New Books | Rock, Water, Life

Interweaving her personal story with the country’s history of dispossession, Lesley Green interrogates the connection between ecology and economy.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Rock, Water, Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Wits University Press, 2020) by Lesley Green.

​Metabolic rift: the nature of settler colonialism (from ‘them’ to ‘me’) 

In the 1840s a young journalist working in Britain started to follow the story of the closing of forests to peasants. When they were no longer able to collect fuel, or gather wild foods, in common lands, their household ecologies could no longer function, and most had no option but to move to towns in search of paid labour. 

The journalist’s first major story was On the Law of the Theft of Fallen Wood, published in 1842. In it, he compares the laws that had closed the commons in dif­ferent countries of Europe. As factories and cities increased in size, so too did the need for commercial agriculture on a scale that could feed many more than those who lived off it. As more farming estates were driving more people off the land, the journalist observed, soils were becoming depleted.

The journalist’s name was Karl Marx. His concern with the alienation of workers and the depletion of soils threads throughout the three volumes that developed out of his story on wood: Capital. Marx keenly observed the depletion of soils when large-scale agriculture stripped lands of their nutrient cycle, and argued that new ecologies of life and monoculture farming under capital had broken the metabolic cycles that fed soils.

Metabolic rift expanded globally across oceans into the colonised lands with the ever-growing demands of the industrial economy. The European food crisis, David Montgomery argues, was solved by exporting people and importing food from the colonies. Without resettling mouths and out-sourcing land and muscle, Europe’s industries would never have been built.

In 1819 some 90 000 Britons applied for the “plentiful and fertile” lands advertised in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Four thousand were accepted. 

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For settler descendants like this writer, “colonisation” is something “others” did only for as long as you don’t research your own history. When I did start tracing my ancestry, I found that one of my paternal great-great-great-grandfathers, James Cawood, was one of the six sons of David Cawood, who came from Yorkshire and settled alongside the Fish River in 1820, on the edge of the “neutral zone” negotiated by the British with the amaXhosa. By 1848 his 21-year-old grandson, James Fordred, had enough wealth to sail to London to buy a printing press. His capital came from ivory and hides; there is a record of the Cawoods shooting 100 elephants in a single day.

In 1828 Colonel Charles Somerset’s troops, along with the Cawoods, allied with Chief Hintsa of the amaGcaleka Xhosa to defeat the Ngwane fleeing Shaka. Six years later, at least one of the Cawood brothers accompanied Colonel Harry Smith’s expedition in which Hintsa was slain. His assassination and humiliation in death is one of the most terrible moments in South African history.

On at least one side of my ancestry, settler colonialism involved the elimination of human and animal contenders for the land. Expulsions and extinctions have the same roots.

On the other side of the family, my maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Nathaniel John Morgan, published in 1833 his account of the amaXhosa in the first South African scientific journal, the South African Quarterly Journal. In it, he gingerly opposes the argument that the Xhosa and the Khoikhoi had to be subjugated and displaced for the English settlement to succeed. The publication includes an account of amaXhosa history and politics, basic isiXhosa vocabulary, and what he had learned in Xhosa villages about farming local land:

“Within sight of their kraals, generally on the opposite side of the ravine or kloof, are situated their corn fields or gardens. [They] enclose an extensive piece of ground [and] bring into cultivation the moist and fertile parts only. In the fields, the cultivation of which is often the labour of several families, are erected temporary huts to afford a shade for the children who, when the corn is sown, are stationed there to prevent the entrance of cattle, and as the corn ripens to keep off the birds. … In these gardens they cultivate … corn, melons, pumpkins, beans and a little tobacco. … In preparing and cultivating the land, they first clear the ground of weeds, then they throw the seed on the surface, and cover it lightly with the soil, using small wooden spades; and when it appears a little high above ground they again carefully destroy the weeds, thinning the corn and throwing a little earth about the stem. When it is ripe enough to be gathered, they cut off the heads, and either hang them up in their huts or place them on a frame raised some height from the ground. … After it has been kept some time in this manner, they beat the grain out, and put it into small holes prepared for that purpose in the centre of their cattle kraal; each hole is capable of containing about two sacksful. On the top they throw a quantity of the stalks to absorb any moisture that may happen to penetrate through the earth and the manure that is placed over the stone covering the entrance. These granaries are opened only at particular times. Corn so secured will keep sweet and good for a great length of time, though, if the season has been wet and it is stowed away a little damp, it sweats and becomes sour. … Their attention is however chiefly engaged by their cattle: these they herd, protecting them with great care by night and day.

Morgan led a party that settled outside Grahamstown, and he served as a staff surgeon for the British Army; his writing gives some insight into how much Xhosa villagers taught him about farming, history, language and customs. His picture of the partnership of plants, soils, cattle and people made a case for continued amaXhosa stewardship of land. A friend and ally of the British philanthropist Dr John Phillips, he politely presented evidence that opposed the position of both the Dutch, who had driven the Khoena from the Western Cape to the Eastern Cape, and the British, who had brought in settlers and the military to hold a moving line between empire and natives.

