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Food Links, 26.02.2014

  • Do high food prices predict political upheaval?
  • There has been a 43% drop in the obesity rate among two- to five-year-old children in the US.
  • ‘In a survey of 522 GPs [in the UK], the magazine Pulse found that 16 per cent had been asked to refer a patient to food bank in the past 12 months.’
  • Food poverty shames Britain.
  • ‘doctors are having to prescribe food supplements to HIV patients ensure that their medication works’.
  • Spanish farmers battle invasive snails.
  • Residues of drugs found in meat.
  • Artificial sweeteners are used extensively.
  • Denmark bans kosher and halal slaughter.
  • China has given up its policy of being self-sufficient in grain.
  • The Freedom Bakery.
  • Brick Lane in under threat.
  • Cooking on a budget.
  • Chinese internet companies are investing in organic agriculture.
  • The best doughnut shops in the US.
  • The joy of Spam.
  • Julia Child ‘edits‘ video tape.
  • Standard household measures.
  • Vegan cheesecake.
  • How to cook meat.
  • Should we return to the diets eaten by our ancestors?
  • How to save money on your food shopping.
  • The Vegetable Orchestra.
  • A Walkman sold inside a bottle of water.
  • Music guaranteed to increase cows’ milk production.
  • A sheep table.
  • Zadie Smith on ordering food in New York.
  • Why Long Beach in California fought to save a giant doughnut.
  • A craft beer quiz.
  • Budget bistros in Paris.
  • What to do with a Buddha’s Hand.
  • Recreating recipes from the 1950s.
  • What does camel milk taste like?
  • Art remade as cake.
  • Predicting the future of Hershey’s chocolate.
  • Chef and cooks’ favourite recipe books.
  • A photo essay on the fridge.
  • How does caffeine work?
  • Neil Gaiman reads Green Eggs and Ham.
  • Homemade reese bars.
  • Milk in your coffee?


I spent part of this week at a workshop on theorising secrecy and transparency. Based on a variety of readings – on a range of subjects, from drone warfare to the world’s first biometric money, and from women Free Masons in Italy to Wikileaks – we discussed how secrecy and transparency can only exist in relation to one another; how we need secrets in order to function socially; how transparency tends to pertain only to information and not knowledge; and what do we mean by discretion, and privacy?

And so, perhaps inevitably, my thoughts turned to food. We are all fairly familiar with the idea of the secret recipe. KFC markets its chicken as being flavoured with eleven secret herbs and spices. The contents of Worcestershire Sauce and Coca-Cola are closely guarded secrets. Such is the intensity of people’s curiosity around these products, there is now a cottage industry dedicated to discovering just what goes into Seven-Up or Dr Pepper.

One of my favourite episodes of This American Life attempts to recreate what is, apparently, the original, true recipe for Coke. The formula for the syrup on which Coca-Cola is based – called Merchandise 7x – is a very carefully guarded secret. However, the producers of the show managed to track down what seems to have been one of the first recipes for Coca-Cola, in a 1979 edition of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

Asa Candler, who founded the company in 1892, did not invent Coke. That person was a chemist, John Pemberton, who, in 1882, created Coca-Cola to sell alongside other drinks and patent medicines. Famously, its name derives from the fact that it contained extract of coca leaf. (Coca-Cola removed cocaine from its recipe in 1903.) After his death, the recipe circulated among other chemists – and it is this formula which was printed in 1979.

It is this formula which Ira Glass asks two people from Jones Soda in Seattle to recreate, but with not particularly encouraging results. They describe it as tasting like Froot Loops, or medicine, or aspirin. After refining the recipe and their ingredients (which include lemon and coriander oil, vanilla, lime juice, and lots of sugar) they arrive at something which approximates Coke so closely that they – and others – find it virtually indistinguishable from the ‘real’ product.

What is so interesting about this investigation is that it suggests that there were once several recipes for Coke circulating around Atlanta and, secondly, that the recipe itself has changed over time. In fact, one of the best indicators of this is the popularity of Mexican Coke. Many claim that it tastes considerably better than the American variety, and this is probably due to the fact that Coca-Cola made in the US now contains corn syrup – which is cheaper – rather than the original cane sugar.

