So much have been said in recent years in South Africa about the origins of things we today regard as farily normal and part of our African lives. The debate is often focussed on what is regarded as South Africa’s ‘African’ orgigins and things that may have arrived here from overseas.
Often, depending on where you look from, the one is maligned and the other promoted as the only part of our history which is important and should be remembered.
Fredo’s view on the matter is that South Africa is such a colourful country with so many different cultures and a heritage so rich that both these views should be accommodated. It is indeed what makes this wonderful country and its people what it is.
Why is Fredo writing about this? Well, as written in previous blogs we have just completed a major writing project – 125 Years in Pursuit of Quality – which is in fact the history of the South African table grape industry. It is an industry which plays such an important part in the lives of South Africans.
Fredo could not assume that the origins of South African table grapes is necessarily part of what settllers from elsewhere brought here. He had to look for the ‘African’ origin too and to do so he had to play the game of imagining!
“Imagine, a day, perhaps 400 hundred years ago, perhaps even more, when from the original inhabitants of the Cape, perhaps a Khoisan father, set out from his home, during the summer, to gather food for his family.
The Khoisan were herders, but one can imagine that they would also have looked for fruits and bulbs to eat.
Imagine that he would have walked in the valleys beside crystal clear streams, below imposing mountains, in what we today call the Cape. His eyes would have been cast down to search the ground ahead of him. Sometimes he would look up at trees, or at bushes and shrubs, where he hoped to find fruit like berries.
Imagine that when he came around a clump of bushes, he looked up at the surrounding trees, and there saw some climbing plants, with fairly big round green leaves. Dangling from the shoots were bunches with round berry-like fruits – most probably small black ones. He would proceed to pick some, taste them and would have smiled as the sweetness exploded in his mouth. And he would have taken them home for his family to enjoy.
Imagine that the whole family would have savoured the sweetness bursting from the little berries – and they would have called it table grapes – one supposes because it was placed on the table to enjoy fresh. If you can imagine that, you may well agree that we may have found the origins of table grapes in South Africa here in our own country far earlier than the founding of the Cape Colony some more than 350 years ago.
Yet, the game of imagining will probably not solve the problem. Finding the answers is an intriguing story that speaks of endeavours and entrepreneurial spirit – of pioneers and their succeeding generations, who refused to be defeated in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds.”
In Fredo’s search he got some help
In Fredo’s search for that local link, leading Hex River Valley table grape farmer Leon Viljoen planted the seed to at least look for a local heritage – to the time before Westerners arrived at the Cape. He had in mind looking into a South African ‘wild grape’.
This ‘wild grape’ is in fact Rhoicissus tomentosa, a recognised member of the grape family.
Viljoen made this comment after reading in the New History of South Africa by Hermann Giliomee, and Bernard Mbenga, about the early inhabitants of the Cape region. He showed Fredo maps of the vast areas of Southern Africa where the Khoisan tribes lived, well before the arrival of Europeans at the Cape.
The author tracked down this wild grape, pronounced “roy-KISS-us tok-men-TOH-suh”. In English they call it Wild Grape, Bush Grape, African Grape, Forest Grape, Monkey Grape, or Wild Vine. In Afrikaans it is called Bosdruif; Wildedruif; Bostou or Bobbejaantou.
Most interestingly, it is also recognised in at least six other African languages, namely isaQoni, iDiliya and uchithibhunga in Xhosa, isiNwasi and Isinwazana in Zulu, Moaparo in Sesotho, Dyathoho and Makhulu-wa-khundwi in Venda, isiNwati in Swati and Kundzu in Xitsonga.
This seems to suggest that Rhoicissus tomentosa was probably well-known over vast parts of our country for many centuries.
We learnt that the plant produce “attractive fruits”. The official description notes that “the loose bunches of rounded fruits ripen from May to June, turning from green to red to purplish-black. They are edible, with whitish flesh and a pleasant acidic flavour”. This is so similar to the way present day cultivars are described by exporters and growers on their websites and in their communication to customers in far-off countries.
So, we did not find an African ancestor for our local table grape industry. The origins of our modern day industry did come from overseas – a phenomenal gift which brought well-being for geerations of South Africans and which is today as African as anything else.