To the untrained eye, Rastafarians represent an alien culture of violent and unkempt ganja-smoking individuals who seek to wreak havoc in their communities. However, on the contrary, Rastafarianism is one of the most novel religious and social movements to come out of the African Diaspora in the twenty-first century. At its founding in Jamaica, the movement sought to offer a platform for poor Blacks by encouraging resistance to oppressive governing systems. The movement’s core philosophy is based on a “re-interpretation of the Hebrew Bible with a focus on Blacks as God’s chosen race, and the belief that the true Messiah is embodied in the Emperor Halie Selassie I (Ras Tafari) of Ethiopia” (Murrell 1998, 5).
The Rastafarian movement in South Africa blossomed after apartheid. In the present, the movement provides an outlet for young South Africans who are marginalized, lack quality education, and feel futureless, especially within Colored communities in the Western Cape of South Africa. For many Colored youth, the anti-establishment lifestyle of Rastafari provides a channel for their disenchantment and offers them a community (Tolsi 2011, 2). Rastafarianism has equipped the urban poor in the Western Cape area with a new political consciousness and language. Moreover, the colorblindness of Rastafari also works to deconstruct notions of racial ambiguity within the Colored community (Philander 2012, 140).
In the post-apartheid era, the ambiguity of the Colored identity—“historically defined as persons of mixed racial and ethnic heritage”—became problematic (Petrus and Isaacs-Martin 2012, 87). This problem was evident in the 1994 elections, as the National Party (NP) defended white interests and the African National Congress (ANC) struggled for power in a new, “non-racial” South Africa (Ruiters 2009, 107). The politics of the country had been strictly divided on a black and white basis; hence the Colored community was to a large extent alienated from the political struggle against apartheid (Ruiters 2009, 109). When the majority of the Colored voting population voted for the National Party in 1994 elections, questions arose as to how Colored people positioned themselves and understood their identity in the post-apartheid era (Ruiters 2009, 118).
In the present, the Colored community is in the process of reconfiguring its cultural and socio-political status within national and international domains (Philander 2012, 132). In doing so, two movements have developed in the Western Cape: KhoiSan Revivalism and KhoiSan Rastafarianism. KhoiSan Revivalism is a movement to protect the rights of indigenous KhoiSan people, as stipulated by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The movement fights for constitutional accommodation, which includes recognizing their indigenous land rights and the languages of the KhoiSan peoples (Philander 2012, 132).
The rise of KhoiSan Revivalism has occurred in concordance with the rise of KhoiSan Rastafarianism, in which traditional use of KhoiSan herbal medicine has been combined with the “political ethos of the Rastafari religion to create a neotraditional ethnomedicine” (Philander 2012, 135). Rastafarian principles of having knowledge of oneself and knowing one’s roots have complemented this rise of KhoiSan Revivalism in the Western Cape (Tolsi 2011, 2). It is an occurrence that is unique to Colored people in Cape Town, since Cape Colored ancestry is known to be ethnically mixed with indigenous KhoiSan, Xhosa, European, and Asian groups. This merging of Rastafarianism and KhoiSan heritage represents a cultural redemption for Colored people because it emphasizes positive virtues rather than violent gang culture, and allows them to adopt an indigenous South African identity, which for many Colored people legitimizes their presence in and claims to South Africa (Philander 2012, 151).
The recent growth of the Rastafarian and KhoiSan movements in the Western Cape has also been attributed to the proliferation of informal urban settlements in Cape Town. Colored townships on the Cape Flats such as Manenberg, Elsie’s River, and Parkwood are characterized by limited economic activity, inadequate infrastructure, poor education, unemployment, drug dependency, family fragmentation, and decades-old gang structures (Swingler 2014, 2). Youth in these communities have made the streets their safe haven from violence and abuse that are commonplace in their homes. Hence many young males are drawn into gangs especially if they have family members who are gang affiliated (Swingler 2014, 2).
One of the primary reasons that youth are attracted to street gangs is to devise “a rite of passage from childhood to adolescence and adulthood” (Dissel 1997, 1). In an interview, Dread, a Rastafarian herbalist, highlighted his experience growing up in a Colored township, stating: “There are all these initiation rites (or rites of passage) in all cultures. In the ghettos we say that if you’re Xhosa, then you go to the bush to become a man; you go into isolation to become a man. In apartheid years it was known that young men after high school would go to the army to become a man. The army was only for white people but, for most Colored people, manhood was attained when you went to prison.”
Rastafarianism provides believers an alternate route, a sense of community and belonging, as well as opportunities for economic improvement, power, acceptance, and purpose. Based on South Africa’s demographic data, there are about 5,100 traditional healers practicing in the Cape Town region, including Rasta herbalists and Sangomas (traditional healers) (WWF 2014, 4). Data show that Rasta herbalists harvest about 136 kilograms of herbs annually, which reaps a monthly return of around two hundred U.S. dollars. This trade presents an advantageous route to economic sustainability for many Rastafarians (WWF 2014, 5).
