Interview - issue #7
South African cultural practitioner, food activist and artist, Zayaan Khan collaborates with organisations working in land reform, agrarian transformation and food justice, looking to understand the socio-political contexts of present day crises and unhinge our dependency on neoliberalism, with Indigenous food reclamation at the heart of her activities.
She holds a National Diploma in landscape technology, a Bachelor of Technology in horticulture, and is working towards a PhD in environmental humanities at the University of Cape Town. She is the founder of the Seed Biblioteek, a seed library highlighting the story of seed, and with artist Heather Thompson created the Apocalypse Pantry, billed as “a survivor’s guide to happiness in the urban armageddon” for accessing food, medicine and good times in Cape Town.
Tim Leeson caught up with her following the launch of Before Simon’s Bay, a permanent marine and environment exhibition at the Simon’s Town Museum, for which Zayaan was a contributing artist. The focus of the exhibition, she says, is on life before colonisers invaded with force and fury, before major ecocide, before genocide; and aims to help uncover the trauma that’s been buried, that gets buried, and heal the land and her descendants.
Zayaan in her home.
Tim Leeson: Where did you discover your passion for the reclamation of Indigenous food, and how does this sit in the South African context?
Zayaan Khan: When I was very young - a tiny child - I remember my grandmother’s sister, before I could even really hold a conversation, would make me get an apple and a spoon, and she would kind of carve out pieces of apple with the spoon, grate it, and feed us with it. I was enamoured with this. I’m such a very sensory person, so taking the hard, crunchy apple [and turning it] into something soft and juicy kind of blew my little mind.
So I’ve learned that food becomes an easy tool around healing, feeding, creating, or problem-solving. It’s the tool that provides equal access or action.
Working in Indigenous food reclamation is really reclaiming that connection to land and the way that the knowledge moves through the land and the sea. Many genocides were experienced in parts of southern Africa. But, if I speak specifically to South Africa, in our southwest, an area that has the origins of humanity, these mass genocides occurred based on colonial intrusion.
We also have this understanding where we speak about Indigenous peoples, especially in places of genocide, in the past tense. Indeed, Indigenous people still exist but a lot of the time that kind of identity, acceptance or acknowledgement was often killed off too.
Some of the foods in Indigenous diets we don’t hear about anymore and have almost completely died. Things like the eating of seaweeds or insects, and their particular preparations and recipes. Then some are still very much in existence and have even become whole industries, like the sour fig. It looks a bit like a fig when you take a bite, as the seeds are all quite tiny. It’s very sour and salty, and it’s got traditional recipes associated with it. It has become a weed in other parts of the world.
Then there’s stuff like ostrich, ostrich eggs, and all the different game meats. All the different grains too. We have to consider things like salt and different minerals as part of Indigenous diets, whether it’s from seawater or elsewhere. How those things used to be accessed and how they’re accessed now. Especially as our landscape and seascape are so diverse and rich. There are so many different cultural techniques and recipes embedded within the landscape.
The work at the museum has been really looking at these questions and asking: now what do we do? Are we putting things in a cabinet for all eternity? How do we decolonise a space like a museum? In terms of heritage and legacy so much of the knowledge was killed, was decimated, so following these continual bouts of colonisation what kind of legacies do these spaces have left?
Zayaan cuts open an apple for her son, in a tradition that she herself experienced as a child with her grandmother’s sister.
T L: An extension of this theme of “disconnection” with land in South Africa is tied into the current political debate on land expropriation without compensation. Do you think this concept can achieve anything in righting previous misdeeds? Or, could it have an impact on one of the counter arguments, such as whether it would affect food security?
Z K: A lot of food sovereignty practitioners, as well as global peasants, will argue that this narrative around food security has often been brought by corporate food companies, which talk to food security in terms of land holdings or land area. Whereas, if you look at how things have been done for the last few thousand years, before this idea of a capitalist economy as we understand it now, people have been able to cultivate food, gather food, grow food, live with food on much smaller areas of land, where access was a lot easier and a lot more free. People could go harvest seed at this space without having to worry about a boundary or a fence.
True food security is not about monocultures on masses of land, because we also know that this system is wasting so much of the food that it produces. So for who or what is the current food security for? Because if you are wasting at least a third of the food that you produce, it doesn’t seem like a very secure system. Whereas, global peasant food supplies systems that are able to produce nutritious food, culturally appropriate food, and diverse food that is ecologically sound and works with many other species within that space, that employs a lot more people and feeds a lot more people - we’re talking about completely different systems.
The land politics of a place like South Africa is so complex and difficult because the system is still held up by the same capitalistic system that took the land in the first place.
There are still many people, even in urban spaces, who are waiting - people are dying waiting - for land to be granted back. But we’re still missing that when it comes to the First Nations people, they are still left out of the conversation completely.
This democracy tends to gloss over First Nations people and go directly just to black people, almost as if those First Nation people, like the Khoisan people, never existed.
Zayaan in her garden.
T L: What do you think it would take for First Nations in South Africans to be heard or to get a platform?
Z K: One must be so careful how you talk about this because it’s so political and the trauma is so real. We have such a weird paradox. We don’t recognise any of the oldest languages as an official language of the state of South Africa (which has 11 official languages). A lot of the languages, like isiZulu or isiXhosa, are much more recent languages than any of the Khoekhoegowab or the Khoisan group of languages. Many of the clicking sounds that you hear in languages such as isiZulu or isiXhosa come from these older languages, which are not taught in our schools, yet the motto on South Africa’s coat of arms is written in Khoisan.