It is unsurprising that manufactures of processed food would want to advertise their products on the grounds that they’re based on fixed, never-changing ‘secret’ recipes. This adds to the ‘specialness’ of the sauce, drink, or seasoning and, most obviously, suggests that these cannot be made at home. In fact, this is probably true: foodstuffs made in factories contain ingredients, and are put through processes, unavailable to the domestic kitchen. Also, unlike home cooking, manufactures are able to claim – despite evidence to the contrary – that these products will – apparently – always be absolutely uniform. One bottle of Worcestershire Sauce is supposed to be exactly the same as the next.

Current campaigns to force food companies accurately to label their products are partly a manifestation of suspicion of the contents of Big Food’s secret processes and recipes. This insistence on transparency is not particularly new, though. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Heinz – one of the first, and now one of the biggest – food companies in the world distinguished itself from its competitors by selling its sauces and condiments in clear glass bottles.

As concerns about food contamination grew in both the US and elsewhere, Heinz argued that its clear bottles proved to shoppers the purity of their products. Unlike their competitors, they didn’t add lead, chalk, arsenic or any other contaminants to their merchandise. Partly as a result of this, Heinz could ally itself closely to the pure food movement in the US – linked to temperance organisations – as the best example of what an ethical food producer should look like. This made exceptionally good business sense. HJ Heinz was able to exert some influence over the committee responsible for writing the landmark Food, Drink, and Drugs Act of 1906. Although this legislation was designed to end food contamination, it worked to create a uniform, nation-wide set of regulations over the production and marketing of processed food.

Heinz Ketchup Bottles 1880 to 1910

Transparency – literally in the case of Heinz – actually enabled food companies to grow their markets across the United States. But although technology and industrialisation change the ways in which we understand and define transparency and secrecy, these have existed in the food world long before the nineteenth century. Chefs and cooks guarded their recipes in the same ways as other artisans and tradespeople protected knowledge about their skills.

I’ve been reading Bill Buford’s fascinating account of a journey through restaurant kitchens and butchers in New York and Tuscany. One of the themes running through Heat is secrecy: in an age where it’s ever-easier to share information, and where chefs are compelled to produce recipe books at regular intervals, how to keep iconic dishes – the food which defines restaurants – secret?

But secrecy is most important for three chefs in Italy and, significantly, all of them women. Intent on learning how to make pasta ‘properly’ (like an Italian, in other words), Buford gets in touch with the best pasta cooks he knows. Firstly, he calls Miriam Leonardi who runs Trattoria la Buca near Parma, and asks to spend some time in her kitchen, learning from her:

She panicked. ‘What are you talking about? A month? I never let anyone into my kitchen – ever.’ (She made a funny sound. Was she having trouble breathing?) ‘I don’t know what to say. Are you crazy?’ She was very angry.

Next he tries Valeria Piccini, whose response is similar. This time, though, Buford realises why: ‘was it because she didn’t want to share her pasta secrets?’ He finally manages to secure a place in a small restaurant run by Betta Valdiserri in Poretta. It was here that Mario Batali learned Italian cuisine, and Buford, having spent a year in Batali’s restaurant Babbo, is accepted because of his connection with Batali.

Miriam is, though, as loath to share her secrets, and particularly for tortellini. While she does eventually divulge her recipe, she does so over a period of time, so that Buford needs to make a series of return visits to learn each step in the process of making tortellini:

It was, I concluded, a test of my promise that I wouldn’t reveal the recipe to Mario: if enough time had elapsed and she got no reports of her tortellini on the Babbo menu, she could assume the coast was clear.

For all three of these women who have managed to be successful in an industry which is male dominated and frequently sexist, and within a profoundly patriarchal society, keeping secrets becomes a way of claiming power. Their recipes are what define them, as Buford explains:

For Betta, pasta was crucial to how she thought about herself. ‘Mario,’ she said, is now a great success, and I am not. Mario is now rich, and I am not. But he was never very good at making pasta. He was never as good as me. I am very, very good.’

