Interview With Aragorn and Steffi
A while ago, I heard about a place in Muizenberg, Cape Town, called bolo’bolo, an organic vegan restaurant / alternative bookstore. I had heard that the owners were also anarchists, and that the restaurant runs a bit differently to most places. I finally got a chance to visit it a little while ago. I had the best falafel burger ever and a vegan “turkish delight” milkshake. The bookshelf against the wall had some super interesting titles (Aragorn talks about these later in the interview), and I spent a good while browsing over many of them. Besides for the space itself, it is definately the people that make it so rad. Aragorn and Steffi run bolo’bolo, and are two of the most interesting (and well-informed) people that I have ever met, and we had a long conversation while I was there. Anyway, this interview is pretty long, so I’ll keep the introduction short. Enjoy…
What was your motivation behind opening bolo’bolo?
Steffi: Aragorn and I left Joburg in November 2010 because we were disillusioned with what Joburg had to offer for radical/alternative people. The social movements were falling apart while the inequalities were getting worse. The vegan community was growing but there was only a handful of expensive vegetarian restaurants. There was no space for people to hang out and come together to discuss how to create a better world. There was no movement we wanted to be part of. Everything seemed old-fashioned. We tried our best to make things happen. Aragorn used to co-own a vegan restaurant called Earth2 (the first one in the country!) which lasted for about two years and also had a kind of infoshop space called Further, from which he sold radical literature. Earth2 and Further ran from around 2006 to around 2008.
We used to do weekly film screenings to raise consciousness about the environmental crisis, animal rights and social struggles. We tried to set up reading groups but people were too comfortable with their own lives or preferred to spend the little free time they had at a bar. And the way South African cities are shaped, it’s hard for those people who are not comfortable to be in the spaces we created.
We wanted to create a documentary that was missing from the ones we showed and the one set of ideas we are both so passionate about: anarchism. It is often misunderstood and we noticed with our film screenings that there isn’t one good documentary on the subject. So we set out to do it ourselves.
Another reason for filming our documentary was the anarchist survey we did in 2010 which showed us that other places have more to offer (and therefore to learn from). You can read about this HERE.
We traveled to South and North America and Europe and we went to lots of infoshops (spaces for radical people to get together and get cheap literature) and vegan restaurants. We found some amazing spaces and decided that we should do something similar upon our return to South Africa. We knew then that we wanted to try set up a new life in Cape Town. Everywhere we went the best communities of activists were in places where there was a gathering space, where people grew affinity groups and real communities. That’s why we thought that we need to have a space in South Africa where people can come together, read books and discuss ideas. And we thought we could sustain such a place by selling coffee and snacks.
When we moved back here we desperately looked for a house with commercial rights and a garden to set up a restaurant/infoshop in which we could also grow our own organic vegetables. But we couldn’t find anything we could afford. Then, in February this year, our friend Michelle who owned “Closer”, the only vegan restaurant in Cape Town, told us that she wanted to sell the place but only to other passionate vegans. Aragorn used the opportunity and bought it.
We called it bolo’bolo because that’s the name of one of our favourite books which describes a sustainable world based on small communities. It’s also a joke in anthropology of a place where none of the usual rules apply. Anthropologists like to point out that general rules don’t apply everywhere and that there is always an exception. We use this to show with some of the menu items that there are societies around the world that don’t have a government. Not everyone wants to be ruled over. And we show that these societies live in egalitarian communities. We are always happy to tell people more about them if they ask.
bolo’bolo is only a small restaurant and it doesn’t have a garden, but we have made contact with the local community and farmers in the area to get local, organic vegetables. We only sell LOVE: local, organic, vegan and ethical food. We try to be as sustainable as possible, by giving away our compost to local gardens, by recycling and by avoiding plastic. We offer discounts to people who arrive by bike or train instead of a car. But most of all we want to extend the restaurant to create a vibrant space for people to come together. Once we find our feet in the next few months we will introduce film screenings, discussion evenings, book presentations, board game evenings (we have a board game called “bolo’bolo” which is based on the book!) and maybe even a philosopher’s cafe! Let’s see how it goes 🙂
Our shelves at bolo’bolo contain a range of material on anarchism, sustainable living, grassroots environmentalism, animal liberation, queer theory, psychedelics and counterculture. We also print lots of our own little zines on these and other subjects and sell them on a donation basis.
