- Washed with Sun: Landscape and the Making of White South Africa
South Africa’s history is much deeper and wider than its apartheid past. From the Dutch imposition of a way station at the Cape that served trading ships en route to the East Indies in the seventeenth century, to the growth of an English-speaking settler community in the early nineteenth century, to the uniting of various African nations under Shaka’s rule in the mid-nineteenth century, processes in the region produced currents that resonated throughout southern Africa and beyond. Nonetheless, it is common to find such events, rich and complex in their own right, treated by historians as mere background for the eventual implementation of apartheid. Such is the drive to make sense of the introduction in the mid-twentieth century of the country’s notorious and noxious racial policies and to find clues for its appeal among South African whites in their past.
The urge is understandable, of course. One of the accomplishments of Jeremy Foster’s smart and thoughtful book is that it satisfies readers’ desires to understand the historical roots of apartheid, while not succumbing to the urge to treat the years leading up to apartheid as if they did nothing but lead up to apartheid. Foster has other goals than to set the stage for apartheid, and they are ambitious. First, he argues that the early South African character—that is, the values, attitudes, and sense of self and community that came to distinguish the white inhabitants of what would become South Africa—was formed in large part through settlers’ bodily engagement with the distinctive South African landscape. He is concerned especially with the period from 1900 to 1930, the years of national formation that followed the Anglo-Boer War and included Union in 1910 and, although Foster does not much touch on it, the increasingly brutal removal of Africans from the land through means legal and extralegal.
Foster’s second and ultimately more important accomplishment is to make a case for the value of studying, as he does here, the corporeal, material nature of landscape experience and comprehension. The intended recipients of his appeal are, I gather, scholars of landscape, design, and allied fields. In truth, though, Washed with Sun does such a powerful job of demonstrating how historical investigation is enriched and enlivened through consideration of the physical settings and geographies in which historical characters had to navigate and stake their claims that I hope it will receive broader attention. This book deserves a wide audience, especially among historians of South Africa and scholars whose work examines racial construction and identity.
Scholars of whiteness, in particular, will find much here to chew on. Foster’s primary interest is in representations of the South African landscape. He’s concerned less with their production than their reception. What do the battlefield drawings of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, the lyrical descriptions of the Transvaal of writer John Buchan, the landscape paintings of Afrikaner Jan Hendrick Pierneef, and the landscape photographs of the South African Railways and Harbours Corporation have in common? At the most obvious level, all depicted and promoted a reading of the South African landscape that was celebratory, uncomplicated, and romantic. More critically, they supported what Foster calls “metropolitan imaginings,” notions held by sectors of the British public about the ruggedness and purity of life in the colonies that provided one basis of support for investment in them. For those living in South Africa, on the other hand, the images simultaneously portrayed content and engaged aesthetic sensibilities that, as Foster writes, “helped nationalist white South Africans imagine themselves as part of a new society that grew out of its landscape” (139). They advocated, albeit implicitly, the necessity of a white nation within the dark continent, a nation that would practice stewardship over exotic peoples and lands. In naturalizing the white presence and, in time, absolute white political...