So although secrecy (and the pretense of transparency) is useful for big food companies, it is also a strategy useful for women negotiating a place within a world often designed to thwart their ambitions.


Bill Buford, Heat (New York: Vintage Books, [2006] 2007).

Gabriella M. Petrick, ‘“Purity as Life”: HJ Heinz, Religious Sentiment, and the Beginning of the Industrial Diet,’ History and Technology, vol. 27, no. 1 (2011), pp. 37-64.

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

Food Links, 19.02.2014

  • Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s claims that child hunger has reduced significantly in South Africa, are incorrect.
  • Chevron Appalachia compensates residents for an explosion with … pizza.
  • Cocoa-nomics.
  • Urban agriculture in downtown Joburg.
  • A Lucky Fish and reducing rates of anaemia.
  • Another fake food scandal in the UK.
  • ‘What has been the staff of life is now perceived as the spirit of disease’.
  • Don’t drink too much water.
  • On alcohol brands and art.
  • Sexually transmitted food poisoning.
  • Why do Americans eat so little rabbit?
  • Some vitamins and supplements worth taking.
  • Three people were arrested after a brawl over a pork pie at a Bradford wedding reception.
  • The queen of borscht.
  • How to cook with insects.
  • Do you drink Beaujolais?
  • What to do with cocoa nibs.
  • Gourmet butter.
  • Criticism of the Michelin guide.
  • British and American bacon.
  • Delicious food from Taiwan.
  • What it’s like to work at Tartine in San Francisco.
  • Food in fiction, a quiz.
  • ‘Louisiana Congressman Robert Broussard proposed importing hippopotamuses from Africa and settling them in the bayous of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana to assuage America’s carnivorous ills’.
  • How to force strawberries.
  • ‘John Dando’s insatiable appetite frequently put him in prison.’
  • Eating zakuski.
  • How to roast a goat in the ground.
  • Food as art.
  • Rumbledethumps.
  • Why do we tend to underbake?
  • Twenty uses for banana peels.
  • A 123 year-old recipe for apricot jam.
  • How to turn a chicken into a dinosaur.

Little Addis

I spent part of Sunday at a flatwarming party at the Maboneng precinct in the Joburg CBD. Maboneng – which means ‘place of light’ – is a development funded and directed by the entrepreneur Jonathan Liebmann who, in 2008, began buying up disused factory space in the eastern part of central Johannesburg. The area now comprises boutiques, restaurants, art galleries, a cinema, flats and offices, and a market every Sunday morning.

Maboneng, with its hipsters and street art, has been accused – and justifiably, to some extent – of being an island of cool, gentrified prosperity in the middle of a sea of incredible poverty. Some of the buildings bought up by Liebmann were populated by squatters, and there has been some concern over how they were removed from their homes. It is, in the view of some, a middle-class take-over of part of the inner city.

That said, it is a place that I enjoy visiting: the cinema is wonderful, and the market is one of the most fun places in Joburg on a Sunday morning. The area is one of the most socially diverse I’ve been to, and it has an energy which is infectious. In truth, I don’t really know what to think of it.


But I am pleased that it has given a space to one of the best restaurants in the city: Little Addis Café on Fox Street. It began life as a stall at the Sunday market, and proved so popular that it soon became a permanent fixture at Maboneng. Consisting of four tables, a fridge full of soft drinks, and a tiny kitchen, Little Addis serves delicious platters of Ethiopian food. (I recommend the vegan special in particular – it’s truly spectacular.)

I’ve no idea, though, if what it serves bears any resemblance to food eaten in Ethiopia. It’s certainly similar to – and better than – Ethiopian food I’ve had in Cape Town and London. In fact, Ethiopian cooking is unique among African cuisines for the way that it’s spread around the world: as pizza is practically ubiquitous (although adapted to local tastes), increasingly it’s possible to find plates of injera bread with a selection of meat and vegetable stews, in most major cities.

