the genocide of the Herero in German South West Africa between 1905 and 1906.)

The tragedy of the camps was that people died as a result of chaotic and negligent mismanagement and poor provisioning. Inmates arrived usually in poor health, and were victims of the epidemics of measles and typhoid, for instance, which swept the camps. In fact – and this is one of the most important arguments in Van Heyningen’s scholarship on the camps – the British saw them as a means of transforming the white populations of the two Boer Republics into the future subjects of a united South Africa firmly under British rule.


This interpretation of the camps almost caused a riot in the Book Lounge. I was almost, but not entirely, surprised. Firstly, because it underscored – again – the gulf between debates among guild historians and the reading public. And, secondly, because Boer suffering in the concentration camps was one of the most powerful strands within a historiography constructed in the 1920s and 1930s to bolster Afrikaner nationalism.

The point is not to deny that people – both black and white – suffered both physically and psychologically in the camps, but, rather, to argue that camps deserve more detailed and nuanced study as a result of the fact that British authorities saw them as being crucial to the making of a modern South Africa. Hospitals and schools, in particular, were used to pull Boer families into what Alfred, Lord Milner, and other officials believed to be the light of British rationality, order, and civilisation.

Which brings me to Christmas parties. In December 1901, around a year after the first camps for civilians were established and when mortality rates had begun to stabilise and decline in response to a raft of reforms, camp superintendents were ordered, and were provided with the means, to organise treats and celebrations for the inmates of the Boer camps. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, at the Belfast Camp, women in sewing circles and schoolchildren were encouraged to make ‘toys and useful articles’ for presents. On the 25th:

the tree was erected in a large room, and, after partaking of refreshments, the little ones were filed through the room containing the Tree and each drew a number from a bag on entering and received small garment or toy – and on leaving each got in addition a bag containing cake, sweets and dates.

At the Heidelberg Camp, ‘all children in the Camp under the age of 12’ were given ‘1 small jam-tart, 1 parcel sweets dates and biscuits.’ There were sports days with prizes, and lots and lots to eat – in contrast to the usually monotonous rations of camp living. The Irene Camp’s Christmas picnic – held for the schoolchildren – was particularly lavish:

On the day fixed, that is Friday the 20th December, all the Teachers and all the children assembled on the School grounds at 5.30 in the morning and the roll was called, when 900 answered their names. All the wagons in Camp has been requisitioned and every available ox, mule and donkey was inspanned and these wagons with their respective teams conveyed all the School children with their Teachers to the spot where several large Store tents had been pitched the day before, and where 100 men and women helpers were waiting in readiness at the 6 large Army Camp boilers and various numbers of large pots and kettles etc. to do the necessary waiting and cooking. A huge supply of bread and cakes had been baked… An ox had been killed by me the day before and the whole of it was cooked during the day on the spot. The children were served three meals during the day, exclusive of sweets and fruit and coffee, tea etc. and enjoyed themselves by playing games of all kinds and competitive sports amongst themselves.

In other camps, there were full Christmas dinners, with roast chicken, plum puddings, and fruit.

So how to interpret these Christmas parties? All superintendents reported (unsurprisingly) that children appreciated the parties and presents, and games and sports days were well attended. It also appears that some officials went out of their way to provide dinners and picnics which inmates would enjoy and remember. But interpreting these Christmas parties as a moment of happy wartime friendship across enemy lines – as a kind of South African version of the 1914 Christmas truce – would be glib. Although not denying the genuine altruism of some superintendents, these Christmas parties had a series of political and cultural functions.

Funded handsomely by the British administration, the parties were an attempt to foster goodwill: to demonstrate to Boer civilians that the camps were being run in their best interests by a benevolent administration. They were also intended to show to an international media – and newspapers did report on the parties – that the camps for Boers had improved since the outcry abroad earlier that year over the high mortality rates.

Perhaps more subtly, these parties also introduced Boer civilians to a tradition which officials believed to be entirely British: to a Christmas with a tree, a roast dinner, plum puddings, and games. Ironically, though, the Christmas traditions replicated in the camps had been invented as recently as the 1840s. Decorated Christmas trees, crackers, and cards had all become popular during the middle of the century, helped along by the increasing buying power of the British middle classes. Carol singing was revived; the Christmas dinner as we know it today emerged in this period. Although some of these rituals were already present in the British religious calendar – gift giving, for instance – they were moved closer to Christmas, and were augmented with borrowed traditions, most notably the tree, from Germany. Christmas was associated with the Victorian cult of domesticity: it was the moment of the year which celebrated the closeness of the family.

