SAPOC at the Table is a forum for people of colour involved in the food and beverage industry. Founder Ishay Govender-Ypma explains its roots and purpose.

The doors were closed against the hot gusts, typical of a summer day in Woodstock and Salt River, Cape Town’s rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods. The audience had their gazes fixed ahead at the panel engaged in animated discussion.

The topic was titled “Going back to our roots: a discussion on indigenous ingredients”, and the discussants comprised a former Slow Food Youth Network activist, an indigenous bush doctor, a nutritionist with indigenous food expertise, a fynbos botanist, and an ice-cream maker specialising in African flavours.

This was our first gathering with participants from around the country, and SAPOC (South African people of colour) at the Table – or “sah-pock”, as chefs Amanda Manyatshe and Tash Geleba call it – had finally found a time and space in the industry’s culture, ready to receive it.

Black Excellence in Food and Wine

In the years prior to this, it was explicit from the conversations held in the media and within our circles, that the time to speak about black excellence in food and wine, cultural appropriation and systemic marginalisation in a manner that was embraced and not seen to diminish any other, was simply not here yet.

Encouraged by the work done by US cookbook author and activist Julia Turshen and her network called EATT (Equity at the Table – dedicated to women and non-binary folks in the industry), and the widely used aphorism that when circumstances allow, grow a longer table and not a higher fence, SAPOC planted its roots in fertile home ground, finally welcome to spread and flourish.

Presenters and members of the audience consisted of several prominent contemporary food personalities such as Mogau Seshoene of The Lazy Makoti, Lufuno Sinthumule (Cooking with Funi), self-published entrepreneur Zanele van Zyl (Cooking with Zanele); restaurateurs Karen Dudley of The Kitchen in Woodstock and globally minded Coco Reinarhz of pan-African Épicure in Johannesburg.

And there to dispense wisdom and decades of expertise were cookery stalwarts such as our black food icon Dorah Sitole, Karoo Kitchen author Sydda Essop, and Cape Malay and South African food ambassador Cass Abrahams.

A Safe Space For People of Colour 

For over a decade I had imagined a forum, a safe space for people of colour in this industry – chefs, cooks, sommeliers, baristas, growers, writers, photographers, thinkers, and anyone involved in the field – to gather, to network, to rant unedited if needed, and to lead the conversations as far as they pertained to us and our future framed by a mutual past.

Speaking at the Abantu Book Festival in 2016, addressing the publishing industry, poet Lebo Mashile spoke of the “gap in our hearts for a long time”. Just like the audience knew then, so do we at SAPOC that creating a vehicle to close that gap, serves our members in a way that diversity programmes simply can’t.

Within these spaces we don’t have to explain our customs, our cravings, our journeys, nor our reticence at accepting a handout accompanied by soul-crushing clauses in which we have to explain who we are, justifying our presence at the table. Mentorship and camaraderie from people who understand and have been there too counts a great deal more than we are conditioned to think.

Challenging The Limits Set By Spatial Apartheid

Statistics South Africa’s Living Conditions report, released in 2017, reported that “white-headed households had an income roughly 4,5 times larger than black African-headed households, and three times larger than the average national income”.

If you are a chef with dreams of opening a restaurant (and black chefs in South Africa inherit generational debt and family responsibilities that place them on a consistently uneven keel), this has a significant impact. It simply isn’t possible to peel off the 25 post-apartheid years as quickly as any of us would like.

Since the conference, I have witnessed chefs who grew up together, but lost touch over the years, collaborating on charity-focussed dinners; educational gatherings between chefs and seed librarians and fermenters; and cooks and sommeliers presenting lavish long lunches in Cape Town’s peripheries, challenging the limits set by spatial apartheid, which sadly continues to fester.

Lift As You Rise

In her opening address at our conference, Dorah Sithole said, “Take care of one another, acknowledge and encourage each other, be each other’s cheerleaders, and remember to lift as you rise. 

“When singular fame calls, please remember where you come from, find opportunities to collaborate with others, and always have a heart for your community of professionals.”

I would like to think of it as a thread that runs through SAPOC’s hand-woven tablecloth adorning a long table with many seats.