Why did you decide to come back to South Africa, and not just stay overseas, where it seems that there are much bigger and more active communities of alternative/radical people?
Aragorn: A couple of reasons. Mostly, sheer practicality – I’m a South African without the ability to move overseas very easily, and most of my friends and family live in SA.
Also, the big and active communities overseas are well-established and comfortable already; joining one of them just feels like a bit of a cop-out really. I’m far more interested in trying to start up something locally than participating in the subcultural consumerism that makes up a lot of the anarchist / vegan scenes in big European / US cities like Berlin, Portland, San Francisco, London and so forth.
Steffi: Well, I came back mostly to be with Aragorn. I would prefer to live in those places that have big activist communities and lots of vegan restaurants like the San Francisco Bay Area or even Berlin, where some of my best friends live. But I agree with Aragorn that it’s better to start something where you come from (or in my case, where I live) and not where there’s already lots of people doing stuff. Portland really is where young people (and hipsters) go to retire, like they say in the awesome TV-series called “Portlandia”. There’s lots of spaces and even a vegan “mini mall”. But there is no time for activists to retire just yet or we will face an environmental collapse. Going to a vegan restaurant is not going to change the world. We need to create lots of spaces around the world, in order to create a better world.
How have you found the general reaction to bolo’bolo, and how did people react to Earth2 and Further?
Aragorn: The reaction to bolo’bolo has, to our surprise, been overwhelmingly positive. It has also made us realise what might have gone wrong with Earth2 and Further (both of which were run by Aragorn and his ex-partner Anastasya Eliseeva): while the ethos and intentions were almost identical to those hopefully reflected in bolo’bolo, we didn’t work hard enough to ensure that these earlier spaces didn’t feel exclusionary. Both Earth2 and Further suffered from being too countercultural; the confrontational anti-capitalist posters and hard line animal rights angle alienated everyday passers by and we ended up largely preaching to the converted.
That said, perhaps these spaces did also serve as kindling for the fire: while they might have been a little ahead of their time – Earth2 was the first vegan restaurant in the country and Further was hopelessly obscure in the ideas it promoted and cultural artefacts it sold – both spaces helped to convey a sense that these values were starting to take hold in South Africa and served as an early hub, however tenuous, for vegans, anarchists and the like.
I know that you are both vegan. We probably know the obvious reasons as to why someone would choose a vegan lifestyle, but what are your personal convictions behind this dietary choice?
Steffi: Personally, I grew up in the countryside in Austria, next to lots of farms. I spent my childhood playing with calves, cows, lambs, goats and lots of kittens and cats. I also loved horses. At some stage my brother teased me by saying I’m eating my friends when I ate salami (which in Europe is made from horse meat). So I gave up eating salami. Next I noticed how my favourite cows and calves would disappear from one day to the next. So I stopped eating beef. It was all very gradual until at the age of 12 I finally became a vegetarian. It became a lot easier when my meat-eating parents turned Hare Krishnas and became vegetarian a few years later. Over the years my best friend’s brother became vegan (and straight edge) and I started to think more about those things. I thought it’s just something radical or puritanical and that as a vegetarian I was already preventing the torture and killing of animals. It was only when I was 19 that I stumbled upon a website (that’s when I first started using the internet) that showed “the truth about dairy” and how that when you consume milk and dairy products you still contribute to the slaughter and torture of animals and it showed how those cows often live in worse conditions. That’s when I decided to go vegan, but it took me another two years to finally give up that amazing organic Alpine small-farm cheese I still ate. It was only recently that I discovered that the reason so many people find it hardest to give up cheese is because there are so-called casomorphines in cheese. In other words, another version of morphine, a drug. That was 8 years ago and I’m healthier than ever. I’m hardly ever sick (and I was a sickly person before) and I’ve turned a lot of people into vegans. Not by preaching, but simply by doing it. If you want to be a true vegetarian and prevent the suffering of animals, you have to go vegan. It’s as simple as that. And it really is simple these days. It’s so much easier than just 8 years ago. Everyone can do it.
