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Meet the Afri-Vegans: South Africa Slowly Embracing Veganism


A chef preparing vegan food.

JOHANNESBURG — Meat may be meeting its match, as more and more South Africans are experimenting with vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.

Veganism — which entails cutting out all meat and animal-derived products, such as dairy, eggs and honey — is slowly growing globally. A Google Trends report puts South Africa at 14th globally in searches for "vegan," the only African nation to rank so high.

While there is no official count of how many vegans there are in South Africa, the interest has led a sprouting of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Johannesburg, the nation's economic hub. And this year, Africa's first large-scale vegan and plant-based exposition will land in Cape Town.

Moral and health reasons were cited by many new vegans, like 41-year-old financial adviser Dayalan Nayagar, who made the switch last year after being a lifelong omnivore.

"I got introduced to this whole new way of eating, you know healthy, eating organic-type food from plants and I couldn't believe it," he told VOA. "Like I said, it blew my mind and I got fully involved into it and I haven't turned back."

But, say the owners of one of Johannesburg's hippest, newest vegan eateries, vegans don't have to explain themselves to anyone — though they have weathered their share of questions and criticism, said Banesa Tseki, co-owner of the Nest Space yoga studio and vegan cafe.

"Where do I even start?" she said. "Someone said I'll definitely I'll die. Very seriously, I have been advised that I will get sick if I continue to eat this way."

Her business partner, Anesu Mbizvo, who is a medical doctor, says science supports a vegan diet. Both women are yoga instructors, and say they feel stronger and better having cut meat from their diet.

"Meat is full of saturated fat and saturated fat is a huge cardiovascular risk," she said. "It leads to heart attacks, strokes. It's been implicated in diabetes as well. And your veggies and your fruit don't have that. Or have very low levels of that. So I think in terms of that, if you're eating the correct portion and you're eating the right thing, then totally, a vegan lifestyle can definitely be healthier than a meat-based diet."

Meat-based culture

But veganism can be a lonely road. South Africa is the continent's top consumer of beef, veal, pork, poultry, mutton and lamb, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Many South Africans express horror at the thought of giving up meat, which is central to celebrations and spirituality and is a mainstay at family gatherings and celebrations.

That's a challenge for many African vegans, including Mbviso.

"In African culture, a big part of a family's net worth is their livestock," she said. "Their livestock define the wealth of a family. And so, when you slaughter an animal at a gathering, it's seen as you giving of yourself. Whereas getting some vegetables from your veggie patch doesn't really equate to the same amount of giving. ... So I think that that's still something that I think the African continent as a whole will need to grapple with when it comes. And I think that that's one of the barriers to veganism for people of African cultures."

And, she says, there are social implications to giving up meat. Her father runs a cattle farm in Zimbabwe, and employs many members of his community. If he cut out his meat business, she says, he would hurt the livelihoods of others.

Gradual transition

But some South Africans are finding a mindful middle path. Thirty-one-year-old Thandiwe Ngubeni, a communications specialist, still eats meat — but less and less of it as time goes by.

"I feel way more energized when I eat a vegetarian or vegan meal," she said, as she eagerly awaited an order of vegan pancakes. "It actually just gives me more energy. You don't get that like lethargic, heavy feeling in your stomach."

Tseki, who has been vegan since 2017, endorses the slow-and-steady approach.

"There's no right way of doing anything," she said. "I think, yes, there are many benefits of being vegan — especially for the animals in terms of them being killed and all of that. But this is a choice that only you can make."

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