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Reclaiming Earth: Soil, Death and Birth in Southern African Ecologies

Lesley Green

University of Cape Town

To teach African ecological knowledge in South Africa is a conundrum,
since surviving local environmental knowledge is sparse. With a few rare
exceptions, to speak of indigenous knowledge in South Africa, is not to
speak of ecological knowledge, astronomy, or animal knowledges, but
medicine, ethics, histories, and folktale -- knowledges that are mobile
because they are unconnected to the land itself.The distinctiveness of
South African indigenous knowledges, then, is that they are rarely
ecological knowledge.
This is not surprising: it is an effect of the Native Land Act which
forced Black South Africans off the land, in 1913, and events before and
after it. After the 1913 Natives Land Act there were multiple subsequent
dispossessions in South Africa including the Group Areas Act of 1950;
forced removals to townships and Bantustans; eviction of tenant labourers
from farms; waves of desperation that led to the now in which tin shacks
in the city are the best available option for millions. Before the Natives
Land Act there were Dutch-led wars across the Cape, from West to East;
genocides in the Karoo parts of which once were Bushmanland and
Namaqualand; the British settlers¹ occupation of the Eastern Cape; the
occupation of Natal (Zululand); the machinations of Rhodes in taking
ownership of Tswana diamond lands in the Kimberley region, and the retreat
of Sotho speakers to Lesotho and Swazi speakers to Swaziland. Against this
background, I argue, it becomes possible to understand how and why the
environmental movement in South Africa is overwhelmingly white and elite,
and has not yet succeeded in building a broad-based environmental public
that is capable of countering the largely neoliberal-led economic
developmentalist lobby, which sees itself in competition with
environmental concerns.
Yet, to speak well of a person of Africa is to say they are a son or a
daughter of the soil. The phrase speaks of those who are connected to the
land and those who are buried in it.  In this paper I argue that in the
face of the climate challenges and corporate environmental abuses that are
already with us and yet to come, the environmentalists of South Africa
cannot ask for the cries of those who have been cut off from the soil many
times over, without embracing the grief for the land that is already
there; for the worlds that have already ended, in order to reconnect
personhood with soil. While the philosophy of ubuntu has been generally
regarded as limited to people,  a new generation of African writers,
philosophers and social scientists is arguing that it extends the notion
of relationality across generations to ecologies and environments. Working
with notions such as ³the marriage of water and soil", I suggest ways in
which reclaiming  the materialities, histories and multi-species
relationships in soil offer ways to frame an environmental politics for
Southern Africa.