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Technical innovation in agriculture preceded that in mining, and the value of colonial agricultural production exceeded that of diamonds throughout the nineteenth century. After the Cape received responsible government in 1874 a colonial scientific bureaucracy was gradually expanded to include a veterinary surgeon, a Department of Agriculture, and a state botanist, geologist, entomologist and marine biologist. The discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and Witwatersrand gold in the 1880s reshaped the contours of race and science. Mining became reliant on increasingly sophisticated technology and on cheap black labour. Rapid growth in the mining sector has been analysed by historians in terms of the relationship between capital and labour. Scientific and technological innovations were also critical: applied geology, water pumps, explosives, stamping gear and the recently discovered cyanide process for gold extraction. The geostrategic importance of southern Africa became a point of growing competition, and the borders of a unitary South African state in 1910 emerged out of wars of conquest against African societies and intense conflict between English- and Dutch-speaking citizens. Imperial conquest and expansion were in turn associated with rapid technological change: steamships, railways, transatlantic cables and breech loading rifles. Together these constituted a ‘full-blown socio-technical imaginary’.
South Africa was a regional rather than a world power; it was not a global centre for invention or new scientific ideas. Yet its geographic position on the African continent made it a staging post for Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialism and part of a global imaginary. Colonisation by Britain brought the region into connection with a technologically advanced world empire. South Africa was at key moments an incubator and testing ground of innovation, which had profound social and economic effects on the country: agricultural technology underpinned exports of wool and ostrich feathers; new rifles changed the balance of power in favour of colonial regimes; the mineral revolution necessitated developments in applied geology and gold extraction. Key advances were often a response to urgent economic requirements, but the scientific imagination was also more exploratory with respect to astronomy, palaeontology, and wildlife conservation. And as a crucible of racial politics in the twentieth century, South Africa has long been seen as a social laboratory for the study of 'race relations'. We aim to illustrate the scientific imagination as an expression of human curiosity and ingenuity, to discuss the politics of science and to examine its imbrication with white political power.
The transfer of the Cape to British control in 1806 gave the region new geopolitical prominence and the Cape sea-route more importance as the colonial authorities sought to consolidate control of the hinterland. British colonisers legitimated their presence in the region by insisting on their commitment to civilisation, progress, better governance and scientific accomplishment. This included conquest of the Xhosa, the British settlement programme in 1820, and scientific institutions. African kingdoms were also changing rapidly as they absorbed new military technologies such as horses and firearms. In the 1820s, a Royal Observatory was sited at Cape Town to expand knowledge of astronomy in the southern hemisphere and help with navigation and mapping. In the first half of the nineteenth century, scientific networks and associations gained footholds in local colonial society leading to the establishment of a natural history museum, the revival of the botanical garden and zoological expeditions. Geological exploration revealed fossils in the Karoo, prompting new thinking about the age of the earth. Flints and middens helped to catalyse archaeology as a field of interest – as did rock art. The science of race, which slip-streamed in Darwin’s wake, was given impetus by imperial conquest in South Africa.
When the Dutch plunged into the Indian Ocean at the beginning of the seventeenth century, they brought with them both a new form of capitalism and fresh ways of looking at nature. Their sprawling seaborne empire turned Amsterdam and Leiden into centres for the collection of global knowledge. Colonised regions were systematically scoured for valuable natural resources and curiosities. Jan van Riebeeck, Simon van der Stel and Rijk Tulbagh, among other Cape governors, were keen amateur naturalists. The Cape’s natural diversity in plants and animals attracted literate travellers with a scientific bent and the botanical gardens served as a portal to exchange of botanical knowledge. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries produced a rich literature on South Africa, as scientific interest drew it into the orbit of educated Europeans. Some of the writers became scientists of consequence, including Thunberg, who became the leading botanist in Sweden; Lichtenstein, a professor of zoology in Berlin; and Barrow, a key scientific figure in the British Admiralty. These travellers often reported local knowledge and collectively created a literary tradition about the Cape that helped to define the region’s character and interest to scientists.
