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Food, glorious food: How Cape Town is shaped by its resilient food system

Food, glorious food: How Cape Town is shaped by its resilient food system

by Simangele Mzizi
28 July 2022

To understand cities, and bring about a healthier, more resilient, and just food system, we need to understand the web of activities around food, the constant flow of which is the lifeblood of a thriving metropolis.

This was the message encapsulated in a recent food history walking tour of the Cape Town CBD, facilitated by Andrew Boraine, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership, that explored how the Central City’s history has been shaped by its food system, and how it’s currently shaping modern-day food systems.

We eat food every day, but we seldom think about where it comes from. But it inevitably includes production, processing, transport, and consumption. Understanding this, and why it needs to change, can lead to our making sustainable food choices, and addressing issues including the cost of food, why so many young children in our country are malnourished, how people access food and whether the food we eat will lead to ill health and disease.

The inaugural walk formed part of the EDP’s partnership with Food Dialogues 2022, an SA Urban Food & Farming Trust annual programme of talks and events that brings together a wide range of speakers and experts involved in shaping the food system. This year’s two-week-long event was held between 18 July to 1 August 2022 in various parts of Cape Town including the Cape Town CBD.

Andrew Boraine, CEO of the EDP, leads a food history tour in the Cape Town CBD. 


Iconic Heritage Square, home of the oldest fruit-bearing vine in the country, was a fitting starting point for the two-hour tour, attended by individuals influencing the food system such as informal traders, food growers, academics, activists, writers, policymakers, and food lovers.

To set the tone, Boraine referenced Carolyn Steel, a leading thinker on food and cities and author of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives who said, “to understand cities properly, we need to look at them through food” and used the city metabolism analogy.

“In a sense, your electrical system can be like a city’s nervous system and that’s why we’re on edge with electricity blackouts. But a constant flow of food into a city and its citizens is like the lifeblood of a city. It’s not just a complex network that brings food to citizens, it filters and disposes of human and food waste. This system is often taken for granted until it’s disrupted,” he said.

In highlighting the many connections and overlays between Cape Town’s ecological systems, history and food lineages, from pre-colonial to present day, Boraine identified six types of food economies that can be traced in Cape Town and South Africa: subsistence, herder/trader, settler/slave, colonial/ imperial, mining, migrant labour, segregation and apartheid economies as well as Cape Town and South Africa’s food economy as we know it today.

Informal fruit and vegetable traders are part and parcel of the CBD's resilient food system..


Interesting stories were interweaved as guests walked through the CBD passing through Riebeeck Square, Greenmarket Square, St Georges Mall, Adderley Street, the Golden Acre, Darling and Plein streets and Mandela Rhodes Place.

It was fascinating to discover how some of these spaces and food economies are connected to South African staples like pap, curry, street food such as bunny chow, dhaltjies, samosas, a Gatsby, peri-peri chicken and even biltong.

“Food is not just a system,” he said. “It is also very much part of people’s culture. We all come from different food cultures, traditions and preferences in our families, communities, and places where we grew up.”

Andrew Boraine, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership.


Boraine, who has extensive knowledge of the Cape Town Central City’s history, also incorporated previous writings on South African food and politics by a range of authors including his friend Tony Karon, an acclaimed writer and editor.

One of Karon’s poignant quotes that Boraine closed with at Mandela Rhodes Place, relates to the painful history behind South Africa and Cape Town’s food system, which Boraine acknowledged. In the Bittersweet (and spicy) History of South African Cuisine, Karon wrote: “While it’s tempting to read South African cuisine simply as some kind of melting pot of the influences brought by those who migrated to the country, many of the country’s most notable and tasty dishes reflect histories of violent conquest, enslavement, and oppression. But even as post-apartheid South Africa remains locked in an unfinished struggle to digest and resolve the consequences of its troubled history … its cuisine reflects the common humanity of its citizenry: their search for succour and comfort, identity, communion, and hope for a better day.”


Tags: EDP walking tour history walking tour Food Dialogues food systems Andrew Boraine