/ 21 December 2015

We eat what we like … or do we?

We Eat What We Like ... Or Do We?

When she opened a restaurant in the mid-1990s, just after the end of apartheid, my mother became an accidental rebel. In her own way and without the language of Fanon and the growl of Biko, my mother was at the forefront of decolonising food.

She simply wanted to run a business based on the idea that African foods were worthy of respect and dignity and careful preparation. In the process, she discovered that there was something deeply threatening not only about the idea, but also about the person who was proposing it: an educated and qualified African woman who had lived all over the world and who believed that the new South Africa was supposed to be a place of equal-opportunity dreaming.

So this not just a story about African food; it is also a story about banks and loans and men in grey suits who thought that their job was to say no to innovation. It is a story about black and white people who had been taught to hate Africa and so could not begin to imagine loving the tastes of the continent. It is about a country that couldn’t imagine that middle-class people might establish businesses that did not exploit their political connections.

If you read closely enough, you will see how we got to this sad place today in which the black middle class either work for someone else or create wealth through tenders. This is the story of the third way that was stymied by the legacy of apartheid and the short-sightedness of the liberators.

In the mid-1990s, just after my family returned to South Africa from exile, my mother decided to open a restaurant. She called it Safika, which means “we have arrived”. The name of the restaurant embodied the hope that many black South Africans felt at that time, the sense that we had just found ourselves, miraculously, in a new and special place. The transition years embodied this sense of arrival. Every day was imbued with a sort of triumphant wonder.

At the same time, the name of the restaurant also carried a more problematic portend: a metaphor for the greed and rapaciousness that was yet to come. Read ungenerously, it signalled the rise of the arriviste – the motto of a new elite that had, quite literally, arrived to feed.

That was of course not my mother’s intention. She named it Safika because we had arrived after a long and arduous journey. She was making a statement about homecoming. Safika was a sigh and a smile, a warm hello that said: “We are here and we are home.”

The future had not yet happened and so my mother could not have known that some of her optimism was misplaced.

Mama was a qualified accountant, with years of experience at a senior level. She had not run her own business but she understood money and she had a wide and newly successful network of black professionals who were prepared to support her. She prepared her business plan, put together a group of family and friends who contributed money to the enterprise, renegotiated the mortgage on the house she and my father had just bought, and headed to the bank to ask for a loan.

She was turned down. They looked at this confident yet softly spoken African woman, who had years of experience and who was proposing to put more money on the table than most entrepreneurs, and they said “no”.

She fought and she kept fighting, taking the fight higher and higher in the ranks. When she had exhausted all the possibilities she went to the next bank because she incorrectly assumed that the banks were interested in competition and would look at an idea on merit. She was wrong.

In the end she got a loan but it was on terrible terms. They gave her an interest rate that was chokingly high and conditions she knew she would struggle to meet. She was tired of fighting but the business would not be viable without the cash flow.

While she was fighting the banks, she was also hiring staff and training them and putting in place a vision for a pan-African food experience that would be unique and tasteful and elegant. She scouted around and found a quiet old building nestled in a Pretoria suburb.

Like the bank managers who had turned her down, this landlord also did not trust her. She fought him too. It didn’t matter; in the end the lease she signed was expensive and badly structured. She was not duped. That would have been easier to accept. No, as with the bank loan, she eventually had to settle for it because she had no better options and no bargaining power because she was a black woman dealing with white men who, at the time, had almost absolute power and authority.

In Mama’s case, the pain was not in discovering that she had signed away her rights; it was in knowingly agreeing to having no rights. None of the decision-makers she was faced with could even begin to see the world through anything but their own biased and suspicious eyes and yet she was desperate to run a business and be in charge of her own destiny. She was aware, in the end, of the irony of trying to be economically free by relying on financial institutions that were blinkered by the mediocrity and myopia of the apartheid mentality.

This is not to say that she made no mistakes. If Mama was naive, it was on the issue of the food itself. She wanted to introduce her customers to food from the African continent. She quickly realised, however, that the new black elite, the power brokers in government who held our future in their hands, and the new black moguls who were replacing the old boys’ club that used to make money from state contracts did not see African food as something they should eat.

They wanted Italian and French food, not Nigerian and Congolese. Instead of being patronised by the high and mighty as Ma had imagined it would be, the restaurant was either empty or filled with tourists who wanted to buy into a Moyo’s style idea of Africa as an exotic place, full of berobed and mystical people who sing and beat drums and carry on.

Her very conception of African food was steeped in respect and history. It would never have occurred to her to turn Africa into a theme, a caricature of itself for the purpose of making money. She didn’t want to run a circus; she wanted to run a restaurant. This cost her dearly because it was an idea whose time had not yet come. Exile taught us that Africa was beautiful, but apartheid taught this nation that Africa was ugly. Mama was fighting a centuries-old ideological battle far mightier than she.

She gave it her best, though. She hired a Zimbabwean chef who had been trained at the prestigious Kenya Utalii College – Africa’s finest hotel management and cooking school. Mama had lured him away from a five-star hotel with a promise that he would be able to develop his own menu and lead a small but professional team.

Mama and Simeon produced the best poulet yassa south of Senegal and the most flavoursome pondu outside Congo. They chased down an Ethiopian woman who delivered fresh njera twice a week and perfected their pepper soup. Still the restaurant was empty.

Mama knew that she had to sell the idea of African food but she didn’t have much money for marketing because of the loan. She hustled and got herself on magazine covers and TV shows. She laughed as she spoke about the high gloss and glamour, about being praised as an example of what the new South Africa was all about while her business was barely scraping by.

She was at once the poster child of decolonisation and one of its first casualties. Mama was failing because of the assumption that we were all free.

The lease agreement she had signed had been excessively expensive and inflexible and so she broke it. She paid a huge amount to get out of it, but she did and she moved to a new venue where there would be more passing trade, closer to town. This strategy brought perverse success. The restaurant was full of patrons from Sunnyside and the city centre, but none of them were buying food. She was making money because the market was driving her towards the easy and well-trodden path, a path that profited from the exploitation of black fragility.

Safika became a high-end shebeen. Then it became simply a tavern like any other dotted across South Africa’s landscape, a place where people came to drink and brawl. It became indistinct and profoundly alienating – the sort of space where black people have been going to obliterate themselves for generations. She knew that the pull of alcohol was keeping the business going long past its initial purpose. They had rejected the food and favoured the drink and so she shut it down.

She closed the business feeling as though she’d been at the centre of a perfect storm. A series of deeply entrenched economic and systemic rules kept her from succeeding while a set of embedded social ideas made her brilliant, beautiful idea about valuing Africa seem bizarre and impractical. She’d bumped her head against a historical legacy that made it hard for black entrepreneurs to make money nonexploitatively.

By the end of her life, Mama had tried her hand at many things – all of them tied to her deep respect for food and its role and place in our society and her belief that skin colour should not stand in the way of access to opportunities. After the restaurant she went into small business policy, trying to make it easier for others to get a loan.

But she was an entrepreneur at heart, and not the kind who was especially interested in big deals. So she bought a farm and exported table grapes to Europe. She sold it when it made sense financially to do so. Then she started a small bank – lending money and advice to small commercial farmers at fair interest rates.

Her journey was simple: Mama realised that, if we wanted to eat our own food, we needed to have a stake in the economy that produced that food. Hers was a profound and clear vision.

Maybe there is a bigger market for Safika today. There is a significantly larger black middle class that is far more willing to eat a range of foods.

Maybe we can finally claim that new country in which we truly can say, we eat what we like.