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Reviewed by:
  • South Africa's Environmental History: Cases & Comparisons
  • Todd H. Leedy
Dovers, Stephen, Ruth Edgecomb, and Bill Guest , eds. 2003. South Africa's Environmental History: Cases & Comparisons. Athens: Ohio University Press. 326 pp. $24.95 (paper).

This seventeen-chapter volume emerged from a workshop at the University of Natal–Pietermaritzburg, and, though dominated by academic contributors, it includes several pieces by environmentalists and eco-entrepreneurs. Its diversity in perspectives and topical coverage makes it suitable antecedent reading to Environmental Justice in South Africa, edited by David McDonald and also published by Ohio University Press. Indeed, environmental histories of South Africa have commonly included a "strong sense of engagement with issues which are morally important and politically relevant" (p. 4). The appearance of both these volumes within a year is a credit to the publisher's willingness to get particular, focused case studies into circulation despite the seeming trend among university presses away from edited volumes.

As the title suggests, the volume is divided into two parts: the first consists of papers from the original workshop, and the second consists of subsequently commissioned papers, which seek to place the South African evidence in regional and global contexts. The second part is vital, as Jane Carruthers notes in her introduction, for environmental history may make less sense when approached solely on a national scale (p. 11). Carruthers provides a brief but useful environmental historiography for southern Africa, offering different paths of inquiry for those new to the region or discipline. She forthrightly acknowledges the limitations of the volume, such as the lack of gender as a category of analysis. More conspicuously absent, however, are precolonial societies and their environmental knowledge. In fact, [End Page 137] very little of this volume examines any aspect of South African environmental history, indigenous or settler, before the nineteenth century. Yet in spite of this, the volume does provide numerous glimpses into the historical processes that have shaped environments and societies in contemporary South Africa.

Several authors analyze how broader economic trends influenced people's interaction with their environment. Nancy Jacobs describes the transformations that occurred as the nonhuman environment became a commodity around Kuruman in response to demand emanating from Cape markets and, much later, from mining operations in Kimberley. John Lambert outlines how, for many years after white settlement, the umuzi (homestead) economy in Natal survived as land prices remained low and little profit could be realized from developing farmlands; however, by the early twentieth century, African labor tenants found their cultivation and grazing options increasingly limited as white farmers expanded their operations to supply growing urban markets. Such changes would have a variety of social impacts. When coupled with the growing need to supplement cash incomes through labor migrancy, the land shortages in Lambert's account moved the umuzi economy into a deepening, final crisis.

The political impacts of colonial environmental policy choices are fairly well known across southern Africa, but several contributors in this volume help us understand how that deeper history is still influencing current regulatory efforts and the public response. William Beinart's analysis of environmental origins for the 1960 Pondoland revolt argues that longer-term disputes over the management of natural resources produced a situation in which other sources of political discontent could emerge with more intensity. When administered by local African authorities, environmental regulation could become entangled with community political disputes. Jabulani Sithole's chapter on political violence in the Pinetown district goes further to conclude that a resource crisis may produce conditions wherein political conflict becomes violent. These cases and others remind us that the legacy of colonial environmental controls is one that today encompasses specific ideas about both local rights and resistance. As Beinart concludes, "The central government's capacity to reserve and protect sensitive natural resources is no less contested in the new South Africa" (p. 89).

Several authors examine the impact of externally introduced elements, from technologies to plant species, on the environment and the economies it supported. Sean Archer's study of how windmills and wire fencing changed farming practices in the Karoo seeks to understand why private owners adopted practices that frequently led to the destruction of their most valuable asset, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1978
Print ISSN
0001-9887
Pages
pp. 137-139
Launched on MUSE
2006-07-19
Open Access
No
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