So, personally I became a vegan out of ethical reasons, because I love animals and I don’t want to hurt them. But it’s good to know that it’s also the most environmentally friendly and even healthiest diet 🙂
Aragorn: I used to argue that I was vegan for ethical, health and environmental reasons. These days I tend to argue that I’m vegan for purely ethical reasons. After all, to be concerned with one’s own health is to pursue an ethics of self-care, while being concerned to preserve and enhance the integrity of the natural world emerges from an ethos that values life over death: the complex and heterogeneous over the dull, the grey and the homogeneous.
In other words, I became vegan so that I could ethically align myself with life in all its richness and diversity – the specific lives of oneself or of other animals or the life in general of the myriad fragile, highly interconnected ecosystems that comprise our planet. To me, veganism is very obviously a necessary (though far from sufficient) condition for anyone who holds these kinds of ethical values.
Steffi, you’re from Austria originally, and you’ve both travelled all over the world. South Africa has a big “braai” culture, and meat is consumed by the majority of the population. One thing that’s also always bothered me is the conservative ideas associated with women’s roles. Do you have any comments on this? Do you have any comments on other topics prevalent to South Africa?
Steffi: South Africa has a big meat culture. But so does Austria and many other places. Everyone always argues that it’s part of their culture. As an anthropologist, I don’t like the “culture excuse”.
Cultures change all the time. If you look back in history, you will find that until two generations ago, people ate much less meat than now, everywhere. That’s when the meat industry was started being subsidised by governments and meat became cheaper. This trend can be reversed as quickly as it started. Meat eating was never a huge part of many traditional societies’ diets. You will find that except for the Eskimos and a few other societies living in very harsh climates, most people ate meat only on special occasions, e.g. the slaughter of a goat for a wedding, still very common in most of the world. Meat might have been eaten, but the mass farming of animals and the torture of them was never part of any culture.
Despite the culture excuse, we often hear that “a man needs to eat meat”. That’s of course a very macho thing to claim. In fact, too much meat can make men impotent. And after all, stallions and bulls are plant eaters! 🙂 It’s true, though, that most of the vegans I know are female and there is a high percentage of lesbians in the vegan community. The strong macho and braai-culture in South Africa definitely contributes to the high consumption of meat here. There’s definitely a correlation, especially when I think about other strong meat consuming countries, such as Argentina with it’s Gaucho (cowboy) culture or the US with its cowboys and rodeos etc. But there are lots of websites now that discuss a vegan diet (and even raw vegan diets) for athletes. You can look like a big macho man but still be soft on the inside and not kill animals. After all, the protein shakes that athletes consume are made from soy protein. There must be a reason for that 😉
Aragorn, you’re South African. From my own personal experience, practicing veganism/vegetarianism/anything progressive, radical or alternative, is not that common to find in South Africa among the majority of people. How were you exposed to the ideas that shape the lifestyle you currently lead? What were the beginnings that led you to where you are now?
Aragorn: I discovered anarchism through the industrial music counterculture in the early ’90s, after reading an article by John Zerzan in a book called Apocalypse Culture. This was way before the internet had hit South Africa, back when interesting books were almost impossible to come by and the only access most people had to radical ideas was through small local anarcho-punk distros like the legendary Backstreet Abortions (who were putting out awesome zines on anarchism and veganism way back in the late ’80s already!).
I was already a vegetarian at the time, but not for any reasons I could have articulated with any degree of clarity – it was mostly just an intuitive shift that only grew into full veganism in late 2005 when I opened Earth2 as a vegetarian restaurant and was encouraged by the two vegan chefs we interviewed to turn it 100% vegan. Their arguments made complete sense and suddenly I realised why I’d been vegetarian for so long and why veganism was the only logical progression from that.
Tell us more about your documentary on Anarchism. When will we be able to see it?
