Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sawyer seminar - In a Moment of Danger

The Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was awarded a Sawyer Seminar by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to host a series of events during 2010 and 2011. The Seminar is to be used to develop fresh perspectives on the quandaries and puzzles of the present democratic moment in South Africa from the vantage point of the relationship between race, property and poverty and justice. More information on the series is available on http://www.sawyerseminar-wits.co.za/

The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) is hosting the series, and the first reading group on Old and New Racial Formations began last week. Over the next months, participant will reflect on the readings and the discussions on race. Today’s blogging is by Micaela Alicia Smith, a PhD student from Los Angeles, and a doctoral fellow with the JWTC.

Please feel free to participate in the developing conversation by posting comments.

Reading the Flashpoints of South African Race Relations

The Sawyer Seminar readings and discussion for April 14th centered around the themes of peace and conquest, property and privilege, and the uneven and contested racial terrain structuring South African life, both within its historical and contemporary moment.

The discussion generated some productive comments on the structures of racial and class hierarchies, specifically when thinking through the South African Frontier and the violent embattlement for land and labor between Afrikaner burgher settlers, British colonial settlers, and Xhosa peoples. “Race is the modality through which class is lived,” is one of the most well-known phrases of cultural theorist Stuart Hall. If Afrikaner historian Hermann Giliomee argues Afrikaner victimhood centered around their identification as “a subject and inferior race,” can Hall’s argument be applied to Afrikaner burghers? At the same time, Giliomee argues the relations between Afrikaner burghers and Xhosa peasants were not rooted in a racial hierarchy; rather Afrikaner insistence on creating their own nation was primarily to maintain their hierarchy based on social status. A question raised was how to think through these tensions when social status cannot be defined without invoking race. A participant commented perhaps a more productive question can be: If we take as a given the ways in which both race and class structure the political economy of settler power, we can then ask: How do race and class differently produce and animate each other depending on the particular historical moment we are looking at?

The discussion then turned to whether we can identify the set of struggles Giliomee articulates as still remaining with us today. Can we live together? In a state of conquest, how is the making of order and peace produced? Property is understood as the material possession of land and cattle but it must not be forgotten property is first and foremost the materiality of one’s own body. The economy of one’s own survival, the right to defend oneself, makes the establishment of Truth and Justice for the State especially difficult when property is also used as a weapon of war. In these moments it becomes hard to identify the enemy, the loser, the racial Other—as this Other is also always shifting, where one cannot exist/survive without the other.

Yet, to what extent lies the danger of identifying this constantly contested racial terrain and the fluidity of each historical moment that defies any clear cut answers— like the dancing play of history, as accident and event? The danger can be navigated through a return to the everyday experiences of those marginalized, Black lives, their happiness, their pain, their desires. This is to say, while the fluidity and multiple subject positions each person inhabits are well understood and accepted, we must also attend to the logic of race and capital as fixing race and class, both historically and today—this unchanging racial logic we have inherited with the centuries of violent struggle over capital accumulation. Once located within the bodies of enslaved and their extracted labor, how do we read and bear witness to the planned evictions of the urban poor in preparation for the 2010 World Cup—a plan that will leave thousands homeless in an effort to cleanse the downtown urban core? How do we read the complete destruction of living settlements as if they never were, what are the interconnected strategies for state-building that promote urban regeneration at the same time there is a move to dehumanize lived neighborhoods as 'slums' and as sites of criminality that must be “cleaned up”?

This dredge of history, this cumulative weight, this act of conquest as a set of waves always made anew, also identifies the pain that does not change, that race is continually manifest for whites and Black people through very different lived experiences and investments. A question raised was how to read white fear, generated most recently by the murder of Eugene Terreblanche. A participant argued white fear is situated primarily vis-à-vis white wealth, since it is white cumulative wealth that has been crafted from the exploitation and active disinvestment of people of color. The history of Black revolt, including the burning of township schools by Black students is an act of self-inflicted violence — by burning a symbol of class mobility, Black youth are forcing whites, and the world at large, to pay attention to them, to recognize the separate and unequal system of education structuring Black life. While the embodiment of white privilege allow whites to feel threatened only through the fear of Black revolt, Black survival, rich and poor, cannot escape race as it structures their everyday life, where they live, where they work, where they play.

In this moment, on what basis can Truth and Justice be established? We can identify the same tensions that structured the Frontier Wars between white settlers and the indigenous African nations during the 19th century as still with us today. The murder of Eugene Terreblanche perhaps can be best understood as the most recent flashpoint of race relations. It is these moments that force the public to pay attention, yet we must also pay attention to the surprising alliances and to the fissures that open up because of the inherently unstable act of conquest. These are the possibilities and dangers we must attend to and which will continue to generate discussion for us—most especially when our discussions are grounded in a close reading of the texts, as these texts illuminate the other perhaps more subtle flashpoints living with us today.

