Rooibos was originally used as a beverage by the indigenous people of the Cape, prior to the colonial era were using Rooibos as a beverage but the plant was first recorded botanically in 1772 by Carl Thunberg. Thunberg described the use of the plant by the Khoi (Dahlgren 1968, Ginsberg 1976), although under different botanical names.


While botanists were grappling with taxonomic refinement, a different classification system was already firmly rooted amongst local users of the rooibos plant. Afrikaans names for rooibos are usually descriptive and bear some reference to its uses or observable attributes. Rooibos was once known as "naaldtee" (needle tea) with reference to the needle-like leaves of the rooibos plant. It owes the historical name "rooitee" (red tea) to the tea's distinctive red-brown colour and the deep red colour of fermented leaves during processing. The shrub form of the plant has earned it the name bossietee ( Van Wyk & Gericke 2007) amongst some user communities.


Formal trade in rooibos was initiated in 1904 by Russian immigrant Benjamin Ginsberg with tea harvested from the wild. Ginsberg, who was descended from a tea-trading family, realised the commercial potential of the product. In the 1930's, selection trials were conducted with wild rooibos from the Pakhuis area of the Cederberg. The selection resulted in the industry being increasingly dependent on the cultivation of a re-seedling strain of rooibos (Nortier variety), which is highly productive and economically viable under intensive agricultural production.


BK Heiveld Rooibos, Fredoline.jpg

Production was stimulated when imports of tea from the East were affected during the Second World War. However, demand fell sharply following the resumption of trade with the East at the end of the war. As a result of the subsequent collapse of the rooibos market producers established the Clanwilliam Tea Cooperative in 1948. The Cooperative subsequently requested the government to intervene in the market, leading to the establishment of the Rooibos Tea Control Board in 1954, with the intention of stabilising producer and market prices by regulating the market, and of improving the quality of the product and introducing universal standards.



Over the following decades the rooibos industry grew rapidly both in size and in sophistication. An export market developed, and production was increasingly based on the cultivated Nortier variety. For nearly 40 years the Rooibos Tea Control Board acted as the sole buyer from producers and also as the sole seller to approved exporters and tea processors. The Board also ensured direct government protection and support, including subsidies for affiliated producers, research, and the provision of extension services. Racial discrimination excluded some producers from the benefits of this period of substantial growth and development, including the coloured farmers who had traditionally gathered wild rooibos. Government and the rooibos industry supported research focused exclusively on "modern" methods of broadacre production, and paid no heed to issues relating to sustainability of production in the wild.


In 1993 the Control Board was abolished and the Clanwilliam Tea Cooperative was transformed into a public company now called Rooibos Limited took over the assets and some of the functions of the Rooibos Control Board. Since deregulation the rooibos tea industry has changed dramatically. Independent producers and exporters have entered the market. Today, the Heiveld Co-operative produces and markets wild rooibos tea as an organically certified product. Some large-scale producers are returning to more sustainable methods of production of wild rooibos.

Authors: Noel Oettlé & Rhoda Malgas (2009)


© Indigo development & change  2015