Aragorn and Steffi: We used to run a documentary film club in Johannesburg (The Unblinking Eye, now in JHB and Cape Town) where we screened films on environmental issues, animal liberation, radical politics, grassroots resistance movements, counterculture and so forth. We were always desperate to show a good film on anarchism; most people, especially in South Africa, have absolutely no idea what anarchism is, or make ridiculously naïve arguments about why it could never work.
What we quickly discovered, however, is that no such film exists. While there are a couple of films, mostly incredibly dated, about specific anarchists like Emma Goldman or specific highlights in anarchist history like Spain in 1936, there’s not a single one that explains the history and key ideas of this important philosophy in any depth. Seeking to remedy this sorry situation – and armed with little more than a DSLR camera and a bit of cash we’d saved and crowdfunded – we embarked on a six month tour of South America, North America and Europe to meet and interview anarchists from around the world.
The experience was inspiring and heartbreaking in all sorts of different ways and we came out of it with very different anarchist positions to those we’d held going in. We met all sorts of amazing people, made great friends and were occasionally sorely disappointed. We hung out in endless infoshops and vegan cafés – some of them thriving and inclusive community spaces and some hopelessly subcultural and cliquish. We interviewed famous old anarchists and enthusiastic young collectives, visited anarchist academic conferences and radical reading groups, had countless discussions and debates with platformists and primitivists and post-leftists and post-anarchists and more, were gifted rare autographed books and back issues of magazines we’d always dreamed of getting our hands on, and spent many of our evenings sleeping on the floors and couches of friendly strangers.
We came back to South Africa with a small mountain of external hard drives containing over a hundred recorded interviews. Our task now, in the little spare time we have, is to figure out how to create an awesome trailer for our film so that we can generate the funding we need to pay a professional editor to help us make a documentary that is worthy of the subject. We’re hoping the have the trailer finished really, really soon, but we’re not going to rush the process. As for a release date for the full film, we’re hoping for late-2012, but who knows?
In your first answer, you mentioned that Anarchism is often misunderstood. The literature that I’ve read and the research that I’ve done seems to support your statement. Why do you think that this is so? It seems like many Anarchists have opinions of what Anarchy actually is. Would you attempt to define the term?
Aragorn and Steffi: We asked over a hundred anarchists to define anarchy and anarchism for us and we received well over a hundred different answers! While some anarchists are utterly committed to providing a conclusive definition, even if this means performing bizarre acts of exclusion and hermeneutics on the existing corpus of broadly anarchist historical and theoretical material, our personal sense is that anarchism is first and foremost an ethic, one that emerges in very different ways in various times and places.
Very broadly, anarchism is the view that relations of hierarchy and domination serve to separate us from what we are capable of. In other words, when we structure the world and our relations with each other hierarchically, we limit our freedom. Anarchists argue that we can live in other ways that expand our possibilities for both individual and collective freedom. In doing so, they challenge an idea that is common to both libertarian and socialist thinking: that liberty and equality are part of some kind of zero-sum game where the more you have of the one, the less you have of the other. Instead, anarchism sees these two terms in productive relation with each other, two parts of a single principle of ‘equal-liberty’ whereby personal liberty is best supported and enhanced by conditions of social equality and full social equality is only possible when we seek to maximise each person’s liberty.
Or, as Mikhail Bakunin, one of the first anarchist thinkers and revolutionaries, much more poetically stated it: “I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of other men, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation.”
We can also, of course, locate the emergence of anarchism in specific historical moments and amongst specific sectors or classes of society, tracing at the same time a single lineage of anarchist heroes like Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta and whoever else, but this is always only a tentative mapping. As Peter Marshall puts it in his excellent history of anarchism, Demanding the Impossible, the drive for human community based on equal-liberty stretches far beyond the emergence of a distinctly European, Enlightenment-rationalist, industrial working class movement in the mid-19th century…far back into the Neolithic.
Some might argue that if we eventually reached a state of Anarchy, many people may misunderstand or choose to abuse the “freedom” associated with it. What do you think about this statement?