The new apartheid government under D. F. Malan proved adept at using science for its own purposes. The 1949 ‘African Charter’ promoted science and technology as a means to secure regional domination and South Africa’s position as a bulwark of anti-communism. South Africa’s Antarctic research programme regained momentum in the context of the Cold War. The IDC sponsored SASOL, based on an oil-from-coal chemical process, and phosphate-based fertilisers by means of a new parastatal, FOSKOR. Platinum, discovered by Hans Merensky, came of age in the 1970s. Uranium was enriched at a secret plant at Valindaba. The apartheid state also invested heavily in dam construction, hydro-electric power, and irrigation. Agricultural ‘Betterment’ schemes were imposed in the black homelands or Bantustans. From the mid-1970s, state resources were devoted to support weapon production and develop a nuclear capability, and optical astronomy was consolidated under the South African Astronomical Organisation at Sutherland. A major scientific achievement was the world’s first human heart transplant in 1967. Botany, agronomy and biodiversity were major areas of research, as was wildlife conservation. It is therefore possible to distinguish between science under apartheid and apartheid science designed to underpin white supremacy.
We have aimed to write a book that speaks to multiple audiences, starting from the proposition that a synoptic view of the scientific imagination in South Africa over 300 years has much to offer specialist as well as general readerships. Firstly, for those interested primarily in South Africa, our argument is that scientific ideas and practices have irreversibly shaped society, and that they should be understood as an intrinsic element of political power, economic growth, and social change. In spheres from human and veterinary medicine to mining and agriculture, from the technologies of transport to those of water and energy, science has distinctively moulded South Africa’s modernity. It has done so directly through the exercise of techno- and bio-power – and also indirectly through theories and rhetorics of exclusion and inclusion, progress and entitlement, regeneration and degeneration.
The South African War of 1899–1902 constituted a major political rupture. In the postwar period, science and technology consolidated the embryonic state and legitimated white authority – and racial segregation – by valorising rationality, order and progress. Members of scientific associations helped to build the university system which expanded rapidly after the First World War. The confluence of scientific and industrial expertise in Johannesburg was signalled by the establishment of a South African Institute for Medical Research in 1912. The national Department of Agriculture was a key employer of applied scientists, and veterinary researchers at Onderstepoort tackled a range of animal diseases. Innovative individuals such as Junod, Merensky and Marais advanced entomology, geology and zoology. Jan Smuts and J.H. Hofmeyr were committed to active participation in the emergent Commonwealth, viewing science as a means to transcend differences between English- and Afrikaans-speakers. In the 1920s and 30s both became strong advocates of the ‘South Africanisation’ of science and of research in the southern hemispheres. These included new theories of continental drift developed by Alexander du Toit, as well as remarkable paleontological discoveries indicating South Africa’s importance in the evolution of humankind.
The post-apartheid ANC government took pride in repurposing the country as a modern, democratic state and promoted a vision of science and technology for the common good. Astronomy was a particular beneficiary of the new dispensation. The Southern African Large Telescope at Sutherland was part of the dividend resulting from the country’s transition to democracy and the decommissioning of nuclear weaponry. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, advocated national renewal through an ‘African Renaissance’ that promoted both indigenous knowledge and scientific ambition. Mbeki’s suspicion of the authority of Western science and his Africanist affinities impelled him to intervene in the controversy surrounding HIV/AIDS and to support AIDs denialism. It has often been alleged that Mbeki was caught between ‘indigenous’ and ‘Western’ knowledge, yet his scientific legacy was more complex. In fields such as ethno-botany, for instance, there is evidence of complementary research in post-apartheid South Africa between scientists and carriers of African knowledge of plant medicines. The process of developing a new spirit of ‘South Africanism’ in the post-apartheid rainbow nation meant greater openness to South Africa’s position as an African nation, while also inviting bids leadership of Africa through ‘big science’ initiatives like astronomy and Antarctic research.