Because of the historical and current traumas, a lot of Indigenous people don’t recognise themselves as such. To get to a space where people can work with government to create Indigenous land management practices means learning what those practices are. But all of that has been severed and stories have been lost, stolen or silenced. Indigenous people don’t know where they come from because of all the forced removals, including from conservation lands, national parks and so on. That connection to land is heavily severed because people are moved to land that is not fertile or has no access to clean water.
Photo by Nicole Paganini.
An urban farming workshop in Mozambique. “Under the papayas and among the lettuce, onions and kale, we set up classroom to discuss the seed issues affecting Mozambique and the continent, how farmers can save seed, how to store seed, how we use seed, and the real lack of available scaleable non-industrial chemical seeds. Seed saving is so often a knowledge system that needs to be relearnt by farmers, gardeners or seed users in both urban and rural settings. Regaining this knowledge takes seasons and succeeds when the broader community shares and exchanges. The stories can ignite our imaginations - from varieties to growing methods, recipes to income generation.” (Photo by Nicole Paganini).
Urban Research Farmer Network seed workshop, Cape Town, South Africa. “Sharing seeds is about sharing stories. We collectively share successes, experiments, learnings – all within the ecological, political, economic and social complexities that exist within the cape of South Africa. Seeds hold all these narratives and connect us all.” (Photo by Nicole Paganini)
T L: Was this the catalyst to create the Seed Biblioteek?
Z K: One of the things about Indigenous knowledge being severed is that you particularly see it with seed. A couple of years ago, we were working very closely with a group of people who’d occupied a piece of land in the centre of Cape Town. It is highly contentious military land, but they haven’t used it in so long that people have been living there for two generations.
They decided to have a market day as a protest. To be part of the market day, myself and my friend set up a pop-up seed library. People came from around the city, even beyond the city, with seeds that they’d saved. People drew pictures on the seed packets. Someone even donated seeds that were 20 years old. The majority of those seeds aren’t going to be viable, but it started our thinking that there’s a reason behind why we hold onto seed for this long.
This pushed us to see what other uses these seeds could have, and how far this question around how we use seeds and connect to seeds goes. I looked at seed relationships for my Masters in 2016, which has since become a PhD, and the Seed Biblioteek became a place for that to grow. Now it’s a 10-year dream of having an actual space where the seed can be grown and shared, an actual library that people can attend.
It is also a place where we can address the seed laws on the African continent that are so detrimental. Many countries have laws that govern the global sales, marketing, distribution, and movement of seed and the harvestable parts from that seed: whether it’s the seed itself or the roots, flowers, or leaf.
These patent laws were originally intended to “protect the breeder”. Breeders invest a lot of time creating new varieties, but there’s not a lot of financial gain from that time commitment. It’s only people - and corporations - that can patent the variety that are able to get financial gains. But what these patents don’t consider is that they take things from the commons.
The food that we eat, the flowers we enjoy and the medicines that we grow, all of those things come from an ancient line of practitioners, of cultivation, of farmers and of Indigenous breeders - who, historically, are mostly women.
So this Indigenous knowledge is used to find plant traits that are then patented, with royalties going only to whoever files the patent. There’s no mention of the Indigenous knowledge that created that. No benefit sharing. The Indigenous knowledge holders are the ones who are hurt the most by these laws. The seeds, which should be free, become really expensive and with diminished genetic variety due to market preferences.
The view from Zayaan’s kitchen.
Zayaan pouring a rhubarb ferment.
A selection of various experimental fermentations.
T L: On your Instagram profile, you have the Martin Luther King Jr quote: injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. What meaning does this have for you?
Z K: It’s this idea of never resting. Because the work is going to take generations.
I can’t remember who said it best, but it’s the idea of planting a tree for future generations, who will enjoy the shade in the future, as opposed to what’s happening for now. In terms of the systemic nature of the world, it is knowing that solving or healing one kind of injustice is always just a start.
Seaweed workshop, exploring the use of seaweed as fertiliser, Strandfontein, Western Cape. (Photo by Nicole Paganini)
Photo by Nicole Paganini.
T L: What is your utopia? What would be the best vision for the future?
Z K: More equity, to start with. Justice. Much more healing and a stop to all this trauma.
We carry so much trauma and so many layers, that in order to thrive, each individual has to do a lot of work to release themselves from some of the burdens that we carry. A lot of times they’re inherited: born into these neoliberal world order lives and lifestyles, where our heritage is embedded in enslavement, forced removal, or heavy trauma.
Thriving is something that we all deserve. It is often an Indigenous way of being, because when you’re so embedded in land, then you’re able to live according to the will of the land, the sea and the wind, and there is enough to go around. Not living with the spiritual, political and economic limits that we face these days.
Because of the level of trauma, thriving is often kept from people, and by design. People are still oppressing others in such a way that’s horrific. To even be able to heal from that is going to take a long time.
It’s relentless. At every turn people who have taken all this power: extracting minerals, metals, salts, and everything they can out of the earth and out of other people. All of you stop. We have enough wealth in rotation. I don’t know what that journey looks like, but my ideal would be an end to capitalism, for it to just stop.
Zayaan collects yellow clover flowers to make a natural dye.
Striving for Equity