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  • Prickly Pear: the social history of a plant in the Eastern Cape by William Beinart and Luvuyo Wotshela
  • James Merron (bio)
William Beinart and Luvuyo Wotshela (2011) Prickly Pear: the social history of a plant in the Eastern Cape. Johannesburg: Wits University Press

Viewed from the vantage point of a plant species, Prickly Pear: the social history of a plant in the Eastern Cape offers insights into cultural landscapes, the history of colonial science, and the adaptive capacity of post-colonial scientists to shifting values about how natural resources ought to be managed in South Africa. By taking this approach, Beinart and Wotshela anchor the claim that ‘it is impossible to imagine the contemporary world without understanding the scale and significance of plant transfers’ (6-7). Indeed plant transfers have been ‘fundamental in demographic and economic growth, great agrarian complexes and in the expansion of empire and settlement’, as well as agrarian social history (think of maize, sorghum, cotton, sugar, etc) (6-7). Although plants are not actors in their own right, they travel through complex ecological conduits on an uneven global terrain – over spatial and racial borders – oscillating in meaning between useful crop and alien invader. Basing their account in the social and historical milieu of the Eastern Cape, Beinart and Wotshela characterise a central contradiction constructed around the prickly pear (optunia) as follows: it is 1) ‘the basis for a market turnover of millions of Rand with important contributions to the livelihoods of rural communities’ (32) and, 2) a ‘scourge for farmers’ with implications for scientific expertise and how the environment is regulated (4).

The social and colonial history of optunia begins in the Americas where it was used in the production of red dye, one of the first major exports by the Spanish in Mexico. By the eighteenth century, optunia had travelled [End Page 115] with pastoralists to the far reaches of south African settlement, especially to water-stressed regions such as the eastern Cape where it was used as a drought fodder. Tensions concerning this plant first emerged in the form of colonial prejudice. White farmers vented scorn against rural black people who adopted a 2000-year-old Khoisan fermentation technique for brewing honey beer from optunia. According to farmers, the consumption of this brew made workers unfit for their ordinary duties and increased instances of stock theft. Using a contemporary vignette however, Beinart and Wotshela make the interesting counter point that ‘the process of brewing and drinking iqhilika [prickly pear beer] underpins neighbourhood sociability’ in rural areas. Associated social problems like alcoholism aside, iqhilika ‘keeps money circulating amongst the poor people within the township rather than going straight out to retailers or tavern owners who sell factory manufactured, branded liquor’ (34). For rural women the profits of brewing can provide a major source of income comparable (or better than) with the pay of domestic servants, cleaners or similar manual labourers.

Not only did optunia construct ‘naughty natives’, it also attracted the archetypal colonial agricultural scientist whose expertise was directed to mitigate impacts on livestock. The swallowing of optunia thorns caused swelling in the throats of animals. Scientific and agricultural management activities in the first decades of the twentieth century were informed by a particular techno-scientific worldview, the norms and standards of which coincided with the post South African War reconstruction period and the formation of the Union. In general terms this period saw a move to the use of scientific expertise in decision-making about natural resource management. Statewide legislation to manage the invasion of optunia emerged, most notably the Weeds Act (42 of 1937), which facilitated public works programmes to eradicate the plant. By mid-1947 the state had made sufficient progress to transfer the responsibility for eradication to private landowners. By 1950, three-quarters of wild prickly pear had been destroyed using a combination of mechanical clearing and biological control.

Government officials failed to cost any potential losses to people that might be caused by complete eradication of optunia. The debate about the costs and benefits of eradication was conducted primarily among white officials and farmers. African opinion was not sought. Therefore ‘public’ perceptions of optunia were shaped by an...


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pp. 115-118
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