As in the case of Italy, the idea of a single Ethiopian style of cooking – one which is held up as somehow representative of the Ethiopian nation – is the product of social and political change. For many centuries, the basic Ethiopian diet reflected what was available to eat: endemic crops (teff, and some kinds of wheat, barley, and millet), and ingredients acquired through trade: lentils, pulses, and spices. James C. McCann explains:

From a culinary point of view, the diet of Ethiopia’s ‘people of the plough’ consisted of particular core elements: fermented teff bread (injera) and stews (wet) made with a base of shallots (shinkurt), dry-fried or sautéed in oil or spiced butter, added late; and some combination of legumes (split or powdered), meat, or vegetables, usually collard greens.

This cuisine changed over time. From around the fifteenth century, peppers, potatoes, maize and other foods arrived from the New World, supplementing spices traded across the Indian Ocean. There were also regional, and class differences, and dishes for fasting and feasting.

However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Ethiopian court served a cuisine which it described as representing the nation – at a time when a national identity, and the idea of an Ethiopian state, were being forged. It was a cuisine that largely excluded food from the country’s mainly Muslim areas – with the exception of coffee – and tended to reflect those dishes usually prepared in elite households. The meals served at banquets took on the status as properly ‘Ethiopian’, and many of these were adopted by the cafes and restaurants which began to emerge around the country, particularly in Addis Ababa, during the early twentieth century. The first self-consciously ‘Ethiopian’ restaurants serving ‘national’ food – effectively the food of the country’s upper classes – opened in the 1960s.

Ethiopian cuisine was globalised as a result of the 1974 revolution. Immigrants fleeing the country established Ethiopian restaurants cooking the kind of ‘national’ dishes that foreign diners are familiar with today, wherever they settled. However, they adjusted their menus to overseas tastes, as McCann notes:

Pressures for market conformity have, however, brought changes to the menus of Ethiopian restaurants. Some of these, like fasting food from the Orthodox Christian fast renamed as ‘vegetarian’ are market-savvy innovations. Others suggest transgression against the basic rules of the historical cuisine in the structures of taste, meaning, and processing of food.

Most menus now include pudding (sweet foods are usually understood as snacks and not as being part of the meal), raw vegetables in salads, and boneless meat.

Ethiopian tea and coffee for sale at the Arts on Main market.

Ethiopian tea and coffee for sale at the Arts on Main market.

What we think of as being a single, unified cuisine is, then, one that has been constructed at various times and places as being uniquely Ethiopian – whether in the household of Empress Taytu in the 1870s or in a hole-in-the-wall joint in Washington DC in 2014 – and which has changed over time.

In a sense, it’s particularly fitting, then, that Maboneng should have an Ethiopian restaurant. This site of Johannesburg’s reinvention includes a cuisine which has been constantly remade to reflect shifting ideas of what it means to be Ethiopian.


James C. McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens, OH.: Ohio University Press, 2009).

Shannon Walsh, ‘“We won’t move”: The Suburbs Take Back the Centre in Urban Johannesburg,’ City, vol. 17, no. 3 (2013), pp. 400-408.

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

Food Links, 12.02.2014

  • The complicated process of signing up for Food Stamps.
  • Tobacco, guns, and food.
  • The politics of meat in South Africa.
  • Vegetables are not elitist.
  • The return of the Dust Bowl.
  • Do not take DNP to lose weight.
  • How many hours of minimum wage work it takes to earn a beer.
  • More than half the advertisements shown by South Africa’s national broadcaster are for junk food.
  • What happened when California legalised selling food made at home.
  • ‘The Netherlands ranked as the easiest country in the world in which to find a balanced, nutritious diet.’
  • How tastes have changed in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.
  • The rise and rise of bluefin tuna.
  • Why it’s so difficult to ascertain what’s good to eat.
  • A new, simpler test for coeliac disease.
  • The dark side of the truffle trade.
  • Getting married at the Iowa Bacon Festival.
  • A review of Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the Blood.
  • What writers eat in Paris.
  • Cooking with maple syrup.
  • Taking babies to restaurants.
  • Americans discover squid. And Marmite.
  • Travels in German food.
  • Don’t knock Nando’s.
  • ‘Kasabian have revealed that a track on their as-yet-untitled new album, due this summer, contains lyrical reference to last year’s horsemeat scandal’.
  • The earliest African-American cookbooks.
  • Did you celebrate World Nutella Day?
  • Where to eat breakfast and brunch in Melbourne.
  • ‘Three-quarters of France’s 110,000 restaurants now include burgers on their menus.’
  • How to open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew.
  • Artisanal toast.
  • Are Italians changing their eating habits?
  • Planetary structural layer cake.
  • The best breakfast for a hangover.
  • Dumb Starbucks.
  • Americans love pizza.
  • Why food smells so good when you’re very hungry.
  • The origins of the myth of having to drink eight glasses of water a day.
  • Pierre Javelle and Akiko Ida’s photographs of small people with food.
  • A guide to tea from Africa.
  • Goats in jerseys.
  • On fonio.
  • Where to eat and drink in London.
  • Vegan comfort food.
  • Where does your tuna come from? (Thanks, mum!)
  • Edward Hopper’s ‘Tables for Ladies‘.
  • Thug Kitchen. (Thanks, Steph!)


