Guest Post: Dried Fruit and the Cocktail Menace: Race, Food, and Purity in Interwar South Africa

Today's guest post by Sarah Emily Duff addresses the relationship between food and the history of  ideas regarding purity and race. 

Dried Fruit and the Cocktail Menace: Race, Food, and Purity in Interwar South Africa


National Archives of South Africa, Cape Town,
A1696 Women’s Christian Temperance Union, 

vol. 314: Annexure B Pamphlets.
In July 1912, the White Ribbon, the official publication of the South African Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), published an article extolling the virtues of a ‘fleshless diet’. Not only would it save readers money and was surprisingly easy to prepare – servants, the author noted, could ‘soon be taught to prepare vegetarian meals without supervision’ – but it was also a ‘“clean” diet,’ which had long been adopted by ‘many of those who have most deeply influenced our world of thought’.[i] Encountering a reference to ‘clean’ eating in a 1912 magazine represents a moment of surprising recognition, when the past and present seem to meet. The White Ribbon’s definition of clean eating is strikingly similar to that in the current language of wellness food culture: clean food, the author implies, fosters a healthy body and sound morals. A clean diet encourages a healthy mind, and a healthy body.

Of course, most societies around the world have long associated moral goodness with consuming – or not consuming – particular foodstuffs. And although it would be inaccurate to argue that the origins of a powerful contemporary food fad can be located precisely in the publications of the WCTU, both these movements’ preoccupation with clean eating are part of a longer history of reaction to the industrialisation of the food chain in the nineteenth century. Globally, the WCTU occupied an important place in the early history of regulating the food industry. Historians of the Progressive Era United States have shown how women associated with the WCTU campaigned successfully for food purity in the face of rampant food adulteration. However, the food purity movement was also a powerful weapon against immigrant-run businesses, which were disproportionately targeted by government authorities.  


In other words, food purity and what was dubbed ‘social purity’ often went hand-in-hand. For historians of South Africa, the WCTU is useful for understanding how concerns about food and diet were associated with broader debates about race and, to a lesser extent, class in the interwar period. Between the declaration of Union in 1910 and the National Party victory in 1948, which heralded the imposition of apartheid, a programme of increasing racial segregation was slowly rolled out across South Africa. Historian Diana Wylie has described interwar anxiety about the health and diets of Africans, particularly those who worked on the mines. In a period of immense social and economic change, when black labour was the foundation on which white South African prosperity was to be built, then the diets of workers became increasingly important to both the state and, more importantly, capital. [ii]


The WCTU’s interest in food and nutrition emerged at the same time, but with a different emphasis. The first branches of the WCTU were founded in the Natal Colony in 1888, and in the Cape Colony the following year. These and unions in the Transvaal and Orange Free State formed a federation in 1911, extending the South African WCTU’s work around the country. During the 1930s, the WCTU claimed a membership of around 4,000, including mainly white women, girls, and children. While its focus until the early 1970s remained the promotion of strict abstinence from alcohol, its members’ interests were extensive. Social purity was an especially busy sphere of activity in the interwar period. Members of the WCTU demanded an end to the sexual double standard; the banning of sex work; and the encouragement of behaviour which would halt the spread of sexually transmitted diseases – a threat, many argued, to white control over the Union. The WCTU’s race politics were contradictory. Although the organisation was opposed to segregation and apartheid, condemned the extension of franchise only to white women in 1930, collaborated with members of African organisations and churches to close municipal beer halls, and supported efforts to improve housing and education for black people, the organisation did not endorse nor practice racial equality. Black members of the WCTU could never climb its leadership ranks and black unions were required to appoint white presidents. Moreover, in the 1920s and 1930s, the WCTU worried that South Africa’s white population was inadequate to the task of ruling the country. Its social purity work was intended partly to shore up white supremacy.
The WCTU’s food activism shows up this complex race politics particularly well. In South Africa, debates over limiting the sale of alcohol to black people were bound up with anxieties about urbanisation and race: beer brewing by African women in cities and the countryside became a point of anxiety for officials and politicians. The WCTU was actively concerned about the opening of municipal beer halls and about the sale of beer to African men, but it was as interested in the South African wine industry, which was concentrated in the Western Cape. As historian Paul Nugent has discussed, the WCTU objected to the sale of wine and spirits to poor whites and the Cape’s largely poor multiracial (or ‘coloured’ in South African terminology) population, many of whom were farm workers.[iii]