This supremely invented tradition was introduced to the camps for Boer civilians as one strategy – among many – for remaking them British. There were no such parties in camps for black civilians – or, at least, there are no records of them. Most of the reports on these camps were destroyed shortly after the war, but it is probable that British authorities balked at the thought of spending more money on black camps, which were already run on the cheap. Their inmates were made to grow their own food, for instance. Whereas Boer children were sent to school, to be educated to be future subjects of the British Empire, black children were to be taught how to work – and performed manual labour alongside their parents, while some were hired out as domestic servants in towns and cities. In this way, Christmas parties assisted in the moulding of white, imperial identities.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 18.12.2013



On late Thursday afternoon I drove through pouring rain to Wits University’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela. The rain fell in sheets across the road and hailstones pinged off my car’s bonnet. When I arrived on campus, I had to navigate paths and walkways which had become ankle-deep, swiftly running streams. I had to wring the water out of the pair of ballet flats I was wearing.

The storm was not particularly unusual for early December. Johannesburg receives most of its annual rainfall during the summer, transforming the city’s dusty, brown winter ugliness into a riot of purple and green leaves and flowers in October and November. But in some ways this week’s rain has been remarkable.

On Tuesday, it rained steadily for almost twenty-four hours. This would be entirely normal in Cape Town in the depths of winter, but is almost unheard-of in a Johannesburg nearing midsummer. While some suggested that the heavens were weeping for Madiba, others, like Cyril Ramaphosa at the official memorial service in Soweto, argued that the rain signalled the afterlife’s preparation for Mandela’s arrival. As a shop assistant at my local Pick ‘n Pay remarked, if this was true, then we should expect floods on Sunday.

The rain was not the only unplanned, ungovernable feature of Tuesday’s service: chaotic public transport; world leaders taking selfies at inappropriate moments; a bizarre, and apparently criminal, sign language interpreter; and an audience who booed the State President. As Ramaphosa and, later, Archbishop Tutu tried to threaten and cajole the audience into silence, the pouring, soaking rain seemed to re-emphasise the futility of their efforts: as they could not stop the clouds, so they could not stop the South Africans assembled in FNB stadium.

Tributes at Mandela's home in Houghton.

Tributes at Mandela’s home in Houghton.

Several writers have pointed out that the official events organised to mourn Mandela’s death have been at odds to the ways in which South Africans have been celebrating his life. The long speeches and tedium of Tuesday’s events contrasted with the singing and dancing at Mandela’s homes in Houghton and Soweto. The time allowed to celebrities – like Bono – to mourn at Mandela’s coffin as he lay in state at the Union Buildings was deeply resented by the many thousands who were denied access because of overcrowding.

Although delayed by the storm, the Wits memorial managed a balance of song and joy, of commemoration, and pointed discussion of how Mandela’s own commitment to public service – his decision not to run for a second term as president – contrasts with the venal, corrupt behaviour of many present office bearers in his own party. Its centrepiece was a conversation between Ahmed Kathrada, George Bizos, and Dikgang Moseneke. It was a reminder of the degree of the suffering that these – and many others – endured during the struggle.

Ahmed Kathrada, George Bizos, and Dikgang Moseneke.

Ahmed Kathrada, George Bizos, and Dikgang Moseneke.

It demonstrated that the official memorialising of Mandela has profoundly missed the point: that the best way of paying tribute to Mandela and his generation is to work hard at making South Africa more free. And to think more carefully about what it means to be free. Lira, who performed at the end of the service, put this particularly eloquently: ‘My generation was taught to survive the struggle,’ she said. ‘But we were not taught to be free. We had to work that out for ourselves.’

I think it was partly this tension between differing definitions of freedom – which understand Mandela and his legacy in occasionally divergent ways – which contributed to the standoff between citizenry and state on Tuesday. Thinking about this past week, I realise that my most significant moments of reflection on, and commemoration of, Mandela’s legacy have been far away from official acts of remembrance: with throngs of people outside his Houghton home; lighting prayer lanterns with friends in Melville, late at night and after a long dinner; at tea with colleagues to celebrate the end of the year; listening to three struggle heroes discuss the future of the country.



