Skip to content

How to walk through a Joburg Grocery (straight into a contact zone)

2013 May 21

It takes less than a day to find yourself again in Joburg, at once business traveler and ethnographer. The two roles sit uneasily beside each other, but never mind that for now. You are here. A hemisphere away, so it’s wintertime, and you know there will be other differences—cultural differences—which you must now get down to the business of tracking. But for now, here is an airport whose entrances and exits are suspiciously familiar, here is a taxi which meets you upon arrival, here are highways and traffic lights, malls, and a hotel whose staff speak in an accent you find alluring. They do not enunciate the sound of the letter “A” as “ah.” Instead, they speak the sound as they speak the letter. Ey-pple. Ey-rport. Welcome to South Ey-frica. It’s the only real clue that you are in a different country.


“The anthropologist arrives in the city on foot, the sociologist by car and via the main highway, the communications specialist by plane,” Nestor Garcia Canclini has wryly observed. What does that make you, you wonder?

Stop. Stop.

You measure distance by travel time, not so long at all. You measure it yet again by the time-difference, which is hardly insurmountable: just about 4 hours from home. Measure it again by the immediate familiarity of roads and buildings, street signs, shops, and brands, and you arrive at a theory of cultural homogenization, which asserts the sameness of everywhere—all things standardized to global consumer standards and needs. Packaged. Pretty. Predictable. An eminently negotiable “contact zone,” to borrow Mary Louise Pratt’s old term, in which it does not seem at all that “cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other …  in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.”

But they do clash asymmetrically, you want to insist, almost in vain, given all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They do.

South Africa feels a whole lot like the United States in some respects, or like Europe in others—and you don’t really need Hofstede’s dimension data to tell you that. The movement is, as Tomlinson has written, from connectivity to proximity to ubiquity: interconnectedness creates the impression of proximity and uniformity. What it means is that you can hit the ground running, borne along by airplanes and taxis and such conveyances that whisk you from site to site so that you can comfortably function really without regard to local context. Propelled by trans-national flows of capital, global business decontextualizes everything. It’s like skimming the surface of deep water with no thought to the depths below your airborne feet.

Then again, airports and hotels are not places to expect cultural difference beyond the marketing of Amarula or beadwork dolls or t-shirts which say “South Africa” [you were there. Really, you were. You couldn’t have got a t-shirt that says “South Africa” any place else.] On the contrary, they are sites which have been deliberately homogenized, cultural differences reduced to immigration procedure—except at key moments of rupture: risk carrying poppy seeds through Dubai, and place and culture may well reassert their presence, indeed their ultimate authority, with a vengeance, popping your global bubble. What’s beyond these sites of constructed homogeneity matters immensely.

To find what’s beyond, however, is not easy. The world is a lot more impenetrable than “small world”/”flat world” theories let us believe, and since both business and tourism have pounded roll-on luggage-friendly paths into contact zones once overdetermined by colonialism and slavery. Leave aside for now stories of Soweto and and Fordsburg and Lenasia. Leave aside what it has felt like to be dropped, unawares, into the homes and daily routines of people in Midrand or Thokoza or the unpronounceable Vereeniging. Forget what it’s like to find yourself between the lawn mower and the children running and dinner preparations and the train blocking the route to your next interview (for which you’re already late).

Instead, consider just the prospect of walking through a grocery store.

IMG_2538 IMG_2537
IMG_7807 IMG_7808

Grocery stores capture you as sites in which globalized consumer culture per force articulates with the local: the environment (going roughly by what produce is available, imports notwithstanding), gastronomy (what clues are contained about how people eat and cook), and of course branding (washing powder is Omo as it always has been, and Nido—well, anyone who has lived in Africa knows that’s milk powder). Walking through a grocery store or visiting a spaza shop is like reproducing those most mundane of routine practices in search of life narratives that illuminate values, myths, desires, habits, identities. Globalization comes alive at the grocer’s as the interaction between different scales of human experience, vocabularies, and needs.

Or it should anyway.

At first, however, the walk is disconcerting, for it winds also through a de-territory: standardized, homogenized, consumer-friendly, numbingly repetitive landscapes that make it hard to differentiate a SuperSpar, Checkers, and a Pick-n-Pack in Joburg, from a Randalls or a HEB in Houston: start at fruits and vegetables, go through the bakery, and then navigate to cereals, dry packaged foods, bath products, home-care, toys, kitchen things, dairy, wines. Walk through tunnels of Nido upon Nido upon Nido, Omo beside Omo beside Omo, Peri Very Peri-Peri, to the row of check-out stands, with conveyor belts and scanners that go beep-beep-beep.