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Morgan was not a successful farmer. He lost his farm and died shortly afterward. Settler conservatives like those from whom I received my paternal DNA won the political argument both in the Eastern Cape and elsewhere in South Africa, supporting sentiments like, “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” Those words were penned by Cecil John Rhodes in 1877, whose name was given to my paternal grandfather, Cecil Fordred, in 1898. 

Later the British prime minister at the Cape, Rhodes connived to strip Tswana chiefs of diamond lands in the Kimberley region in the 1880s. Thus it was that with wealth largely derived from Tswana-held diamond lands, Rhodes bequeathed to the nation the forestland that would become Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden; a zoo in which captive lions would roar adjacent to the prime ministerial residence; grounds for a university in Cape Town; and the Rhodes Scholarship programme, which in time would educate presidents and prime ministers, including Bill Clinton.

By 1885, through the occupation of land by thousands of families like mine, the “Sketch Map of South Africa Showing British Possessions” notes the occupation of Tembuland (sic), Amampondo, Transkei, Namaqualand, Great Bushmanland, Zululand, Swaziland, Amatonga, Basotholand, Griqualand East and Griqualand West, and Matabeland, with Damara Land and Great Namaqualand registered as German territory. Some stamps in my childhood stamp collection are from Rhodes’s BSAC – the British South Africa Company – his name for the country that came to be known as Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe.

My grandfather was born on a farm in the eastern Orange Free State in 1898 – almost certainly land taken by the British from Afrikaners during the Anglo-Boer or South African Wars.

On farmland nearby, when Grandpa Cecil was a six-year-old learning his ABCs and horseriding, a Zulu family by the name of Mazibuko was among the many sharecroppers in the district. Their son was born in 1904, and his English name was Robert. When he was buried in 1994, he would be remembered as the Tree Man who had taught the arts of making “black gold” (described in a passage below) for trench farming.

At the age of 15, Grandpa Cecil was digging British trenches, having signed up to march in a Scottish kilt and fight for king and country in World War I. His winter uniform would have come from Karoo sheep watered by fossil water drawn by the new windmills. Scarred by chlorine gas and haunted by trench memories, he came home to dig for British gold in South African mines. Later he became a municipal health inspector, responsible for pest extermination in the fast-industrialising coastal town of Port Elizabeth, which was growing along with the vehicle-manufacturing sector. Cecil died in 1978, a year after Steve “Frank Talk” Biko had been interrogated to death near my grandparents’ home in 1977, two years after the student riots of 1976.

When Mazibuko was nine and my grandfather 15, the Native Land Act went from bill to law in four days. It was June 1913. The law was rushed through Parliament by the British at a time when many feared a Boer uprising while England focused on the coming war.

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What Marx had noted in Europe – the slow and steady expulsion of peasants from the land into a capitalist economy – was completed in a period of weeks in South Africa. Black lives were separated from forests and cattle plains; they were forced off farms, off riverbanks and seashores, out of villages, and into mines, farms and factories. As of the passing of the Act, no black person was allowed to buy land. Forced into native locations, they required written permission to leave them. Writer Sol Plaatje cycled around South Africa that August, documenting what he saw:

“This young wandering family decided to dig a grave under cover of the darkness of that night … in a stolen grave, lest the proprietor of the spot, or any of his servants, should surprise them in the act.”

“It was cold that afternoon as we cycled into the ‘Free’ State from Transvaal, and towards evening the southern winds rose. A cutting blizzard raged during the night, and native mothers evicted from their homes shivered with their babies by their sides. … Kgobadi’s goats had been to kid when he trekked from his farm; but the kids, which in halcyon times represented the interest on his capital, were now one by one dying as fast as they were born and left by the roadside for the jackals and vultures to feast upon.

“This visitation was not confined to Kgobadi’s stock, Mrs. Kgobadi carried a sick baby when the eviction took place. … Two days out the little one began to sink as the result of privation and exposure on the road, and the night before we met them its little soul was released from its earthly bonds. The death of the child added a fresh perplexity to the stricken parents. … The deceased child had to be buried, but where, when and how?

The same parliamentarians who had passed the Native Land Act a few weeks before then enacted a bill establishing Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden on 1 July 1913. That the centenary celebrations of Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden took place in 2013 amid separate memorialisations of the centenary of the Native Land Act at the University of Cape Town affirmed that South Africans – including myself, at the time – had yet to recognise the continuity of the nature/society divisions in modernity, coloniality, apartheid and nature reserves.

Industrial agriculture, cultural nationalism, native reserves and nature reserves are knotted together around the central problem of private property and the rise of a global food system to feed workers forced into towns by the closure of the commons. What had been separated from ecology was economy. In South Africa, fantasies of whiteness and blackness slow-danced through history from one side to the other. Native reserves – later Bantustans – were labour reserves (economy) justified as cultural ecology (nature). Nature reserves were justified as natural ecology, separate from the economy’s agriculture and from cities and mines. In the current era, where economic imperatives are framed as black, whiteness has reconfigured itself around ecology. As South Africa is finally reckoning with land restitution, there is a question that needs to be asked: in decolonising settler-colonial environmentalisms, what will it take to relink ecology and economy, and at the same time escape their entanglement with racialised fantasies? Can modernity’s “metabolic rift” be addressed?

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