On Sunday I went on a guided tour of Sophiatown, presented by the area’s cultural and heritage centre. It was the 59th anniversary – to the day – that police entered the suburb to clear it of its residents. Sophiatown tends to represent two things to South Africans: on the one hand, the vibrancy of life in multiracial and multicultural suburbs in early twentieth-century South Africa. Sophiatown attracted writers, musicians, and activists to a socially mixed suburb – one where Dr AB Xuma, President of the ANC during the 1940s, could buy a grand, wooden floored and high ceilinged house with ample garden, but where poor families squeezed into dank, dirty, and often crime ridden slums.

At the Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Centre

At the Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Centre

And on the other, it represents the forced removal of people partly as a result of the Group Areas Act (1950), which segregated all residential areas according to race. As a ‘mixed’ suburb, Sophiatown – alongside District Six in Cape Town, for instance – was deemed to be in contravention of this legislation. Over the course of eight years, Sophiatown’s residents were moved to areas on the edges of Johannesburg: Africans to Meadowlands, Asians to Lenasia, and coloured people to Eldorado Park. The area itself was bulldozed, rebuilt, and rezoned as white. It was renamed Triomf (or ‘triumph’). (And was the subject of a harrowing and damning 1994 novel by Marlene van Niekerk.)

In 2006, the Johannesburg City Council restored the suburb’s name to Sophiatown, and there have been several attempts to excavate the area’s complex – even hidden – past. The Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Centre has an exhibition of photographs of Sophiatown before the bulldozers arrived, and attempts to provide some sense of what it was like to live there. One of its most successful exhibits is a large, rectangular Perspex box filled with sand and what appears to be, on first glance, rubbish.

The 'ghost house' - one of the three buildings to survive the bulldozing of Sophiatown.

The ‘ghost house’ – one of the three buildings to survive the bulldozing of Sophiatown.

But the objects partially hidden by brown dirt are things dug up by Sophiatown’s new residents – those who moved into Triomf – since the early 1960s: frying pans, children’s toys, cutlery, combs, and even sewing machines which families had to leave behind in the chaos of forced removal. What makes the display so poignant – other than the way it demonstrates how apartheid legislation was worked out on a domestic, personal level – is that it connects the suburb’s past and present residents in a shared remembrance of a profoundly violent episode.

It also resonates during the Centre’s guided walk around Sophiatown. Only three buildings survived the bulldozing: Xuma’s house (currently the site of the Centre), a decrepit building now renamed the ‘ghost house’, and the Church of Christ the King – in some ways the epicentre of resistance to the removals. The tour moves between these buildings, making detours to the remains of the oak tree in Bertha Street, and to part of a wall – once part of the Odin Cinema – which miraculously was not torn down during the late 1950s.

The memorial to Father Trevor Huddleston.

The memorial to Father Trevor Huddleston.

Today, Sophiatown looks much the same as any working-class South African suburb, and, despite the valiant efforts of the tour guide, it was difficult to imagine how bustling and full of people – and energy – it must once have been. What did help was the presence two former residents, both of them anti-apartheid activists, whose memories were able to evoke the suburb before and during its destruction.

