Histories of an African farm

Land and literary non-fiction from Sol Plaatje to Jonny Steinberg.

The ‘story of an African farm’ is one of the most overworked motifs in South African literary history. Within ‘white writing’ from the region, it seems that almost every novelist has (along the lines of Dinesen’s 1938 memoir) ‘had a farm in Africa’, whether actual or imagined. At the same time, from RRR Dhlomo’s An African Tragedy (1928) onward, much writing by black South Africans has been classed as fundamentally urban: underpinned by a move away from rural areas to the city, and taking as its subject the encounter with modernity that ensues. This paper hopes to unsettle these familiar trajectories, by tracking how South Africa’s arable land appears in long-form non-fiction... Ranging from Sol Plaatjes’s Native Life in South Africa (1916) to the work of Charles van Onselen and Jonny Steinberg, it considers major South African texts that return to the rural, and ways of writing about land that rely on testimony, oral history and reportage. As such it asks for an alternate genealogy of the African farm, one that includes the voices obscured or effaced by South African versions of the pastoral (or anti-pastoral). Yet at the same time, the complex projects of collaboration and cultural translation that produce texts like Van Onselen’s The Seed is Mine (1996) and Steinberg’s Midlands (2002) pose other, difficult questions about how access to land and access to narrative become implicated in each other.

A Land Divided | 24-27 March 2013 | University of Cape Town. Land and South African Society in 2013 | A Comparative Perspective.