Thinking outside of the cage
Back in 2007, when veganism was still a marginal subculture here in South Africa, anarchist activist Aragorn Eloff co-founded the South African Vegan Society. Alexandra Dodd catches up with him almost a decade later to track the changes in the local animal justice struggle and how it intersects with social movements like Fees Must Fall.
AD: What were you up to in 2007 and what inspired you to start the South African Vegan Society?
AE: Anastasya [Eliseeva] and I were vegetarians at the time and were living together on part of a sprawling property in Linden. Quite unexpectedly, our landlady came to us one day and offered us the use of the coffee shop on the property and we simultaneously came up with the idea of creating a little vegetarian restaurant. We found two chefs via our friendship network, but both of them were only willing to work in a totally vegan space, so we conceded and opened Earth2, probably SA’s first 100% vegan restaurant. This in turn encouraged us to think more deeply about why we were vegetarian and why veganism was a more consistent approach towards mitigating the suffering of other animals. We both quickly ditched the cheese and eggs – which was made exceptionally easy by the fact that we lived on a property with two full time vegan chefs in our kitchen – and haven’t looked back since.
Given our plant-based diets and our vegan restaurant, finding other vegans seemed like a good idea, so we tried to connect with similar local organisations only to discover that, while there was a local vegan society, it was completely inactive (it seems to have been a pet project that died out when the founder left the country). Fuelled by new vegan zeal and regular servings of Earth2’s “’chicken’ ala kink”, we addressed this lack by forming the SA Vegan Society, which quickly attracted a handful of other enthusiastic directors.
AD: What were the founding principles, ideas or aims? How did you grow the membership?
AE: Back then, veganism was still reasonably obscure – it enjoyed nowhere near the visibility it has nowadays: major supermarkets labelling products as vegan, several successful vegan restaurants dotted across the country and a society that at least understands that a vegan is not some sort of alien life form. We wanted to familiarise people with the vegan lifestyle and why it was so important (for animals, people and the planet). We also wanted to connect vegans with each other and create a community, something that really didn’t exist at all at the time. In fact, at our first few gatherings it was common to hear long-time vegans comment that they’d never before met a single other vegan!
As Anastasya and I have always been quite politically radical, neither of us was interested in an organisation focused on consumer rights and product promotion, nor did we want to shy away from discussing direct action and animal liberation. It was also vital for us to connect animal liberation with other struggles around class, race, gender, sexuality and so forth. In all this we were and sadly still are far more ‘political’ than most animal welfare/rights organisations.
As for membership, it grew reasonably organically – we had our restaurant, a monthly newsletter, regular gatherings and a number of media appearances (including a couple of memorable TV and radio debates), but on the whole it was probably just the general zeitgeist… veganism was becoming better understood around the world.
AD: Do you perceive any shifts in veganism in South Africa between then and now?
AE: It’s certainly far more mainstream. Back then, veganism was subcultural – something practised by hippies, anarchists, die-hard animal lovers and a handful of radical environmentalists. It’s also obviously far more culturally tolerated now, even if reluctantly. In many ways, veganism currently occupies the position vegetarianism did ten years ago in terms of societal understanding and take-up.
AD: Did the advent of the SAVS overlap with any other social projects you were involved in at the time?
AE: Earth2 expanded into Further, a space that sold radical literature – stuff on anarchism, animal liberation, grassroots environmentalism and so forth – and hosted regular documentary screenings and discussion evenings. We also helped organise One Struggle, a ground-breaking conference hosted at Wits [University] in 2009 that brought together people from different grassroots struggles to explore commonalities of oppression and resistance. This grew into a series of animal rights conferences that later merged with the annual Institute for Critical Animal Studies conference [Aragorn is a director of ICAS Africa].
AD: Did you grow up in a meat eating family? If so, how has your family responded to your choices not to consume animals or animal products?
AE: My family is both supportive and understanding of my veganism, even if they haven’t followed through on this understanding themselves (although my gran was a vegetarian pretty much her entire life). They do feed me well when I visit though!