Over the course of the afternoon, I was reminded powerfully of Antoinette Burton’s remarks about the archive, and historians’ relationship with the archive:

The history of the archive is a history of loss…. I would argue … that it is the archive itself which should be subject to continuous suspicion and radical doubt, serving as it often does to normalise, through classification and re-representation, what are invariably ‘fragmented, fractured and disassembled’ strands of historical evidence and experience. If we fail to recognise how historical practice (or, indeed, any practice of looking) is in danger of reassembling and recalcifying what counts as evidence … we miss a valuable opportunity to interrogate our own investments in those domains.

The few fragments that remain of Sophiatown – the objects unearthed in residents’ gardens, the two houses, the wall, the tree, the church, photographs, newsreels, and people’s memories – draw attention to the incomplete, piecemeal nature of the archive. We have access to the past only through the bits and pieces – the papers, objects – which have managed to survive bulldozers, fire, water, decay, and archivists’ best intentions.

As a result of this, argues Burton, historians need to be acutely aware of how they assemble these fragments into portraits – interpretations, narratives – of the past. There has been a tendency to romanticise Sophiatown in its heyday, not only to ignore the crime and poverty endemic to the suburb, but also to erase histories of anti-apartheid groups other than the ANC which were active in the area. Writing a more complicated, nuanced social history of Sophiatown is a useful way of demonstrating how historians, themselves, are complicit in remaking the past, and that the past is being constantly remade and reinterpreted.


Antoinette Burton, ‘Thinking beyond the Boundaries: Empire, Feminism and the Domains of History,’ Social History, vol. 26, no. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 60-71.

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

Food Links, 05.02.2014

  • Food banks now issue ‘kettle boxes‘.
  • A week spent on food stamps.
  • Does an aging global population jeopardise food security?
  • The EU has agreed to tackle food speculation – with no help from the UK.
  • ‘Employees of fast-food restaurants stayed low-income forever.’
  • Pesticides are making bees smaller.
  • World food statistics in maps.
  • Buckfast and crime.
  • ‘Cadbury, the UK’s biggest chocolate maker, opposed Nestle’s 2010 application to trademark the four-fingered chocolate, which sold 40 million pounds ($66 million) worth of bars a year between 2008 and 2010 in the UK.’
  • Wheat does not make people fat and sick.
  • Don’t count calories.
  • Fruit juice is evil. Apparently.
  • The internet of bees.
  • Superfoods do not exist.
  • Michael Pollan disagrees with the Paleo diet.
  • ‘Unesco’s citation praises washoku’s distinctive social and cultural characteristics.’
  • Butter v margarine.
  • Coffee helps to improve memory.
  • A review of Sophia Waugh’s Cooking People.
  • The man who invented the Body Mass Index.
  • Cooking and baking in 3D.
  • Drinking horchata in Nigeria, Spain, and Mexico.
  • Dutch people drink the most coffee.
  • Skirret pie.
  • A map of London’s first coffee houses.
  • MSG is not a dangerous toxin.
  • Peckham’s Mexican cheesemaker.
  • How to pair wine and vegetables.
  • Eat more watercress.
  • A guide to comparing Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
  • Recipes for kale.
  • How to get a table at the best Parisian restaurants.
  • Odd crisp flavours.
  • On Coca Cola’s Superbowl advertisement.
  • A recipe from Ancient Rome.
  • The Beerhouse in Cape Town.
  • Why we like sugar.
  • A recipe for Apple Tansey.
  • Molly Wizenberg on how to feed a baby.
  • Famous restaurant dishes to make at home.
  • The British Kebab Awards.
  • How to cook for crowds.
  • Veggie Ipsum. (Thanks, Rob!)
  • Making cheese in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Plum and ricotta tart.
  • A Beyoncé-themed menu.
  • The doughscuit.
  • Russian and Polish cheese labels.
  • How to turn pasta into a rocket.
  • Eating al desko.

