Portia de Smidt has the satisfaction this month of celebrating the 20th birthday of Africa Café, one of Cape Town’s most successful restaurants, specialising in African cuisine. But there’s much more to De Smidt, as we learn from her story:
I was born in Kimberley, and grew up in Swaziland mostly. We moved to get away from the Bantu education system. I went to loads of different boarding schools and grew up speaking English and Afrikaans. Swaziland schools were mixed, so I met lots of different people from different cultures – more than the average black South African.
I matriculated in East London, and during my time there I applied to more than 50 universities in the US, pleading for a scholarship, funds and even plane fare. I also had to apply to the minister of education for permission to go to a white university (Rhodes in Grahamstown).
I studied one year of pharmacy there in 1977, then left when riots broke out. Attending lectures didn’t feel real at the time; what was real was all the suffering going on around the country. Out of the blue, one of the universities that I’d applied to – in Portland, Oregon – came back to me saying I’d been accepted, all expenses paid.
I ended up studying fashion design, much to the disappointment of my parents. They said: “You need to study something where you can have your own business. You can’t go work for a white boss – you’ll end up nowhere! People are always sick, so if you open up a pharmacy in the township you’ll always be dispensing and you’ll do well.” Having your own business in the township was as far as one could see back then.
The US is all good and well but I love this country and wanted to come back. Four years later, I came back and got a job in the fashion industry. This was 1988. It was very nasty as things still hadn’t changed.
I became a door-to-door saleswoman, selling fabric in Nelspruit and Bloemfontein. Because I could speak Afrikaans I always did well with the meisies at the Post Office, earning lots of commission. In 1989 I met my husband, Jason; we were friends for a year before we started dating, which was very controversial. When we’d hold hands in the movies or walk in the streets, people would sneer and spit at us. White and black people, funnily enough.
We moved to Soweto and lived together there, where we became more accepted. I’d learnt to cook from my grandmother and was good at it. So I started making big American muffins, which I’d go and sell to office blocks in Rosebank and Sandton, out of a picnic box. I got so popular that I’d sell out quickly and was soon employing four other women.
In 1991, when there was faction fighting in KwaZulu-Natal, things got really bad and we decided to move to Cape Town. We decided to open a restaurant, and the banks laughed at us when we showed them our business plan for opening an African restaurant. “Why would Africans want to eat in a restaurant?” was their response.
Nobody gave us a penny, so we opened our restaurant in our house in Observatory. It was semi-detached, so people couldn’t be too noisy because of the neighbours. And that was the start of the Africa Café. At the time there were no African restaurants and people thought we were going to sell sheep heads and intestines.
We had no experience and were considered bumbling idiots who ran a novelty restaurant in Observatory. The industry laughed at us.
In the house we had trestles for tables and planks for benches. Whatever money Jason made as tips we lived off and the rest went back into the business.
We had no car. It was a struggle We’d hike everyday with our backpacks to buy our food at Pick n Pay. Eventually we bought a Magimix blender, our first real piece of equipment, and sold juice at the Rondebosch and Hout Bay markets. If we made R300 on a Saturday we were excited. We made a lot of mistakes, which in retrospect was a good thing, as thank goodness the banks hadn’t given us lots of money.
Cape Town was also very racist, and people struggled to converse with me; even in my own house, people often thought I was the maid. The apartheid thing was against us, as were some of the other, bigger restaurants that were owned by strong SA men. They used to bribe taxi drivers to not bring the tourists to us, rather to their restaurants in the Waterfront.
Restaurants are high risk, so it was a surprise when we got busier. We had busloads of tourists that were struggling to park, so in ’99 we moved to Heritage Square in town. We hadn’t expected such an interest, we were just doing what felt right.
At first people didn’t know what the items on the menu were, so we’d bring a feast of food so people could taste everything. I thought that communal eating was a good idea as that’s how it’s done in Africa. We’ve evolved with our restaurant.
But then serving so many people became like serving sheep. I was doing the same thing every night, putting so much energy into the food, and feeling quite depleted. I brought the raw food idea to my husband and my brother (the other two owners), and Africa Café went raw at the beginning of last year with our lunches. Now it’s a part of our menu and we’re one of the only restaurants doing that.
We’ve won lots of awards, but they’re not things that I concentrate on. In terms of recognition and publicity I want to remain behind the scenes. Customers at the shop always think that one of the managers is the owner, and I’m happy with that. I’m just into food, giving people something they can enjoy.
I prepare all the raw food at home. Raw food has its own philosophy in that the energy that you work with goes into the food when you prepare it. So you have to be in a good mood, open-hearted, loving. You give that to the food and the people get the life force of the food when they eat it. I speak through my food, and people feel my energy through the food that I prepare.
Raw, local, healthy – it’s the way to go. There are raw restaurants in New York and California, so why not here? I also do markets again now, with my daughter, selling raw food.
My interest in food has grown in terms of its ability to heal the sick. I wish that some of our fat cat parliamentarians could come and try our food as they are so unhealthy. And most illnesses can be cured by what you eat.
I am a leader because I do things in a way that has never been done before, and people usually follow. And I like giving advice, which my daughter says I should stop doing as it gets me into trouble!
For me, the future is about staying young, as I like having the energy that I have.
The future is togetherness, healing, and health.
l Justin Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh it Off.