Under Prime Minister J. B. M. Hertzog (1924–1939), the state became increasingly central to scientific research and industrialisation. Hendrik van der Bijl and H. J. Van Eck developed national power supply through the state electricity commission (Escom) and used the Industrial Development Council to fund state-led enterprises. State officials and scientists devoted themselves to environmental issues from soil erosion to irrigation, invasive plants and vermin eradication. With Jan Smuts back in power in the war years, competing ‘worlds of possibilities’ emerged in political and scientific imaginations: Anglophone and liberal constituencies looked forward to reforms and postwar reconstruction; the African National Congress focussed on social progress, welfare and human rights for all; Afrikaner nationalists began to envisage an alternative utopia of republican independence and apartheid. The promise of science in helping to deliver these outcomes was expressed by all three political traditions. Improved economic prospects, fuelled by the expansion of gold mining, encouraged urbanisation, state planning, industrial development and social welfare. Science became an arm of an increasingly interventionist state, planning for national postwar reconstruction that envisaged less rigid racial divisions and promised conservation and development in African areas.
South Africa provides a unique vantage point from which to examine the scientific imagination over the last three centuries, when its position on the African continent made it a staging post for Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonialism. In the eighteenth century, South African plants and animals caught the imagination of visiting Europeans. In the nineteenth century, science became central to imperial conquest, devastating wars, agricultural intensification and the exploitation of rich mineral resources. Scientific work both facilitated, and offered alternatives to, the imposition of segregation and apartheid in the twentieth century. William Beinart and Saul Dubow offer an innovative exploration of science and technology in this complex, divided society. Bridging a range of disciplines from astronomy to zoology, they demonstrate how scientific knowledge shaped South Africa's peculiar path to modernity. In so doing, they examine the work of remarkable individual scientists and institutions, as well as the contributions of leading politicians from Jan Smuts to Thabo Mbeki.
The past two decades have witnessed growing competition for landed resources across much of sub-Saharan Africa, generating pervasive conflict over the ownership and control of communal property and the systems of customary authority that typically mediate access to it (Peters 2004, 2013; Ubink and Amanor 2008; Capps 2016; Buthelezi, Skosana and Vale 2019). This collection brings together a range of essays that explore the ways in which these struggles are unfolding in the South African countryside. They focus particularly on the intersections between law, history and academic research in current efforts to advance popular rights to land. They also examine political conflicts, above all in relation to the powers of the chieftaincy within and beyond the areas of customary or communal landholding, largely in what were formerly defined as the ‘black homelands’ or ‘Bantustans’. The backdrop to the collection is shaped by the confluence of two important developments in the post-apartheid era, which are simultaneously redrawing the contours of the rural political economy and intensifying contestation over its future direction.
The first of these developments arises from the distinctive character of South Africa's national land reform programme. After the official end of apartheid in 1994, the new African National Congress (ANC) government adopted a multipronged approach to undo the gross racial inequalities in access to and control over land arising from white political domination and apartheid. Laws were passed and policies developed providing for: the restitution of land to black people who had been forcibly dispossessed by the state after 1913; the subsidised redistribution of land from willing white sellers to black landholders; the reform of land tenure in the communal areas to clarify rights of occupation, ownership and use; the protection of informal and customary landholdings; and new instruments of collective ownership called communal property associations (CPAs). Since local land management in the Bantustans had typically (though not exclusively) been placed under chieftaincies or tribal authorities during apartheid, these interventions inevitably raised questions about the future role and powers of those institutions in the new dispensation.
The 1996 Constitution enshrined democracy, the rule of law and universal rights. It also recognised customary laws and practices, to the extent that they were compatible with the Constitution more broadly. This raises complex issues in relation to land reform and tenure.