Date: Wed, 17 Jan 1996
From: Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU>
This dissertation examines the history of environmental management and food production techniques in Kuruman, South Africa. In a larger sense it addresses an essential question of South African rural history: the decline of food production among blacks. In contrast to more familiar explanations of these developments, this dissertation explores how environmental and technological factors contributed to the transformation of the South African countryside.
Historians have identified national causes of black agricultural decline in capitalism and the implementation of discriminatory legislation. They have also described powerful dynamics arising from the local economy, society and power struggles. Because South African historiography has not fully considered how changing techniques and methods of food production fit into these forces, this dissertation relies on comparative environmental historiography, particularly of the United States. This body of literature shows how human land use is critical to social, economic and environmental changes in subsistence and capitalist economies.
The region under study, Kuruman in the northern Cape, supports both pastoralism and horticulture, although the environment makes both challenging. It is situated on the southern edge of the Kalahari and receives under fifteen inches of rainfall per year, so rain-fed cultivation is difficult. Still, the karst geology provides many springs which makes irrigated gardening on a small scale possible. The veld grasses have been sufficient for pastoralism, but two environmental diseases of stock, anthrax and bovine botulism, handicap pastoralism.
In pre-colonial times Tswana-speaking people in Kuruman subsisted through extensive pastoralism, cultivation and foraging. Subsistence required much land and relatively little labor. An examination of methods of environmental management reveals stratification within this society. A significant class of the poorest people subsisted as full-time foragers entirely dependent upon nature. Women, as cultivators, controlled an ephemeral product, while wealthy men controlled the most reliable use of nature, stock keeping.
European influence brought great changes to these relationships between people and the environment. Missionaries introduced more intensive agriculture in the form of irrigated cultivation. Traders purchasing ivory and ostrich feathers converted nature into a commodity. Poor people with little opportunity to accumulate wealth were attracted to these new opportunities to benefit from nature, but they selectively integrated them into the preexisting system. Cultural and economic factors, including the priority of minimizing labor, limited the wide-scale adoption of methods of intensive cultivation. Even the founding of Kimberley, six days' journey away, did not create a market-producing cultivating peasantry in Kuruman.
The new British imperial government segregated the environment in 1886, reserving river valleys for Africans and designating grazing lands for white settlement. The devastating cattle plague rinderpest and over-hunting of wild game were other environmental consequences of imperialism. The result was that pastoralism and foraging became unviable, leaving cultivation in the river valleys as the only method of procuring food. Rebellion by both the Tswana and the Boers against the Cape Colony further disrupted environmental management, and the crisis culminated in a famine at the turn of the century. Thereafter food production on the pre-colonial extensive model was impossible.
As in other areas of South Africa, wage labor became the chief means of support for local households. Men worked most often in Kimberley diamond mines. Despite the collapse of subsistence production, supplementary cultivation continued on an extensive model. A puzzling question is why a potential for increasing irrigation remained unrealized. This was due to several factors. Labor expended for wages detracted from that available for irrigation. Similarly important was the lack of access to markets for produce. Gardening had few links to the cash economy and could not attract the energy of people who needed cash for modern world expenses. The costs of intensifying production and a social structure enduring from the pre-colonial period also inhibited the commercialization and intensification of irrigated agriculture.
The history of asbestos production shows that market opportunities could induce people to develop new methods of environmental management but also that patterns of older relations with nature endured. Mining began on reserves in the 1910s. Local households were responsible for production. Men, women and children worked together, mining and sorting. These households operated as independent contractors, selling the fiber to local traders. Despite the commercial nature of mining, the methods followed the logic of extensive food production: minimizing risk and labor were a higher priority than increasing output. By the late 1920s deeper mining required more investment and mining companies assumed control of production. Only men worked as wage laborers.
As the twentieth century progressed, herd and flock populations rose on the small reserves. The result was overgrazing and bush encroachment at the expense of grasses. This lowered the grazing capacity of the veld and caused further injury to what food production did exist.
Unemployment during the great depression caused another famine, a stark contrast to the crisis caused by the collapse of subsistence production at the turn of the century. The Tswana people of Kuruman were by then dependent on the capitalist economy rather than nature for their subsistence.