Rasta herbalists play a powerful role in the herb market by selling directly to customers and acting as suppliers for Sangomas with plants essential to their healing activities. Rasta herbalists and traders are intra-regionally connected as point persons who lead the trade of plant-medicines across the Western and Eastern Capes (WWF 2014, 5). Moreover, Cape Town’s bush medicine trade is valued at about fifteen million U.S. dollars annually. Including Cape Town and the Western Cape, the “biological capital contribution of natural resources for the Cape Town informal economy of traditional healing” is valued at five million U.S. dollars per year (WWF 2014, 6).
KhoiSan Rastafarian Ras Benjamin sold herbs at Wynberg Station in Cape Town and gained around fifty dollars per week (De Greef 2014, 2). He grew up in Lavender Hill, where he became involved with the “wrong” people prior to his conversion to Rasta at the age of sixteen. He expresses the importance of Rastafarianism in his life stating: “I would have been a gangster by now, probably in jail or dead” (De Greef 2014, 2).
In South Africa, the popularity, knowledge, and normalization of the movement is also attributed to the fact that they have started to speak out against the social, economic, and political ills of the new South Africa. Their stance against drug abuse, violence, and crime has made Rastafarianism popular and recognized by South African media outlets (Tolsi 2011, 3).
For Ras Adoni, originally from Mitchell’s Plain South Africa, “male figures were cats on the streets whether they were good or bad.” After experimenting with drugs such as mandrax, crack, and cocaine at a young age, Rastafari steered Ras Adoni away from drug dependency. He is currently a filmmaker who creates documentaries on racial injustice and societal issues across the African Diaspora. He described: “Ras Tafari for me is the thoughts and ideas of freedom and redemption. It opens you up to a new world.”
Similarly for Dread, Rastafari became a viable option because it is an all-encompassing life style that offered him a sense of knowing where he came from and a better direction forward: “I come from gangster culture, in Cape Town. My role models were the most hardcore gangsters, there wasn’t anything else. I started discovering Rastafarian what does it mean, what is the concept behind it. It’s so mystical; it really gives you some sense of divinity.”
For many Colored people in South Africa, identifying as KhoiSan Rastafarian has removed feelings of being a cultureless people without concrete roots. This also alleviates the feelings of dispossession and disenfranchisement that have led to a strong gang and drug culture in Colored townships. In doing so, the movement builds self-worth and allows followers to embrace their capacity to evoke great change in their communities and around the world.
By fusing indigenousness within a universally established religious identity, the Khoisan Rastafarian movement encourages members of the Colored community to discover their roots and to perceive themselves as a part of a global community of Black people who have all experienced oppression through colonialism and/or slavery. As a result, Rastafari promotes peace in South Africa and a larger movement towards recognizing the indigenous KhoiSan people.
It also calls to question what it means to be South African in the post-apartheid era and promotes a process that revaluates what rainbow nation means. In doing so, the Rastafarian movement encourages a reconciliatory process between all South Africans while also drawing young people away from entrenched cultures of violence.
De Greef, Kimon. 2014. “Cape Herb Trade Worries Ecologist.” Mail & Guardian. October 24, 2014. https://mg.co.za/article/2014-10-24-cape-herb-trade-worries-ecologists.
Dissel, Amanda. 1997. “Youth, Street Gangs and Violence in South Africa.” In Youth, Street Culture and Urban Violence in Africa. Abidjan: May 5–7, 1997.
Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel, ed. 1998. Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Petrus, Theodore, and Wendy Isaacs-Martin. 2012. “The Multiple Meanings of Coloured Identity in South Africa.” African Insight 42, no. 1 (June): 87–102. http://eng529.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/78239237/The%20Multiple%20Meanings%20of%20Coloured%20Identity%20in%20South%20Africa.pdf.
Philander, Lisa E. Aston. 2012. “Hunting Knowledge and Gathering Herbs: Rastafari Bush Doctors In the Western Cape, South Africa.” Journal of Ethnobiology 32 (2): 134–156. doi:10.2993/0278-0771-32.2.134.
Ruiters, Michele. 2009. “Collaboration, Assimilation, and Contestation: Emerging Constructions of Coloured Identity in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” In Burdened by Race: Coloured Identities in Southern Africa, 104–133. Cape Town: UCT Press.
Swingler, Shaun. 2014. “Fighting the Gangs of South Africa’s Western Cape.” The Guardian. May 29, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/29/gangs-south-africa-western-cape.
Tolsi, Niren. “The Rise and Rise of Rastafari.” Mail & Guardian. October 14, 2011. https://mg.co.za/article/2011-10-14-the-rise-and-of-rastafari.
WWF. 2014. “The Wild Harvesting Of Plant Medicines in Cape Town.” Wild Resource Harvesting Report.