Aragorn and Steffi: What we’ve often found when discussing anarchism with the cautiously enthusiastic is that most of their worries about what would go wrong with anarchism involve thinking of people as they are now and not how they could be. And, of course, people who are separated from their personal and collective power by the social relations of hierarchy and domination that comprise so much of the contemporary world – the State, capitalism, patriarchy and so forth, and who are taught to be self-serving, competitive, materialistic, servile and by turns submissive and authoritarian, are probably going to behave pretty terribly if you suddenly drop them into conditions of anarchy.
People who grow up with different social relations, however, and learn to value egalitarian principles like mutual aid, solidarity, voluntary relations, equal-liberty and direct action, will respond in much healthier ways to conditions of anarchy.
While it’s important to think about people as they could be in the best of circumstances and not just how they happen to be in the worst of circumstances, in some ways this also creates a kind of chicken and egg situation: you need decent people to create a decent society but you need a decent society to create decent people. For most anarchists though, this doesn’t pose much of a problem – it simply means we have to simultaneously work to change both society and people, that we have to organise to dismantle capitalism and the State and so forth, but also challenge their more subtle forms of appearance in our small, everyday relations with those around us. Think of these two parts of anarchist practise as revolutionary and evolutionary anarchism; some other people describe them as ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ politics. A few anarchists are unfairly dismissive of the micropolitical, referring to it pejoratively as ‘lifestylism’, but we don’t think we’ll ever successfully achieve lasting conditions of anarchy unless we also overcome the State and the capitalist in our own heads.
And, as Howard Zinn said, “if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.”
Total liberation are words I have seen come up a few times in anarchist and vegan forums. What do they mean to you?
Steffi: Total liberation means that all the struggles for a better world for everyone, including non-humans, are connected and have to be connected. We won’t have a better world when women , people of colour, disabled people, LGBTI people etc are still seen and treated as inferior, or when animals are still tortured and killed to be eaten. As one of my favourite bands, Gather, puts it in their song, Total Liberation: “It’s time to deprogram ourselves, question stereotypes and traditions, follow no gods, no masters, look at the root of racism, sexism, speciesism and you’ll see, it’s all been fabricated to keep us apart. Break down the barriers that enslave us all.”
Aragorn: For me, total liberation and anarchism are the same thing. An ethos of equal-liberty and a preference for thriving and diversity both entail pursuing non-hierarchical relations with each other, other animals and the natural world we’re so deeply interconnected with. Anarchism is incomplete without animal and Earth liberation and both of these are incomplete without anarchism; all three are just different, partial manifestations of the same ethic.
I know that Steffi is Straight Edge. What are your motivations behind being Straight Edge? Aragorn, what are your views on mind-altering substances?
Steffi: I became Straight Edge when I was already 23. Most people go straight edge when they are very young. And sometimes it seems like the younger you went straight edge the cooler you are. I’m happy that I experienced what alcohol and weed (never took anything else) does to me and that I can speak from experience. I know what I gave up and I know why. I never really liked alcohol. For some reason I had to drink vast amounts to get drunk and then I would get sick quickly and get nasty hang-overs. I never liked people talking about how drunk they were on the weekend. It always seemed pathetic to me. Like, don’t you have anything else to talk about except on getting off on how shit you felt? Then I was doing research on the wine farms in the Western Cape and spent many weeks drinking wine all day long. I had wine tastings at 9am already, every day. By the way, the research was not on wine but on working conditions on the wine farms in South Africa (which are really horrible; and the dop system – in which workers get paid in alcohol – is still in place on many farms!). But you first have to go through the official program of wine-tasting to get to speak to the workers. After a few weeks I couldn’t stand wine anymore. I switched to beer, but South African beer is shit (and, as I figured later, not even vegan) in comparison to Austrian and German beer. I stopped drinking beer and started smoking weed. At some stage I just thought to myself, why the fuck am I so desperate to change my consciousness? Why the fuck do I drink? And then I realised that I just did it to fit in, mostly out of peer pressure. I never liked peer pressure but here I was fully trapped in it. So I quit it all It also helped that at around the same time I started going to hardcore gigs and met other straight edge people.
