This paper considers the intensification of agriculture along racial lines in South Africa by looking at the history of one spring and nine miles of river valley. It illustrates how racial conflict included struggles over nature, and how whites and blacks had different perceptions and abilities regarding its exploitation.
The ‘Eye’ of Kuruman is a large spring in a semi-arid region. Tswana herders originally used it as a water hole. Their food production system was extensive, making use of wide areas rather than increasing output in a limited area. Pastoralism was more important than agriculture. Irrigation, introduced by representatives of the London Missionary Society, was not widely practiced away from the missions until a subsistence crisis during the 1850s. It continued after the crisis passed. However, households continued to operate with the logic of extensive production, fitting irrigation into the pre-existing system.
In 1885, tne British annexed the region as part of the Crown Colony of British Bechuanaland. They demarcated African reserves at springs and in river valleys, and grazing lands were opened for white settlement. The upper Kuruman valley was designated a Crown reserve and the Eye became a town site. Downstream were Tswana households which cultivated with less security than on a native reserve. Land alienation with rinderpest devastated stock keeping and caused a widespread famine at the turn of the century, yet Tswana cultivators did not greatly intensify their use of irrigable lands. More extensive methods endured and wage labor became the basis of support.
In the twentieth century under Union government, use of the Eye intensified, and access to the valley became segregated by race. After 1918 the municipality of Kuruman operated a modern irrigation project, and in 1919, evicted black cultivators living at the Eye. Blacks continued to live and garden at Seodin, five miles downstream, but suffered water shortages which made even their casual irrigation impossible. Political expediency dictated against their pressing for water rights. In the 1940s the Department of Native Affairs drilled boreholes, but these were not sufficient to sustain cultivation. In 1962, the policy of Apartheid mandated the removal of blacks from Seodin. Despite state aid, the whites-only irrigation project never developed into a commercial success.