Alcohol posed an existential threat to all South Africans, regardless of race, but drawing on racist arguments that African and coloured people were innately less capable of self-control than whites, the WCTU believed that black people were especially at risk of succumbing to the temptations of alcohol. Although the WCTU was concerned about whites who gave into the demon drink, it was also preoccupied with fostering ‘pure, clean lives’ within white families. [iv] The language of abstinence drew together temperance and social purity work. As the WCTU argued that it was impossible ever to drink in moderation – by signing the WCTU’s pledge, members promised never to touch alcohol in any form – so they argued that sex outside of the boundaries of marriage would lead always to degradation. Articles on meat-free, ‘pure’ diets were one strategy is making pure, white bodies. The article quoted at the beginning of this post specifies that the servant employed by the reader would be a ‘coloured woman’, suggesting that the diet it described was not intended necessarily to include her.

Beyond advocating a ‘pure’ diet, the WCTU worked hard to convince white South Africans, specifically, to embrace fruit instead of alcohol. In its efforts to curtail the power of the wine industry, the WCTU mounted several campaigns to persuade farmers that replacing their vineyards with table grapes would be as lucrative as wine production. To these ends, the WCTU held a raisin week in 1923, and a raisin month every April from the following year onwards.[v] Raisin week pamphlets extolled the virtues of raisins and currants, noting that they are ‘wholesome, nourishing, sustaining, delicious’. Per pound, noted pamphlets, raisins contain more energy than both bananas and beef. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the WCTU reported that raisin week boosted sales of dried fruit in South Africa, but did little to curtail the power of the wine industry.) Similarly, the WCTU’s sustained campaign against what it dubbed the ‘cocktail menace’ involved the printing of quantities of pamphlets to prove to white South Africans that fruit juice and soda water were just as – or even more – delicious as cocktails. It is always – as one pamphlet noted – ‘fruit cocktail time’. Members of the WCTU who married without serving wine and champagne at their reception were celebrated in the organisation’s publications; official toasts could be taken – the WCTU assured its readers – with unfermented grape juice.

Like the cigarettes against which the WCTU also campaigned, alcohol was a poison of both the mind the body. Dried fruit and fruit juice – and a meat-free diet – were pure in both corporeal and spiritual terms. In the interwar period, this diet could contribute to building a healthy white population in control of South Africa’s turbulent present and – hoped the WCTU – prosperous future. On the other hand, though, black South Africans needed to be protected from the threats posed to them by alcohol. The WCTU’s early and vehement opposition to the so-called ‘tot’ system – by which workers on wine farms were paid partly in spirits – was a notable and important achievement considering that system was banned only in 2003. Yet the bulk of the WCTU’s thinking about the relationship between food, alcohol, the body, and purity was informed by the view that only white bodies needed to be purified or made clean. ‘Clean eating’ took on distinctly racialised overtones.


[i] ‘Department of Food Reform,’ White Ribbon, vol. 22, no. 10 (July 1912), p. 2.
[ii] See Diana Wylie, Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa (Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 2001).
[iii] Paul Nugent, ‘The Temperance Movement and Wine Farmers at the Cape: Collective Action, Racial Discourse, and Legislative Reform, c.1890-1965,’ Journal of African History, vol. 52, no. 3 (Nov. 2011), pp. 341-363.
[iv] ‘Mrs John Brown’s Visit to Heilbron,’ The White Ribbon, vol. 28, no. 1 (October 1917), p. 1.
[v] June McKinnon, ‘Women’s Christian Temperance Union: Aspects of Early Feminism in the Cape, 1889-1930,’ MA dissertation, University of South Africa (1995), pp. 96-99.


Dr. Sarah Emily Duff teaches African history at Colby College in Maine. She is the author of Changing Childhoods in the Cape Colony: Dutch Reformed Church Evangelicalism and Colonial Childhood, 1860-1895 (Palgrave, 2015). Her current project traces the history of sex education in twentieth-century South Africa. Before moving to Maine, she held positions at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg, the University of Stellenbosch, and Goldsmiths, University of London.

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