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South African Ecocriticism: Landscapes, Animals, and Environmental Justice

Abstract and Keywords

This essay surveys South African ecocriticism, scaling it alongside African and postcolonial ecocriticisms. The authors praise critics who use local specificities to disrupt the universalization of Euro-American environmental and ecocritical tenets. That disruption generates global relevance. However, the field is still overcoming imbalances toward white literary and critical voices, as well as a disarticulation of “animal-centered” from “people-centered” approaches. Animal studies and landscape have pulled South African ecocritics in two main directions, which this chapter maps. The authors then bolster arguments for reintegrating concerns about animals, land, and people, in the service of unpacking conservation’s links to race, colonialism, apartheid, and post-apartheid inequities. Novelist Zakes Mda stages the need for such reintegration in The Whale Caller, which reframes human-nonhuman relations and exposes the tourism economy’s disenfranchisement of both animals and people. (This article has been commissioned as a supplement to The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, edited by Greg Garrard.)

What does a specifically South African ecocriticism look like? Is it unique to South Africa? Or is it a part of the broader postcolonial project of challenging bourgeois perspectives originating in the Global North? If it is the latter, how should South African, African, Global South, and postcolonial perspectives inform the work of ecocritics? What is the role of race, as well as of geography?

To begin answering these (and other) questions, we will first consider an elegant example of ecocritical work whose South African localization allows for historical specificity while generating global relevance. In “Rachel Carson and the Perils of Simplicity,” Hedley Twidle asks “how a key text of North American environmentalism”—Carson’s Silent Spring––“reads from the global South” (52). Twidle seeks a Global South optic by comparing Carson’s book with Arundhati Roy’s eco-activist essay “The End of Imagination.” He discusses Roy’s text only briefly, but makes good on the promise to decenter Northern environmentalism by historicizing the landscape of Table Mountain as a way of locating his own intellectual efforts at the University of Cape Town.

Twidle invokes absent birdsong to exemplify how signs that some Northern environmentalists might claim as universal can change valence in other contexts. In Silent Spring, birdsong’s disappearance poignantly signals environmental destruction. But at the Cape, birdsong’s absence also connotes nineteenth-century imperialist Cecil Rhodes’s unsuccessful project to import English songbirds to Table Mountain. Rhodes’s statue later stood at the University of Cape Town until the #RhodesMustFall protests resulted in its removal in April 2020. Seeking to recreate the local landscape in the image of England, Rhodes also supported conservation with a fortune attained by exploiting both human labor and the land in the mines of Kimberley and the Witwatersrand. As Twidle explains, “If for Carson birdsong came to symbolize an environment under threat … then on these slopes it was inflected with the grand designs of settler-colonialism—an index of … [the] impulse to remake the environment in the image of one’s own native land” (56). Twidle uses birdsong’s accretion of different meanings to exemplify “the complexity that is entailed in thinking through the various cultures of nature in a place like South Africa” (57, our emphasis), where colonial land appropriation has manifested as ecological exchange, dramatic alterations of the landscape, environmental destruction, and conservation. Birdsong, Twidle argues, must be rethought from and for this context. So must all “cultures of nature” and ecocritical principles developed in the Global North.

The meaning of (absent) birdsong at the Cape is no more generalizable than its meaning for Carson. But Twidle’s gesture—using local specificity to challenge the universalization of North American symbolism—has broad relevance. Twidle generates his Global South optic by overlaying Carson’s evocation of a silent landscape with the Cape’s enmeshment of local environments and large-scale colonial processes, focalized via the objectionable figure of Rhodes. Navigating the imbrication of environmental and social problems is central to South African ecocriticism, given conservation’s troubling links to colonialism, apartheid, and more contemporary inequalities (the widening gap between rich and poor, for instance). Such entanglements of the environmental, the social, and the political are by no means unique to South Africa. (Carson herself was well aware of them: her book galvanized the environmental movement in the United States, and she found herself vilified by the pesticide industry and politicians.) But South Africa is iconic both for its landscapes and its flora and fauna, and for its colonial and racial histories—and in ways particular to the country. This makes South Africa especially generative for ecocritical work like Twidle’s, which theorizes transnationally by means of an already—and long since—globalized locality. (After all, Cape Town began as a garden site established by the Dutch East India Company in 1652; conceived as a “hinge linking Atlantic and Indian Ocean trade routes,” its purpose was to resupply spice-trading ships [Samuelson 2020, 798, 796].) Twidle’s analysis has global scope, but unlike both mainstream environmentalism and some forms of ecocriticism, it avoids imposing Western universalism.

