South Africa's Environmental History: Cases and Comparisons

By Dodson, Belinda | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

South Africa's Environmental History: Cases and Comparisons


Dodson, Belinda, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


South Africa's Environmental History: Cases and Comparisons. Edited by Stephen Dovers, Ruth Edgecombe, and Bill Guest. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003, and Cape Town: David Philip, 2002. Pp. ix, 326. $24.95 paper.

This book has its origins in a 1996 meeting of environmental historians at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. Whether intentionally or otherwise, the collection serves as a festschrift to the late Ruth Edgecombe, one of the prime movers behind both that meeting and this subsequent volume. Ruth died of cancer in 2001. Her death robbed South African environmental history of one of its pioneers and leaders at a time when she was still brimming with ideas and enthusiasm in a field still very much in need of champions. The book also serves as a gauge of both the promise and fragility of the scholarly environmental history enterprise in South Africa, surely one of the most exciting physical and social contexts in which to do environmental history research. The environmental impact of colonialism, segregation, and apartheid; the role of an often difficult natural environment in shaping the country's social, economic, and political history; the manifestation of social and political conflict in struggles over resources and territory-these are rich fields for environmental historians to plough.

The book makes no claims to be comprehensive, and instead comprises an ultimately frustrating combination of detailed local case studies and broad-brush overviews and comparisons. Geographically, there is something of a KwazuluNatal bias, likely a reflection of Ruth's own professional base and her significant influence on the field of environmental history as practiced by both professional and amateur historians. This bias gives the book a particularism, even parochialism, that makes it perhaps less attractive to a general and especially a non-South African readership. This is countered somewhat by the inclusion of leading international scholars in environmental history such as Nancy Jacobs and Ravi Rajan, although neither the international comparisons nor the application to the South African case of theories formulated in other sociohistorical contexts rings entirely true. The strongest chapters are those by Sean Archer on windmills and wire in the Karoo, Lance van Sittert on the invasion of prickly pear in the Eastern Cape, and William Beinart locating South African environmental history in the African context. Beinart's commentary on South African environmental history as a whole applies equally to this book: Where are the studies of African people's environmental knowledge and practices?

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