AD: Did your politics lead to your choice to become vegan and/or has veganism deepened your politics? If so, in what ways?
AE: I’ve always identified as an anarchist, so when I went vegan I immediately looked for ways in which anarchism intersects with animal liberation. I’m far from the first anarchist to do so – a huge number of anarchists have pursued vegetarian and vegan lifestyles and much of the early animal liberation movement was anarchist influenced.
AD: You’re known among certain subcultures as an anarchist. Beyond being anti-establishment, what does that mean and how does your anarchism intersect with your veganism?
AE: Anarchism is a critique of hierarchy and domination and the promotion of a society of free equals. I don’t think such a society will be possible if we’re still dominating other animals, nor do I think we can reach a society in which we don’t dominate other animals without addressing all the other forms of hierarchy and domination in the world today. This appears to be widely understood by anarchists; when I conducted a survey of 2 600 anarchists back in 2010, I discovered that they were 10 to 15 times more likely to be vegan than the general population! Anarchists have been exploring this intersection since the very beginnings of anarchism in the mid-1800s; I discuss some of this history in my chapter in the excellent new Anarchism and Animal Liberation anthology (available on Amazon – you can read my chapter here. The work of Bob Torres, Steve Best and other anarchist-inspired animal liberation activists is also well worth engaging with.
AD: As a vegan activist, what philosophers or writers have been inspirational for you?
AE: Personally, I don’t think people like Gary Francione, Peter Singer and so forth are particularly philosophically convincing. They operate within a liberal, pro-capitalist, Enlightenment humanist, analytic frame that appeals to abstract logic problems, moral absolutes and so forth in order to argue on behalf of animals. They’ve certainly been successful in this, and I admire their selflessness and perseverance, but their philosophical premises are anathema to me; I’m much more interested in destabilizing inherited notions of subjectivity, agency, humanity, being-in-the-world and so forth, and looking at struggles in situ (and as part of complex webs of interrelations) as opposed to abstracting them into trolley problems and hypothetical cases. I therefore find the work of posthumanists and new materialists (e.g. Cary Wolfe, Rosi Braidotti, Levi Bryant), post-structuralists and their successors (e.g. Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Ranciere), critical rights theorists (e.g. Costas Douzinas) and people applying all this (e.g. Matthew Calarco) much more rewarding than ungrounded discussions of rights, justice, categorical imperatives and so forth.
AD: What’s your favourite meal at the moment?
AE: My sister makes a mean vegan lasagna. I’m also partial to banana ice cream (the ultimate one-ingredient vegan sweet treat) and my partner’s raw sweet potato pasta is ridiculously good. I find myself eating at restaurants far less these days, mostly because I can’t afford to but also because I often eat better food at home or with friends. Being vegan definitely ups your game in the kitchen – ten years ago I could barely make toast!
AD: What/who has inspired you in the past week?
AE: I continue to be inspired by the student activism that has spread across the country over the last year. While the student movement and their tactics have been maligned by the media and the middle-class commentariat, I find their refusal to negotiate with power on its own terms incredibly encouraging and it’s great that they’ve developed an analysis wide enough to encompass issues of class, race, gender, sexuality and even, to some extent, species and environment. I am very hopeful about the movement and only hope it becomes even more radical in its challenges to capitalism, the state, white supremacy, heteronormativity and so forth, although there is of course always the small possibility of authoritarianism, groupthink and reactionary tactics becoming dominant.
AD: Although veganism is growing exponentially across the world, it has, until recently, been a markedly countercultural choice/way of being here in South Africa. Are there any individuals in your immediate world or communities who have blazed any kind of a trail for you in terms of speaking out for animals?
AE: The people who inspire me most in this regard are those who break into laboratories, farms and so forth under cover of night to liberate other animals from lives of unimaginable suffering. I think drawing attention to this form of direct action, even if as a kind of provocation, is one of the best ways to create meaningful dialogue around issues of animal exploitation.
AD: Veganism tends to get a really bad rap from the political left here in South Africa, with class and race activists tending to view the animal justice struggle as being in competition with the social justice struggle. What’s your response when people accuse you of caring more about animals than the plight of human lives in the context of a grossly unequal society?