Micaela Alicia Smith

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sawyer seminar - Racial Frontiers

The Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was awarded a Sawyer Seminar by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to host a series of events during 2010 and 2011. The Seminar is to be used to develop fresh perspectives on the quandaries and puzzles of the present democratic moment in South Africa from the vantage point of the relationship between race, property and poverty and justice. More information on the series is available on http://www.sawyerseminar-wits.co.za/

The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) is hosting the series, and the first reading group on Old and New Racial Formations began last week. Over the next months, participant will reflect on the readings and the discussions on race. Today’s blogging is by Kelly Gillespie, Anthropology lecturer at Wits and one of the JWTC organisers of the Sawyer Seminar Series, and Rebecca Freeth, an organisational development practitioner working in social justice organisations.

Please feel free to participate in the developing conversation by posting comments.

Is the 'frontier' a useful concept for (South) Africa?
Kelly Gillespie

The first session of the Sawyer Seminar on Property, Race and Poverty took place at Wits University on Wednesday, with about forty people around the table discussing a set of readings concerning the early foundations of race in South Africa. To begin thinking about South Africa’s racial experiment, Achille Mbembe had selected for the group three historical texts on the ‘frontier’ in early colonial South African history (authored by Legassick , Giliomee and Penn).

The main thread of the conversation was to try to understand the worth of the ‘frontier’ as an analytical concept both in the historiography of South African racism as well as in understanding the historical present in South African society. The idea of the frontier has been often used by white liberal historians to characterize the colonial history of South Africa. Many have argued that the particular character of South African society, especially its virulent forms of racism, was produced at the geographic and social frontier between different colonial-era constituencies. But is the frontier-concept a fundamentally colonialist/white idea? Does it rely on a white political subject of conquest for its justification? Or is it possible to use the frontier-concept stripped of its historiographic positionality? Is it therefore useful in the project of producing histories attentive to black experience?

In our discussion, there seemed to be some discrepancy in answering these questions. Some saw the frontier as irrevocably tied to the project of white privilege, and were angered that we were even discussing it as a possible lens for characterizing South Africa. Some wondered what kinds of analytics would be useful in writing black history, or at least a history not founded on a supremacist doctrine. Some thought the frontier irrelevant in the face of later industrialization, a much more significant event in the production of South African life. Others, however, tried to find what might be of worth in the concept of the frontier. Some were of the position that the frontier was always a moment of resistance simultaneous to being a moment of conquest, necessarily implying the co-presence of black subjects in history. Some reflected on literatures from other parts of the world that were attempting to rework the frontier as a plausible concept. Others saw frontiers as a necessary development of capitalism more generally. Of most interest seemed to be a distinction made by Giliomee and elaborated by Nigel Penn on the nature of the frontier. Both used the distinction between the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’ frontier to write about the different phases in the experience of encounter between different kinds of subjects in colonialising territory.

While Giliomee’s text is more in the tradition of white history, Penn’s text uses the frontier to reflect as much as possible, given the constraints of South African archives, on the plural experience of colonial, and racial, encounter. Both, however, show how the frontier’s different phases allowed for shifts in the kinds of social arrangements and relations possible in that encounter. The ‘open’ frontier was a place in which encounters between white/European and black/African were by no means established, and new orders of law, power and property were flexible, volatile and contested, even as they were in production. Penn gives a rich account of the labour involved in effectively ‘closing’ the frontier, a phase in which property relations calcified and a region became subject to a more-or-less singular dispensation and law, one which secured the interests of white colonists. Closure was not an easy feat and not to be assumed as obvious.

It is this relationship between open and closed frontier that may provide a way for the frontier to be reclaimed as a useful analytic. The frontier, here, is the place and time at which diverse interests and a certain violence of plurality are narrowed into some kind of singularity, at which point sovereignty is established (and exception thereby produced). The frontier as a social and geographic formation is the space in which the temporal relationship between contestation/liminality/possibility and conquest/order/fixity is worked out.

One of the more interesting questions to emerge from this discussion was “If the ‘closed frontier’ is the point at which sovereignty is created, then does it not cease to become a frontier?’ In other words, is the concept of the ‘closed frontier’ not an oxymoron? What this question prompted was a conversation about the worth of retaining the concept of the ‘closed frontier’ precisely because it allows for a description of a state of sovereignty in which the traces of its own history remain. That is, in which sovereignty has not annihilated the memory of the violence of its own inception. In a sense then, the ‘closed frontier’ describes a tension between established sovereign relations and the residues of prior social relations, a tension that opens the possibility for political subjectivities and imaginations that could come to challenge the sovereign.