Troubled Waters

In April last year I went to a public meeting convened by the NGO Equal Education in Cape Town’s best bookshop, the Book Lounge. I have been to dozens of launches and readings and comic book swaps at the Book Lounge, but none of them was as packed as this. There were people squeezed on the floor in between chairs; the crowd was four-people deep in standing room-only areas; people on the pavement outside listened in through the open doors. I climbed up part of a bookshelf to see what was going on. It was so hot and damp with more than a hundred bodies crammed tightly together, that it felt that the shop had developed its own tropical ecosystem.

It says a great deal about the state of South Africa’s education system that a panel discussion about schools in the Eastern Cape – one of the country’s least effectively run provinces – could draw such a large and enthusiastic crowd. Equal Education had recently sent a group of South African luminaries – including constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos, writers Zakes Mda and Njabulo Ndbele, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, and activists Elinor Sisulu and Sindiwe Magona – on a Solidarity Visit to draw attention to the appalling state of school infrastructure.

They described collapsing mudwalled classrooms; inadequate supplies of books and stationery; children without desks; and, most memorably, the disgusting state of school toilets. Children complained of contracting diseases from filthy, broken latrines, and many of them chose rather not to use them at all – either risking their health or relieving themselves in the veldt. It was the toilets that seemed to many to sum up the Department of Basic Education’s lack of respect for the children it is supposed to educate.

It’s been difficult not to think about the Solidarity Visit and its report fairly recently. Last week, a little boy was killed when he fell into a pit toilet at a primary school in Chebeng, a village in Limpopo Province. Referring to a 2011 survey, Equal Education noted:

Of the 24 793 public ordinary schools, 11 450 schools are still using pit latrine toilets and 2 402 schools have no water supply, while a further 2 611 schools have an unreliable water supply.

This death coincided with a series of protests in the Madibeng municipality in the North West, over water shortages, which led to the deaths of three protestors. After an outcry over both alleged police brutality, as well as revelations as to the mismanagement of the municipality, the mayor resigned and water was restored. Residents say, though, that the water remains too dirty to use.

These protests are nothing new. Residents of this and other municipalities in the North West have been demanding a clean, reliable water supply – and it’s worth emphasising that they’re billed for water regardless of whether it flows or not – since at least 2011. As even ANC stalwart Trevor Manuel has admitted, the problem in Madibeng is that a dysfunctional, corrupt local government cannot provide basic services. In 2010, the municipality was placed under administration:

In June 2011, newspapers exposed the fact that the new executive mayor was renting a BMW at the cost of R2,025 per day. In April last year, it was reported that R1 billion of assets, supposedly owned by the municipality, were missing.

The violence of these protests has drawn attention to crises not only in policing (and it would seem that some of the police who were present at the Marikana massacre were at Madibeng too), but also in the regular provision of clean water to South Africans. As both Eyewitness News and an Africa Check have demonstrated, the Department of Water and Environment Affairs’ claim that 94% of South Africans have access to safe drinking water doesn’t, well, hold any water. A 2011 general household survey published by Statistics South Africa reports that:

89.5% of South African households had access to piped water. Breaking that number down, 43.3% had piped water in their homes, 28.6% had access to water in their yards, 2.7% had the use of a neighbour’s tap and 14.9% had to make use of communal taps.

Moreover, South Africans have reported declining satisfaction with the quality of water provided, complaining that in some municipalities it is not clean enough to drink and cook with.


A protestor holds aloft a copy of the constitution. Taken at the Right2Know campaign’s march to Parliament, October 2010.

It is not difficult to understand why communities living in rural areas and informal settlements – those usually with the least access to basic services – protest poor and irregular water supplies with such anger. Usually described as ‘service delivery protests,’ demonstrations over poor municipal governance have, over the past few years, become ever more frequent and violent. But they are more than protests over bad service delivery.

The idea of water as a public good dates from around the mid-nineteenth century, when local governments became interested in ensuring clean water supplies as a way of combating the spread of disease. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world which enshrines the right to access clean, safe water in its constitution. Citizenship is, then, closely connected to being able to fill a pot with clean water from a kitchen tap; to take a shower in a bathroom; and to flush a porcelain toilet. In a country where access to water was, under apartheid, determined by a racist urban planning system, these current service delivery protests are a revolt around the denial of citizenship.

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