IMG_2556 IMG_2555
IMG_2552 IMG_2566

When you do find your way to local ingredients, there’s another sort of ubiquity with which to contend: beyond the fruits and vegetables (very few of them organic), packaged and processed foods predominate.  Actual peri-peri (bird’s eye) chilies are near-impossible to find except occasionally in the gourmet corners of Woolworth Food. It’s no coincidence that the chain Nando’s peri peri sauces are everywhere: interpreted, bottled, and good to go. The distance from where you are is so much the greater. Of course.

Interestingly enough, this assertion of global de-territory isn’t disturbing at all—though it really should be. Being forced to deal, damnit, with suspicion toward poppy seeds (khus khus) in Dubai or daily infrastructural instabilities in Pondicherry, is a rupture tortuous enough to make many a repat queasy about being forced to be in a place.

The retail grocery spares us the contact zone by eschewing locality. In place of place, an numbing amnesia takes hold. You must press through the fog for little hints of the sort of globalized consciousness that Pick-N-Pay represents.


Not local culture, against a homogenized consumer landscape, trans-national cultural difference is accentuated: Mexican “Guadala Gunpowder” hotsauce promises to bring the (Bandito-heat-gunfire) south of Mexico into South Africa.


When you see TEXAN corned meat, you know for a fact that you aren’t any longer in Texas (or Kansas, for that matter). Where you are, however, remains frustratingly indeterminate though of course you know precisely where you are all along. You’re in South Ey-frica, Joburg, Rosebank, but also in that familiar global cosmopolitan de-territory that has so loosened the ties between culture and place that your movement between places is seamless. It’s so easy to forget where you are.

But look closer, there are other signs.

IMG_7802 IMG_8803
IMG_7804 IMG_7801

An abundance of cabbage and swiss chard, which everyone calls spinach, and some call morogo [mo-ro-kho], though you doubt the two can be the same (morogo refers to a wild variety of local spinach). Piles of “pumpkin” (butternut squash) everywhere.


Eggplant is “brinjal”—great for grilling, calling out to “buy and braai” (barbecue).


Roiboos (roy-bos; Afrikaans for red bush) tea, the world’s latest health tea drink, as ordinary as any other Lipton commodi-tea in this part of the world.


A love-affair with apricot jam intense enough to can the stuff mile-high.

IMG_2544 IMG_2553

Rusks and Blatjangs (saucy, jammy, fruity chutneys) and Trekker Coffees to invoke Voortrekker journeys from the Cape colonies into the heart of what is now South Africa.


Samp—a word of Native American origin—or stampmielies in Afrikaans, to accompany beans.


So, so many ingredients for porridge of one sort or other. King Korn for mabele (as it is known in Northern Sotho: stiff porridge made of sorghum meal).


Piled-up 10kg bags of No 1 Super Mealie Meal (ground white maize) to prepare a pap for every braai—whether a putu pap or a krummelpap or a stywe pap or a growwe pap (some of which may be distinguishable from each other based only on water content, for pap is essentially a porridge).

[Wait — so much mealie meal, seriously? You hold on to the thought, to follow later.]


And wines. Don’t forget the wines. Stacked up to the ceiling, rivaling only the canned apricot jam and the stacked sacks of mealie pap.


And the oddest of little clues about other sorts of global trends: in the dairy case, a container of Inkomazi sanctioned as “shuddha” (Sanskrit for clean) and “halal,” both with appropriate seals. [“Inkomo” is cow, imaasi is soured milk; together they are Inkomazi, cow’s soured milk or a local brand name for “maas,” which is essentially high fat fermented milk. Yoghurt, but really only sort of.] Nothing Parve here, but “Shuddha” and “Halal” matter.


You keep returning to pap and samp–which are everywhere in restaurants and your respondents’ answers to food association questions as favorite, staple foods, the necessary complement to every braai.

But somewhere you remember N!ai and Nisa, and mealie meal as handouts to erstwhile hunter-gatherer communities long-settled into poverty and disenfranchisement on reservations. You recall N!ai reflecting: “We were not poor. Before, there was plenty of food, but that is not true anymore … Even if hunger grabbed you, you could eat….We didn’t know money….Now we eat mealie meal, and mealie meal and I hate each other.”

There are other accounts, such as the one recorded by Audrey Richards in 1939:

Bemba, after leaving their country to work in urban areas in the south, say they find it difficult to adjust themselves to the maize flour “mealie meal” they are given there. One old man probably too fixed in his gastric habits to become adapted to town life said, “Yes, first I ate through one bag of [maize] flour and then a second. Then at last I said, ‘Well, there it is! There is no food to be found among the Europeans.’

How did it happen that a grain whose origins are not in Africa at all but in the Americas, which were unheard of prior to the 1700s, by the time of your visit they are as much part of local cultures as “Oma” is now Afrikaans? [“‘Oma’–that’s Dutch, isn’t it?” I remark to a grandmother whose grand daughter is kissing her good bye. “No,” she replies definitively, “It’s Afrikaans.”] Such is the entrenchment of maize meal into African foodways and agrobusiness: the capitalist expansions that accompanied colonialism and transformed physcial and social landscapes are consigned to amnesia.