This reflection on the relationship between a disciplining sovereign and a political space for the remembrance of its origins – its denaturalisation – is perhaps a fruitful place to begin reconsidering the frontier as a useful analytic tool. This perhaps even more so in analyzing postcolonial contexts in which the past, the remains, the ruin have such purchase on the present, and the present always seems so vulnerable to exploitation and extreme forms of inequality. As private security companies secure territory for the extraction of mineral resources on the African continent; as they secure territory for the production of privileged lifestyles in gated communities and government enclaves, the manner in which frontiers are found, contested and closed (even as this closure contains the possibility of being reopened), seems to remain an important site for social concern and analysis.

Frontiers: Lines in the sand

Rebecca Freeth

A frontier is an imaginary line imbued with meaning. The meaning I imbue it with is a function of which side of the frontier I’m on.

As a frontierswoman, sitting on this side of the frontier, I invest it with hope and ambition. The only future I can imagine is forward, continuing to push this line into new realms of freedom and opportunity. Over there, beyond that line, I believe there is a world of untapped resources to which I can lay claim. My pioneer blood knows that this frontier is only a temporary pause, a short-lived resistance from the other side, before we move ourselves and our frontier forward again.

As a person indigenous to this land, sitting on that side of the frontier, it represents a sense of being crowded out. This is not my frontier. It was created by, and belongs to, those on the other side. The logic of it is foreign. I know what it is like to compete for the most prized land, to win or to lose, to assimilate or to be assimilated, to kill or to be killed. But the people on the other side of this new frontier play with different rules and, in their eyes, all I see are new horizons.

In this short blog piece, I would like to argue that we all have experience of being on both sides of a frontier. We know what it is like to push into new spaces – intellectual, physical or psychological – with exhilaration, determination and, sometimes, fear of the unknown. And we know what it is like to be intruded upon, to feel the space around us get smaller, more cramped, more threatening.

But it is too simple to suggest that these two frontier locations are experienced, in equal measure, by everyone. The co-creation of race and class, now – echoing the era of colonial frontiership in South Africa, then – means that if I am white and privileged, I am more likely to continue to push into new spaces, to exercise my birthright of power, to dislodge what is in the way of my pursuits. Shannon Sullivan, examining white privilege as a deeply ingrained and often unconscious habit (which is not to abdicate responsibility for it) writes, “To be a white person means that one tends to assume that all cultural and social spaces are potentially available for one to inhabit. The habit of ontological expansiveness enables white people to maximize the extent of the world in which they transact. But as an instance of white solipsism, it also severely limits their ability to treat others in respectful ways. Instead of acknowledging others’ particular interests, needs, and projects, white people who are ontologically expansive tend to recognize only their own, and their expansiveness is at the same time a limitation.” These ontological incursions, and the limitations they create, tell of the many invisible lines, or frontiers, we cross as we navigate race and class in South Africa.

In this last week with the murder of Terreblanche (AWB) and threats on the life of Julius Malema (ANC youth league), the frontier of race and racism urgently carved its way across our social landscape, visible this time even to those South Africans who usually enjoy the luxury of forgetfulness. For most, this line has been here all the time; sometimes a fault-line, sometimes a jagged edge, this time a precipice. What frontier mentality will we adopt? Will we just push this frontier back and forth between us, raising the ante each time? Or will we see that freedom lies, not on the other side of the frontier, but at the frontier itself? Can we stand at the frontier, fully committed to its transformation, neither stepping away in denial or hopelessness, nor pushing the other over the precipice?


Legassick, Martin. 1980 [1970]. ‘The frontier tradition in South African historiography’, in Marks and Atmore (eds.) Economy and society in pre-industrial South Africa. London: Longman.

Giliomee, Hermann. 1988 [1979]. ‘The Eastern Frontier 1770-1812’, in Elphick and Giliomee (eds.) The Shaping of South African Society 1652-1840. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Penn, Nigel. 2005. ‘Introduction’ in The Forgotten Frontier: Colonist and Khoisan on the Cape’s northern frontier in the 18th century. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Sullivan, S. 2006. “Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege” page 25. For those interested in Sullivan’s theorizing about whiteness, Dr Samantha Vice will present her paper “How do I live in this strange place?” at the Hoernle research seminar in philosophy on April 15th at Wits. While she draws on Sullivan’s ideas about the habitual enactment of white privilege, her thesis about white shame is her own.