Polution in the highveld

Resources and Energy in South African Literature: From Colonialism and Apartheid to Climate Emergency

LNUC Concurrences member Rebecca Duncan has been awarded a research project grant within humanities and social sciences by the Swedish Research Council for the project Resources and Energy in South African Literature: From Colonialism and Apartheid to Climate Emergency.

This project examines how South African systems of monoculture farming, mineral extraction and energy production are represented and reimagined in South African fiction, from the periods of colonialism and apartheid to the present age of climate breakdown.  Critics have often shown that the literary imaginary provides South Africans with tools for witnessing and critiquing the realities of racial oppression. Less attention has been paid, however, to how fiction engages with the ecological dimensions of colonialism and apartheid, despite these regimes' deep entanglements with the emergence of commercial agriculture and mining, and the rise of coal power. The gap is increasingly conspicuous, since not only is South Africa the African continent’s heaviest emitter, but enduring racialised inequality in the nation cannot be separated from ensuing global heating. The country remains the most unequal in the world, and – as elsewhere – it is the poor who suffer disproportionately from climate effects.

The project locates South African literature in this ongoing socio-ecological history, asking how fiction registers and contest lifeworlds organised by regimes of intersecting racialised- and environmental violence. To do this, the project follows three literary strands – “Plantation”, “Mine” and “(Power) Plant” – which correspond to key aspects of South African resource and energy systems across formal racial segregation and into the post-apartheid present. These include colonial viticulture and sugar plantations that initially relied on enslavement and indenture; gold and diamond mining which provided the blueprint for apartheid; and coal-power, which was established on the colonial mines and still drives the economy today. By tracing these three strands from colonial- to contemporary fiction, the project provides a novel account of South African literary history, joining contemporary climate fiction to a longer narrative trajectory shaped by shared resource and energy concerns. A contribution to South African literary scholarship, the project is also more widely valuable to cultural studies of climate change, since following the threads of monoculture, mining and energy through South African literature provides a local genealogy of globally unfolding socio-ecological degradation. Contrary to the pervasive sense of this crisis as emerging from the human species, the South African literary archive foregrounds extractive regimes organised by racial principles, thereby providing insight into how such regimes operate on a broader scale.