AE: I care about ending hierarchy and domination at their roots. I choose various focuses at various times because of this, but it has never been the case, for me personally, that one issue ‘outweighs’ any other; I don’t see things in this zero-sum kind of way. It is sadly the case that many well-meaning vegans and animal rights activists are deeply depoliticized and that they can’t see past their own class, race and gender privilege. I’ve encountered some shocking racism within the local vegan community as well as a myopic and highly problematic focus on consumerism that makes veganism seem utterly irrelevant to the 99 percent of people in SA who really don’t care how many brands of vegan cheese are on the shelves. So yes, in some ways the criticism is a valid one and I think vegans should really stop and think about it before lashing out at other activists and labelling them ‘speciesists’ or invoking a call for intersectionality that they themselves do not fully hear.
On the other hand, of course, people are great at making excuses for not listening to people who are pointing out exploitative behaviour they’re involved in, so we need to judge each case on its own merits and try to move forward in a way that doesn’t polarize people and that allows us to explore genuine possibilities for working and learning together. If there were more vegan/AR people showing active solidarity with the student movement instead of denouncing them, for instance, perhaps there would be more engagement with anti-speciesist discourse. I did a talk on all this several years back that’s available on my blog.
AD: You’re one of the originators and organisers of an annual interdisciplinary conference exploring the ideas of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In what ways do their ideas intersect with or facilitate your vegan choices and activism?
AE: When I first discovered Deleuze and Guattari almost 20 years ago, I thought they must have travelled back in time! Their philosophical and political work is way more advanced than almost anything else I’ve ever come across and I think they provide us with an incredible new set of tools with which to create revolutionary change in the world. They definitely encourage us to think about identity, animality and so forth in very different ways to what we’re used to, and see us as far more imbricated with the world around us than the liberal capitalist discourse of rational agency does. I could go on about this for a long time as combining D&G and animal liberation was a key interest of mine for several years, but instead I’ll just share one of the papers I’ve written on this.
AD: What are you working on at the moment?
AE: I’m usually involved in several different projects at any given time. Right now, the bolo’bolo anarchist collective I’m part of is finalising deals to republish a wide range of inexpensive radical literature in SA, something I feel is vital given how unaffordable books have become. I’m also busy developing a new online SA anarchist journal where myself and other local radicals can engage with what’s happening around us from an explicitly anarchist perspective. Beyond that, I’m helping coordinate the annual Edge of Wrong experimental music festival and working on some compositions of my own. There’s also always some lingering writing to attend to, as well as, of course, the actual freelance web design work that pays the (fortunately very modest) bills.
AD: Why don’t we see any/much of the kind of radical vegan activism in South Africa, that you see taking place in places like San Francisco and Toronto?
AE: I think it’s partly a result of the depoliticization of white middle class South Africans. Apartheid education was deeply disempowering, as is the apolitical post-apartheid rhetoric of rainbow nationhood, and I think many of us just don’t have meaningful access to – or a deep understanding of – the history of effective radical political activism. Perhaps this will be one of the positive knock-on effects of the current wave of student activism – a demonstration of effective grassroots tactics.
AD: Do you know of any trailblazing instances of farm animal rescue in South Africa?
AE: Sadly not. I would hope there are a few but I’m not always 100 percent up to date with this stuff. I do know of certain inspiring direct actions that happened back in the day, but of course I can’t share any details, beyond observing that there have been some very, very brave people involved in the local animal rights/liberation community.
AD: There seems to be a growth of animal sanctuaries in the United States, where rescued animals are given sanctuary on farms where they can recover from the trauma of being in captivity in factories and laboratories. Have you experienced such sanctuaries first hand? Do you know of any such sanctuaries in South Africa?
AE: Some friends were actually discussing opening a sanctuary in the Midlands recently and there’s a wonderful donkey sanctuary in the Western Cape that I know of, but that’s about all. I think spaces like this are very important and enriching for all species involved; perhaps that’s how I’ll retire one day…