These acts made sense to my understanding of what it means to be free in post-apartheid South Africa. That nearly twenty years after the transition to democracy, we’re still arguing and debating what it is to be free – and any attempt to silence this is like trying to stop the rain.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 04.12.2013


A while ago my friend Nafisa lent me Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink. I was particularly taken by an essay by Jane Kramer called ‘The Reporter’s Kitchen.’ She describes exactly the connection between cooking and writing: how baking biscuits or, more usually in my case, bread can be fitted into the writing of an essay. How following recipes follows the same process of unfolding as constructing an argument. How cooking food can both distract from difficult writing, as well as address the causes of writers’ block:

[I] tried madeleines again, and discovered that, for me, they were just another cookie – which is to say, not the kind of cookie that belonged in the ritual that for years has kept me commuting between my study and my stove, stirring or beating or chopping or sifting my way through false starts and strained transitions and sticky sentences.

During times of stress, she turns both to writing and to cooking. I tend to do the same, but this week I’ve not been able to write. I was mugged in the Johannesburg CBD on Friday evening, and, at almost exactly the same time the following Monday, a man drove into the back of my car as I was on my way home.

I’ve hesitated about mentioning these events because they seem to confirm some of the worst stereotypes about Johannesburg, and, although annoying and stress making, they’re by far not the most important things that have happened in the past few weeks.

Instead of writing, I have spent quite a lot of time in my kitchen. I have a weakness for epic cooking, and over the weekend we made David Chang’s version of bo ssam, or Korean slow-roasted pork, a process which involved marinating, slow roasting, and long resting.

The pork shoulder, before roasting.

The pork shoulder, before roasting.

Bo ssam.

Bo ssam.

On the night of the car accident I made for us Marcella Hazan’s tomato pasta sauce:

800g tinned plum tomatoes

1 onion, peeled and halved

5 Tblsp butter

salt and pepper

1. Place all the ingredients in a wide, deep saucepan. Bring to the boil, and then simmer for 45 minutes, stirring every fifteen or so, until thick and glossy. Discard the onion halves.

2. I like to stir some torn-up basil through this. Serve with spaghetti.

On Wednesday, having seen the doctor about my sore neck, I made granola (loosely based on this recipe), the basic proportions of which are:

3 cups oats

½ cup desiccated coconut (unsweetened)

½ cup brazil nuts, chopped

½ cup whole, raw almonds

2 Tblsp vegetable oil

6 Tblsp honey

½ cup dried fruit

1. Place all the dry ingredients, except the fruit, into a large bowl and stir to combine.

2. Heat together the oil and honey and pour over the oats mixture. Mix thoroughly, and bake in a roasting tin for about twenty minutes at 150°C, stirring halfway. I vary this recipe with flaked coconut, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and maple syrup instead of honey.

I have wondered, though, if I’ve been at the receiving end of some kind of elaborate cosmic joke,* and if it would be worth devoting myself to the preparation of lucky food.

So many societies eat coin-shaped and sweet things at New Year, for instance: from rice cake soup in Korea to lentil dishes in Italy and black-eyed peas in the southern states of the US. Pomegranates in the Mediterranean world, cabbage and pigs in Germany, and long noodles in Japan symbolise prosperity and longevity.  We stir Christmas pudding batter for good luck.

We can understand the social meanings of food particularly well through religion – the taboos which surround pork or beef, for example – and ritual. When Catholic monks insisted upon wheat communion wafers in colonial Mexico they did so because they associated maize with the ‘uncivilisation’ of the indigenous people to whom they evangelised. Ingesting maize wafers would have implied some kind of acceptance – a swallowing – of the customs and traditions of pre-colonial central America.

The significance of ‘lucky’ foods is that they are part of rituals: that they mark particular moments of time; that they call for pause and contemplation. In a way, they slow down time – as does cooking. I don’t want to make any grand claims for the healing powers of cooking, but being forced to focus and to work systematically and repetitively, offers one way out of panic and anxiety.

And, anyway, I can write now.

* Not really.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.