“Although There Is
No Place Called Rooibos”
As I began writing this book, a fire raged in the Cederberg, destroying homes,
farms, and wide swaths of uncultivated land. People posted images on Face-
book of bright-orange flames and dark-gray smoke billowing over the moun-
tains. Others shared photographs of burned houses with nothing but bed-
frames remaining in sooty shells of buildings. One image showed a farmhouse
surrounded by a small patch of green among the immensity of the blackened
landscape. Firefighters and volunteers had managed to save the farm and its
lawn by dousing it in water. The workers’ homes, people said, had not been
spared. Many residents mourned a local white man who died fighting the
blaze, while others celebrated the fact that there had been “only one casualty.”
Still others decried the deaths of animals by showing their burned corpses,
twisted and brown in the coal-charred soil.
“Thank goodness only one person died,” I mentioned when I visited the
region in 2013. “It’s true. Thank God,” Gert, an Afrikaans resident, said. “Oh,
and I think a couple of coloured guys might have died, too.” Susan, a neighbor,
commented that the fire was both a miracle and a tragedy, despite the harsh-
ness of the burned landscape and the apparent dismissal of coloured deaths.
Many indigenous plants rely on fire for germination. The fynbos biome is a
fire-driven ecosystem, and wild rooibos seedlings are among the first to emerge
after fire events. Susan hoped that the fire would mean an abundance of wild-
flowers in the spring. Gert’s and Susan’s comments, and the many photographs
of the fire, illustrated a highly racialized cycle of life and death.
After the fire passed, a rooibos battle of a different sort began brewing. A
French company was trying to trademark the word “rooibos,” an incident that
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