Sustainable Living is an Ancient Custom in South Africa

Sustainable living is such a crucial topic in South Africa at the moment, since the drought in the Western Cape (Cape Town in particular) is said to be the worst in a century. Cape Town is a city that is home to some of South Africa’s wealthiest individuals and the price of prime property there is well beyond the reach of average South Africans. Now everyone is affected by the drought and allocations of 50 litres per person per day is imminent as Day Zero looms (April 22nd, 2018) when all the taps will be shut off and water tanks will provide water. This has got me thinking about sustainable living and how we should really be going back to our roots.


South Africans of Indian origin have a number of traditions that were passed on by our ancestors who arrived here in the late 18th century.  However, we currently only practice these traditions in half-measures because we have evolved to a more western lifestyle.  Here are a few examples which we should consider re-implementing into our culture so that we can be a part of the global movement towards sustainable and clean living:


Eating with our hands on a banana leaf is done during special prayer times only.  However, this is a very interesting way of using nature to provide the instruments we need for dining. Consider production costs of ceramics, dishes that still need to be washed and dried, as well as cutlery. Eating with our hands is not archaic as many of us still practice this when eating Indian food at home. I would really love to have access to a banana leaf simply because I loathe washing dishes. Every time I wash plates and cutlery I look at the exorbitant amount water and soap that’s consumed.


Every South African of Indian origin knows what a ‘bucket-bath’ is. When our ancestors arrived from India (a country where they had scarce resources) they brought along a tradition of bathing with limited water resources. This involved a bucket of water, a jug (or as we call it ‘chombuu’) and sometimes a stool for older or younger people to balance whilst inside the bath tub. In most South African Indian homes, this still exists when the older generation chooses not to shower because their modest homes sometimes only have access to a bath tub.



Vegetarianism is on the rise (more so veganism), and while I myself eat meat, there are increasing research that proves that a vegetarian diet benefits us and also limits our impact on the environment. We fast by abstaining from meat often, sometimes as much as weeks at a time, and clean living is not that difficult to maintain as we minimise our consumption of animal products and save the planet.  This was an age-old practice so nothing is preventing us from rekindling our love of fresh herbs, dhals and other delicious savouries to sustain our bodies.


And what about the business of yoga around the world that has become something of a joke to those who know the significance of daily meditation (yoga for the mind). There is absolutely no need to pay excessive fees to go to a yoga studio where someone teaches the downward dog in designer hot pants. The salwar kameez is known as a Punjabi to us South African women, and it is a common tradition for us to practice true yoga.


Buying local was a way of self-sustaining communities back in the day, when fresh produce was so specific to dietary needs. A recent visit I made to a local market in Durban during the festive season is called the Bangladesh informal market, which is a weekly traders market. Now we have designer food markets available, but the traders marks have been in practice since the time our people arrived in South Africa. So what if it is not designer? It is authentic and whilst you will not find a gourmet pizza and cocktail whilst listening to a jazz band, I would rather find freshly fried samoosas in a variety of options, hot vedas and polis washed down with a delicious cup of tea at a pittance in comparison.


Informal market 5informal market 4




Sustainable living is a new concept only to those who have never been exposed to the way indentured laborers have lived before. As much as this is fast becoming a cliché, in the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in the world!



Related articles:

The Porridge People of South Africa

The Great South African Ayas

My Clan Name Is Pillay

Our Slurring Mother Tongue