- Welcome to Greater Edendale: Histories of Environment, Health, and Gender in an African City by Marc Epprecht
Marc Epprecht, McGill-Queens University Press (Studies in Urban Governance, Number 5), Montreal and Kingston, Canada, 2016. 360 pp; bibliog. and index. $34.95 paperback (ISBN: 978-0-7735-4774-2)
Welcome to Greater Edendale is a compelling investigation of environmental, health and gender issues in urban South Africa. Although South African cities are well-researched in comparison with many other southern urbanisms, this book is a reminder of our limited understanding of the past and present, and how much work remains to be done. In a scholarly context dominated by the article, this in-depth case study is a particularly useful contribution for its detail- and thus its ability to challenge unreflexive narratives, including political tropes and the use of South Africa as an example of a general academic theory.
The task which this book undertakes is a brave one: Epprecht carefully investigates and evaluates urban public health during the apartheid era. Understandably, it remains politically difficult to do more than critique the policies of the racial state, yet Epprecht convincingly argues for the need to learn from rather than dismiss or reject this history. The apartheid state was not monolithic, and although paternalism underlay many humanitarian interventions, he demonstrates that these actions are worthy of our consideration.
The detailed investigation helps us to see fractures, to disambiguate tropes that universalize urban apartheid and the racialized experiences of residents. The book centres around Greater Edendale, and this intellectual and geographical focus is, as Epprecht claims, “deliberately cheeky” (pg 31). Early chapters position Edendale’s unique history and growing relationship to and interdependence with Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital and “white” city. Founded in 1851 by amakholwa (“believers”) from various ethnic groups in the region (thus challenging a universalized Zulu identity), residents typically had “faith in the power of modern education and legal rights to bring social and economic advancement” (pg 17), and eventually held freehold title over the land. Although the conurbation has many similarities to the classic apartheid city with a township in the Southwest (think Johannesburg-Soweto), the history has shaped the politics and identity of Edendale. Epprecht thus distinguishes Edendale’s residents from the [End Page 212] various state-planned townships of the apartheid era as property owners, and even this touchstone of contemporary state policy (apartheid laws against black African urban land ownership were bad, therefore private property is good) is challenged as Epprecht links private property ownership to poor environmental health conditions in a context of low resources and limited state oversight.
Contributing to this effort to rethink history, Epprecht urges us to move away from key dates, famous men and notorious policies. Instead, he frames key periods in Edendale’s environmental history around disease (human and cattle), erosion, and the extension of infrastructure, arguing that the impacts of national policy often only slowly trickled down to individuals (e.g. the Group Areas Act was implemented erratically for decades) while health and environmental impacts were often more immediate and more pressing to residents of Edendale. Despite an overall interest in health, however, even the most central argument to come from studies of health in South Africa- the sanitation syndrome- is not without critique. A more careful reading of texts- including Swanson’s own earlier drafts- challenge the easy application of health as an excuse for racial segregation. Again, it is Epprecht’s careful attention to detail that challenges easy analysis and easy answers.
While fully supportive of Epprecht’s larger intent, and as should be clear from the above, I believe the text is, on the whole, well executed, I have three small complaints. The first is is logistical: while this text was, as Epprecht claims, intended to give context to the empirical work of the Urban Ecosystems and Human Health project, its publication has come much after the articles from the project (Goebel et al., 2010a; Goebel et al., 2010b). Such a detailed investigation necessary took years, and I raise this concern for its wider implications for collaborative scholarship...