Insight: Trends

It is not a diet, it's a lifestyle, vegans say of SA's growing movement

Veganism, and its commitment to a plant-based diet that avoids animal products, is catching on

27 January 2019 - 00:00 By CLAIRE KEETON
Veggie burgers are a popular addition to vegan restaurant menus.
Veggie burgers are a popular addition to vegan restaurant menus.
Image: 123RF/sarsmis

Kind Kitchen chef Jason McNamara went from making vegan meals for Uber Eats at home to opening a restaurant last year because of popular demand for his food. The tattooed chef attracts vegans and meat-eaters alike to his crowdfunded joint in Woodstock, Cape Town.

The rise of veganism - whose followers eschew all animal products because of concerns about animal cruelty, health and the environment - is a global phenomenon.

Hollywood and pop stars, sport icons and world leaders are among those who have embraced it. Venus and Serena Williams, Brad Pitt, Bill Clinton, Madonna, Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lopez lead the celebrity pack, according to the magazine Glamour, which declared in its January edition that "at the moment veganism couldn't be hotter".

Support for veganism has rocketed in the past five years, particularly as younger generations flock to join the movement.

It is not a diet, it's a lifestyle, vegans say: a lens through which they view the world and act.

"I wanted a kinder way to enjoy the foods we are used to, with friends and family," said McNamara, rolling out sourdough on a counter. "Most of us grew up eating meat but I stopped because of the cruelty to animals."

Customer Dani le Roy, owner of the nearby d├ęcor studio Moonbasket, said: "I eat here almost every day because the food is so good and authentic. There are a few of us who are addicted."

On Friday nights its vegan burgers sell out within hours, despite costing R130 each. McNamara, who studied at the Natural Epicurean in Austin, Texas, is the first person to bring the plant-based meat substitute Beyond Meat into SA.

The mushroom burgers at Cape Town's first fully vegan restaurant, Plant, which opened five years ago, are also a hit.

Burger patties, "cheeses" and other choices on the normal-looking menu are created from ingredients such as nuts and vegetables.

Plant owner Pierre Lambret said: "We use a lot of raw vegetables in season and no processed food."

McDonald's first meat-and-dairy-free Happy Meal will never match Plant's quality, but the fact that it is on the menu shows that even the fast-food industry is tapping into this shifting zeitgeist.

Plant has branched out since Lambret took over in 2016, responding to increasing demand by extending its hours for people to have cocktails, romantic dinners and vegan-friendly wines.

Hipster-ish Cape Town appears to be at the cutting edge of veganism, with about 10 plant-based restaurants, but Joburg also has a range of vegan eateries.

The online service The Happy Cow lists options in other cities and many restaurants now have vegan dishes.


Eating out at vegan restaurants can cost more but this type of nutrition doesn't have to be elitist. After all, fruit and vegetables are VAT zero-rated.

But vegan doctor June Fabian pointed out that fresh vegetables were scarce on a self-supported mountain biking trip from Howick to Hogsback in December.

"In many rural areas we cycled through, the spaza shops had no fresh foods, only maize popped corn full of salt, and fizzy drinks," she said.

Bende Mark, who was born in the Bloemfontein township of Rocklands and studied in Qwaqwa, said that being vegan was not that much of a transition from the vegetables and grain staples he ate while growing up.

"My mother was confused about what to prepare for me when I come home, but I told her that she already cooks vegan meals with vegetables," he said.

Mark decided to become a vegan when his son was born. "I switched almost immediately, going cold turkey," he said, citing animal brutality and health reasons.

Mark, his pregnant wife and son are thriving on a vegan diet that does not exclude treats. For Christmas Day they baked a dense chocolate cake with almond milk.

The increased demand for vegan products has made them easier to find and brought down the price of common items.

The increased demand for vegan products has made them easier to find and brought down the price of common items

For example, soya milk has dropped from about R40 to R23 a litre and a block of coconut cheese has roughly halved in cost, from R120/350g to R60, said McNamara.

Many vegans, such as Antoinette Maake, started out as vegetarians. "I was a vegetarian since I was four and I ditched dairy and animal by-products 12 years ago for compassionate reasons.

"When I started it was really hard to find vegan food but there has been a huge shift in the last three years. Now there is an abundance in Cape Town," said Reiki master Maake, who makes meat substitutes from gluten after leaving the corporate world.

She is the Overberg regional manager for ProVeg SA, an organisation striving for a vegan world. Its goal is to reduce the consumption of animals by 50% by 2040.


Communications manager Muriel Argent said: "We want to have a large braai in Cape Town on Heritage Day so people see you don't have to braai meat to have a good time."

"Regenerative farmer" Angus McIntosh - the first farmer in the world to receive carbon credits for his multi-species eco-friendly farming - applauds the spirit behind veganism but believes it will harm the environment.

Veganism promotes monocultures and depletes animal fertilisers in the soil, forcing producers to rely on harmful artificial fertilisers, in his view.

"Just because you don't like feedlots, that doesn't mean you have to get rid of all beef. It would be the same as not liking bagpipes and banning music," said McIntosh, who has an experimental farm near Stellenbosch.

This month, 37 scientists recommended that meat-eating must be dramatically cut and plant consumption increased for global health.

This "planetary health diet" would be able to feed 10-billion people and save 11-million lives a year, according to the EAT-Lancet Commission, a "science-based global platform for food system transformation".

"The support for veganism is accelerating," said Argent, "and it is starting to hit a tipping point."