Through the secret door marked “mealie meal” which not even the locals will know is there, you’re about to walk straight into a contact zone.

Portuguese traders provide the earliest introduction: it’s zaburro in Mozambique (from the Portuguese milho zaburro), masa mamputo in Angola (“grain of the white man”), and mealie in Afrikaans (from the Portuguese milho)–the term most widely used in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Missionaries brought it next.

Even so, until the first third of the twentieth century, McCann tells us, diets in southern Africa consisted mainly of sorghum and millet. As late as the end of the 19th century, white South African farmers still held maize a Kaffir crop, with limited commercial value.

Yet, as maize fit in first between seasonal cycles, soil niches, older staple crops, and other New World émigrés such as cassava, beans, or pumpkins, it was poised to revolutionize industrial food production in South Africa. A few things made this possible:

  1. Maize’s quick maturity and less-labor-intensive cultivation, compared to the traditional sorghum–which made it attractive as a crop;
  2. The 1867 discovery of diamonds and the 1885 opening of a railroad at Kimberly–which brought in hungry workers and a cash economy alongside a transportation system linking local production with national and international markets;
  3. The arrival of the “Hickory King”: a white dent poor-soil-tolerating out-yielding maize variety–which would become the progenitor of commercial maize varieties in the region and which held the possibilities of industrial production;
  4. The exodus of men from agricultural production to the mines–which buttressed the need for a low-labor crop, on the one hand, and created the political need for cheap food supply, on the other.

The result: Basotho farming quickly turned maize from garden vegetable into an export-ready commodity–“mealie flour.” The commercial flour fed men in the mines “mealie papa” (cornmush) while their families back home consumed their household crop in the same form. Government subsidies in a mining economy would eventually enable the mechanization of maize cultivation on white farms, instituting cheap “mealies” the culinary cornerstone of apartheid era food production.

Thus it was, writes McCann that:

[t]he evolution of a distinctive agricultural landscape—the region of the Transvaal, the eastern Orange Free State, and colonial Basutoland (Lesotho after 1968) known as the “maize triangle,”—was a product of the historical conjuncture of maize, labor migration, and nascent industrial capitalism on the South African highveld. This setting of highlands, palatable grasses, friable soils, and well-defined rainfall frontiers became a stage on which maize played a seminal role in struggles over labor, landscape, and livelihood. Maize thus stood at the heart of an industrial transformation of the national food supply. 

You return once more to the Rosebank Pick-N-Pay as a site of global historical amnesia, thinking of the drives from Nelspruit to Kruger and God’s Window speeding you past farm upon farm of Australian pine, eucalyptus, avocado, banana, and orange, stretched out beyond what your camera can capture, maybe even further than God’s own eye could see. And you wonder when it will again be possible and what it will take to remember agrarian transformations of socio-political landscapes on a mundane walk though a Joburg grocery store.

IMG_8512 IMG_8520

James McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa’s encounter with a new world crop 1500-2000 (Harvard University Press, 2007) 

Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (Routledge, 1992)

Audrey Richards, Land, Labour, and Diet in Northern Rhodesia (LIT Verlag, 1997 [1939])

John Tomlinson, Globalization and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1999)

A Recipe for Mealie Pap
 375 ml water (1,5 k)
 5 ml sout (1 t)
 300 g mieliemeel (500 ml) (2 k)
 (6 porsies)
 Kook die water en die sout in 'n kastrol, gooi die mieliemeel stadig 
 by sodat dit ophoop en die water rondom kook.
 Moenie roer nie.
 Sit die kastrol se deksel op en kook 10 tot 15 minute lank stadig.
 Klop goed met groot vurk.
 Sit deksel op en laat verder oar baie lae hitte gaar word. 
 Dit neem ongeveer 1 uur.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
6 Responses Post a comment
  1. May 21, 2013

    Deepa, I continue to love the reflections and images in your posts. Thank you!

    • May 26, 2013

      How nice to hear from you, Celia. Glad to know we’re in blog-to-blog touch. More on email.

  2. June 19, 2013

    I love it – “The anthropologist arrives in the city on foot, the sociologist by car and via the main highway, the communications specialist by plane”!

    Milo and Nido milk are familiar things on the aisles of Nigerian stores….

    Deepa. Amazing!

  3. September 4, 2015

    Hey there, You have done an incredible job. I’ll definitely
    digg it and personally recommend to my friends.
    I’m sure they’ll be benefited from this website.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Groundnut Pyramids and Groundnut Soup | Pâticheri
  2. Fresh Pressed Cashew Apple Juice | Pâticheri

Leave a Reply

Note: You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS