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Review of Washed with Sun: Landscape and the Making of White South Africa


By Colin Bundy

Washed with Sun: Landscape and the Making of White South Africa. Jeremy Foster. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2008. Pp. 336. ISBN 978 0 8229 5958 8 (pb.) $27.95

Washed with Sun is about place and identity, about nature and nationalism. The landscape in its sub-title refers to actual, physical terrain; but also to how that topographical reality was experienced, observed and narrated: “how spatial imaginaries are constructed, mediated and disseminated through representational practices and discourses”. Particularly, Jeremy Foster is concerned with how such representations inflected and influenced an emergent sense of national identity among white South Africans.

Arrestingly, Foster opens with the observation that South Africa is known for its turbulent political history and the distinctiveness of its landscapes - but without much attention as to how these two factors may have been connected. We are all familiar with a narrative of gold, war, imperial interests and settler power; of belated and hectic socio-economic change, of cities and segregation, white farms and native reserves. Alongside this – proposes Foster - runs a parallel narrative: one of cultural meaning-making, of conscious and unconscious ideas about space and habitation of that space, of anxieties and desires stemming from “the tensions between nostalgia and modernity”.

How does one enter this other narrative, trace its tropes, map its message? Foster opts for a dual approach. Firstly, following a beguiling Introduction, come three theoretical chapters. These visit debates on nationalism; establish the importance of the South African War (1899-1902) in shaping white society; posit the next 30 years as the crucial period in which ideas about landscape meshed with new notions of nation; and explore the “psychogeography” of landscape – how territory is experienced, seen, recalled and recounted. Foster makes a strong case for the importance of his chosen period. In the three decades after the South African War local topography became more important than offshore memory; the “cult of the veld” was celebrated; and a sense of national belonging was rooted in a [gendered and racist] discourse of spacious and sparsely populated landscape.

Secondly, Foster proffers five case studies: five authorial instances of geographical imagining, five layers of meaning and myth within the complex sedimentation of collective consciousness. Here is Baden-Powell: hero of Mafeking and father of scouting, offering not only a sense of place but also of how it could be traversed. Here is John Buchan: Milner’s man, agent of empire, and wistful prophet – seized with a sense of how landscape, improvement and white identity could yield a virtuous future. Here are the Anglophile Johannesburg magnates: studding Parktown ridge with Edwardian mansions and gazing north with an insatiate high-mindedness, South Africa’s Romans, impatient and expansionist. Here is Bertha Everard: a largely over-looked landscape painter who never achieved the clarity, impact or fame of her contemporary, the Afrikaner Jan Pierneef. And here is the “structure of seeing” achieved by the South African Railways and Harbours Publicity Department: promoting and confirming the mastery of time and space by the white South African state, erasing Africans from landscape, choreographing conquest, and celebrating modernity as a triumph of a white, well-off, well-travelled community .

It is difficult to imagine a reader who is not informed by the argument of this book, nor captivated by its superb illustrations (over 100 in black and white and 40 in full colour). But the same reader will have to have stamina, and some forbearance. She will be surprised by some simple errors: that in 1994 “fully democratic government was a few years old in South Africa” or that Doris Lessing is a South African author or that the highveld was the home of “Africans of Nguni descent”. She will have to accept prose hewn from the steeper slopes of critical theory. Thus: “Such non-visual, performative forms of place-signification cut across shared, intersubjective, and socially constructed meanings, as well as the subjective understandings that individuals bring to their encounters with the material world.” Or “It is largely through such imaginative displacement and bodying forth – exemplification – that places (locales that stand for larger worlds) invite intersubjective appropriation and become a focus and receptacle for collective ideas.” Or – oh, many others.

But beyond any stylistic resistance to this work, there is a more substantial conceptual issue. The title speaks of the “Making of White South Africa”, but the analysis is overwhelmingly of English-speaking white South Africa. Many readers will, quite properly, wonder how Afrikaans-speaking whites encountered landscape, rendered it, and politicised it. The few references in the book are tantalising. We are reminded that the quotidian vocabulary of landscape – kloof, veld, vlakte, koppie, kraal, nek, vlei, kruil, opstal and krans – had no equivalent English terms (p. 244) and how they echo in Langenhoven’s anthem (p. 254). But Foster reduces Afrikaner concerns with landscape to a sense of loss in the 1930s, when ties with the land were being severed (p. 255). This seems wholly inadequate. What of Afrikaans poetry, and its spare, charged, intense evocation of landscape and its meanings? Or the liedjies sung in school-yards, homesteads and folk gatherings? Or the language itself: how – in addition to the terms Foster cites - one might add dorp, platteland, pan, spruit and sloot: but more, one could explore how these are essentially highveld terms, a lexicon of mobility and settlement, like biltong, velskoen, riem and beskuit; and how these echoes of frontier and trek infused twentieth century sensibilities.

I do not know how such questions would alter Foster’s findings; and can only wonder which alternative case studies he might have chosen had his definition of white South Africans been more bilingual. And of course this objection invites others: which African notions of landscape – of the links between ancestors and place, or local knowledge of botany and zoology – impacted upon those of white settlers and administrators? While he makes tentative acknowledgement of a separate Afrikaner discourse, Foster is resolutely indifferent to the complications of indigenous narratives.

Washed with Sun is a dense, difficult, intriguing, instructive and suggestive study. Ultimately it promises more than it can deliver; but this is because it promises so much, so ambitiously. It would be churlish to conclude without recognising how much it achieves, and how engagingly it does so.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 71-74]

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