South Africa: A Fledgling Artisan Cheese Culture Under Threat

23 Nov 2017

In South Africa we have a huge diversity of landscapes, of animals, of languages and of people. On the dry west coast of the country, the Afrikaner cows, which have been herded since before the arrival of Europeans, have a hump on their backs for much the same reason that camels have them, though historically they were never used to produce cheese. On the Highveld in the east of the country, the Nguni cattle is named after the Nguni people who brought them down into South Africa from further north. This breed was traditionally used for the production of just one dairy product, amasi, a sort of sour cottage cheese made from milk fermented in a calabash.

Commercial cheesemaking in South Africa has been around for 100 years, and up until 1991 and the end of apartheid there was a dairy board which dictated what farmers could do with their milk. The entire national production had to be sold to the government, which used it to make gouda, cheddar and mozzarella, and no other cheese. We didn’t have any other cheeses in South Africa 30 years ago. When the apartheid government was taken out of power, the control boards which regulated cheesemaking also disappeared, and we entered an open society. The result is there are no longer any controls with regards to manufacturing. We can do whatever we like. But this newfound freedom also presents great challenges, as there has been a deterioration of some services, particularly veterinary services.


Nguni cows. Photo: Slow Food

The majority of the cheeses we have made so far have been imitations of European cheeses, and the cheesemakers themselves are predominantly European. They are geographically dispersed, from the far northern reaches to the southern tip, apart from the Karoo. There are indigenous cattle breeds that do well in the Karoo, but up until now their milk has never been used to make cheese, as the yields are very low. There are farmers who’re being encouraged to milk the Nguni cow, but we haven’t got to the point of cheesemaking yet. That’s the next step: indigenous-breed South African cheese.

Climate Change in South Africa

When I was at school on the Highveld, you could set your watch to the afternoon thunderstorms during the summer. We used to have interrupt rugby practice as the thunder and lightning arrived. But that’s all gone now. The drought affecting the Cape Town region has officially been declared a disaster, and may run dry by mid-May 2018. Level 5 water restrictions have been implemented since early September 2017, meaning everyone is limited to 87 liters of water a day, and water rationing has been in effect since late October. Life is changing. As the mayor of Cape Town said, “we have to change our relationship with water completely.”

The Karoo region is also desperately dry. We have a cheesemaker from the Karoo, Francy Schoeman, who has made a new cheese in the last 4 years, since coming to Cheese in 2013, a washed-rind cheese she called Karoo Sunset. The farm that produces Karoo Sunset feeds its animals alfalfa, which grows along the nearby Sak River. This river never reaches the sea, eventually disappearing under the ground, but this year, it’s not flowing at all. She phoned us two days before we left to come to Cheese 2017 to say she wouldn’t be making soft cheeses this year, as there was insufficient feed for the animals. Last year in Johannesburg we also had our worst drought in living memory. We were down to just four weeks worth of water when a cyclone came, filling our dams but also washing away the crops.

This is the problem nowadays: we no longer have anything which vaguely resembles reliable weather. We’re having far more violent storms, unpredictably. Last year in Johannesburg, for the first time, we had three tornadoes! Nobody has any idea what this year holds. We’ve already had two cheesemakers stop production because of drought, and they’ve had to sell their animals because they can’t find any foraging, and they can’t buy fodder because there literally isn’t any available.


Zulu Rainbow Maize. Photo: Slow Food

The Solution Under Our Nose

At the best of times South Africa can be a hostile farming environment. With extreme weather, we’re finished. Except for one very important thing, which must not be forgotten: there are crops which are indigenous to our country, so why are we growing water-hungry crops that are susceptible to excessive heat, when we’ve already got native crops that are well-adapted to our climate?

South Africa has an obsession with maize, particularly GM maize. In fact, we’re the only country in the world that has GM maize as our staple diet. It’s terrifying. The maize is also highly refined, which takes all the goodness out leaving just starch and carbohydrate. The result is we have a nation of people that are overweight, prone to diabetes, and in essence, sick. Yet at the same time we have sorghum, a native plant, which grows prolifically in low-water environments, but is out of favor and usually considered a source of biofuels or animal fodder, when in fact we should be eating it.


GM Maize is the staple of the South African diet. Photo:

Even if we just talk about maize, there are better options. Maize was actually introduced to South Africa very early on by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, and over time it has become indigenized, and is eaten by subsistence farmers in KwaZulu-Natal on the east coast. It is called Zulu Rainbow Maize because it has multicolored kernels, and has adapted to the local climate. We are now working on trying to reintroduce the Zulu Rainbow Maize across the Zulu Kingdom, to explain the value of this cultural and gastronomic heritage which could so easily be lost forever, and encourage villages to plant it, and reject this nonsense of buying GM seeds from companies every year. That’s all we can do: work with people and encourage them to move away from GM maize and rediscover the beauty, the importance and the utility of our indigenous crops.

Slow Food is promoting the Menu For Change campaign to tell the world how climate change is affecting small-scale farmers and food producers and what we are doing to support them. Get involved! 

Brian Dick is the coordinator of the Slow Food Presidium for South African Raw Milk Cheeses

GM Maize photo courtesy of



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