It seems harder to be straight edge in South Africa than in Europe though, which sucks! But South Africa also opened my eyes to a political dimension of being straight edge: I noticed how most alcohol advertising is in townships and how people spend all their money on booze to forget about the shitty conditions they live in, instead of fighting them. And let their kids run around unattended while they get trashed. I started to agree with Malcolm X who said “They know that you are more dangerous sober than when you are drunk”, referring to the CIA’s introduction of illegal drugs into African American communities to criminalise them. The highest rates of alcoholics is amongst the poorest people. So, again as with meat, I had one reason to go straight edge, but then there were so many additional reasons that added on to that and it just seems logical for me for so many reasons to be straight edge. And as my friend Gabriel Kuhn shows in his book Sober living for the Revolution, there is a very cool political dimension to the straight edge scene (which is in return closely connected to the growth of veganism).
Aragorn: I respect the straight edge philosophy (although I worry when it ossifies into intolerant hardline dogma) and I like the idea of ‘sober living for the revolution’. I also worry when people use substances to escape or when it dulls activism or makes the working class complacent with the injustice of their lot.
That said, I have also experienced great personal benefit from the purposeful use of psychedelic substances. To some extent, they helped me wake up to the injustices going on around me; they taught me to question everything I’d been told about how the world was supposed to work, who was in charge, how people should relate to each other and so forth. In other words, they helped micropoliticize me.
Even if this wasn’t the case though, and accepting that all substances have their singular risks, I still think it’s up to each of us to make an informed decision about how we’d like to modulate our personal neuro- and biochemistry (whether through diet, dance, meditation, sex or the ingestion of psychotropics). After all, in an anarchist society there won’t be anyone to tell us what substances we can and cannot ingest!
More fundamentally, the drive to alter consciousness exists throughout nature – even ants get high and enjoy it! We can, as countless other cultures have, use entheogenic plants wisely and with intent, in order to rekindle our relationship to the natural world, gain deep insight into ourselves and those around us and create and enhance conditions of collective ritual – the celebratory, ludic aspect of our being that is all but lost in contemporary society.
What bands/music/literature/books/websites would you prescribe to people to visit should they be interested in finding out more about Anarchy and or veganism?
Aragorn: That’s a long list! My music tastes are far from conventional, even for an anarchist, but there’s an awesome amount of literature available on these subjects. The Wikipedia entries for anarchism and veganism are both pretty good, and there are lots of free anarchists texts at www.theanarchistlibrary.org. www.vegansociety.org.za has some good information on it about veganism and the wider world of animal rights and vegan nutrition is a Google search away.
Of course, if you’re in the area, popping into bolo’bolo is a much better idea!
Steffi: I can try give you a list:
There’s an entire genre called “anarcho-punk” which originated with CRASS and includes bands such as R.A.M.B.O., Anti-Flag, Oi Polloi, Propagandhi, Against Me!, Citizen Fish, Sin Dios, Subhumans, Strike Anywhere etc. If you’re looking for hardcore: Refused, Gather, Anchor, Point of No Return. Many of these bands are also vegan (and often straight edge). If you don’t like fast music try David Rovics (folk) and a music genre called “riot folk” or “anti-folk”.
Cindy Milstein: Anarchism and its Aspirations (short introduction), Ruth Kinna: Anarchism (medium introduction); Peter Marshall: Demanding the Impossible (extensive introduction); Alexander Berkman: The ABC of Communist Anarchism (old but still the best introduction, can also be found online). If you prefer novels: George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia; or science fiction then check out Ursula leGuin: The Dispossessed.
There are a lot of vegan musicians but not many bands with explicit vegan lyrics. Some of the latter include The Smiths and Morrissey, CRASS (punk). Even if I hate them, I have to say Earth Crisis. Vegan bands I personally like are Gather (hardcore), Anchor (hardcore), Seven Generations (hardcore), Point of No Return (hardcore), xTrue Naturex (folk), Anti-Flag (punk), Citizen Fish (punk), R.A.M.B.O. (punk).
Steve Best: Igniting a Revolution; Charles Patterson: Eternal Treblinka. And check out the novels by South African author J.M. Coetzee, who is a vegan and often talks about it in his books.
www.vegansociety.org.za, www.rootsofcompassion.org, to get literature in SA visit our homepage www.missingshelf.co.za
Categories: FEATURED, Interviews