Thus the wider relevance of South African ecocriticism resides somewhat paradoxically in its localizing capacity: in the historical, cultural, political, and ecological perspectives it can bring to bear as it ponders the peculiarities of South African environments. (And there are a number of these peculiarities to ponder: just consider the fact that the Western Cape is home to one of the world’s most diverse floral kingdoms, the fine-bush or fynbos, which is threatened on all sides by development spurred by neoliberalism and international investment, by veld fires, by global warming, and by long-simmering disputes over land use and ownership.) As Sam Naidu puts it, South African scholars should push for a “localised ecocriticism…strongly informed by developments in the more general field of postcolonial ecocriticism” (60). Naidu develops such an approach in her essay “Crimes Against Nature,” identifying “nature-oriented crime novels” as the new political novels of South Africa because of their ecosocial themes. Like Twidle’s piece, Naidu’s essay exemplifies a localized yet broadly relevant South African ecocriticism: nature-oriented crime novels are trendy in contemporary South Africa, but resonate with concerns across postcolonial ecocriticism about the imbrication of environmental issues with questions of class and land use. Naidu’s main example, Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, spotlights “the tensions which exist between conservationists and indigenous peoples seeking land rights” (Naidu 63). Meyer’s plot line of a battle between land claimants and conservationists in South Africa’s Kruger National Park certainly points to real-world events in Kruger (discussed in the next section). However, such conflicts are also signal issues across many national contexts. National parks have been used to bolster homogenizing forms of nationalism and to erase histories of indigenous displacement, in southern Africa and in locations such as east Africa, the United States, and India. 1

Despite the relevance of postcolonial ecocriticism, it must be acknowledged that postcolonial theory is in no small degree a product of the Global North, home to the universities that have trained and employed many of its leading lights. It follows that the local engagement with postcolonial critiques on the part of academics working in the Global South cannot be a simple matter of boxing the compass and adding a dash of local color to familiar theoretical formulas generated elsewhere; they must instead be thoroughly recursive. This applies to ecocriticism as much as it does to environmentally themed crime novels of the sort Naidu celebrates, which first began to appear in the United States at least forty years ago (in the work of John D. MacDonald, for instance). 2 Given recent debates as to whether nonfiction has surpassed fiction in relevance for contemporary South Africa, nonfiction crime narratives oriented toward land disputes, exemplified by Jonny Steinberg’s Midlands, may rival the crime novel in importance for socially engaged South African ecolit. 3 This genre may also be less influenced by American literature than the crime novel (see Naidu 61).

It is for this reason—the globalization of intellectual and cultural life—that insights from South African critics can enhance the field of postcolonial ecocriticism in general, and it is no surprise that South Africans such as Rob Nixon have contributed some of postcolonial ecocriticism’s central works. 4 In fact, since the late nineties, a wealth of ecocritical scholarship has emerged from South Africa, evident in special issues of South African journals (and now supported by programs such as the new Environmental Humanities Initiative at the University of Cape Town). For instance, in 2007, the Journal of Literary Studies published a special issue on South African ecocriticism, divided into two parts. 5 This two-part structure pinpoints two broad currents of South African ecocriticism. One draws on philosophical and theoretical work in animal studies to explore relations between humans and nonhuman animals. The other engages with questions of landscape, land use, and the exploitation of natural resources. We will discuss the latter first.

The concept of landscape, “both topographical and aesthetic in its reference” (Coetzee 40), has exerted a heavy influence on South African ecocriticism. This strain of the discourse draws on J.M. Coetzee’s classic study White Writing. Coetzee maps out how early colonial artists such as William Burchell pleaded for the aesthetic value of South African landscapes in spite of their unsuitability for the European picturesque, which demanded “distant mountains, a lake in the middle distance, and a foreground of rocks, woods, broken ground, cascades or ruins” (40). Despite Burchell’s ostensible quest for genuinely “African beauty,” Coetzee insists that Burchell’s aesthetic “is but a modified European picturesque” (41). So it seems that Cecil Rhodes was far from unique in his desire to make South Africa seem more like home.

Coetzee next focuses on the poet Thomas Pringle’s application of “procedures of picturesque painting (and viewing)” to establish a dichotomy between South Africa as wilderness and England as picturesque (47). Overall, Coetzee identifies landscape representation as a process of colonialists inserting themselves into the South African context by reading the landscape against and, inevitably, in terms of European aesthetic—and, we would add, environmental—categories.

Despite the influence of Coetzee’s study, which critically apprehends the role of landscape in boosting Afrikaner nationalism (Coetzee 61), landscape-oriented ecocriticism too often lapses back into lyrical admiration for the pastoral and the wild. As Julia Martin writes, “When localism becomes insular, or situatedness myopic and relativist, the broader social/economic/historical/geographic (and so on) environments in which a place arises are obscured, and…the place-based initiative can become…incorporated into the very system it seeks to challenge” (114). Unfortunately, Martin herself falls into this trap, in overpraising the Goedgedacht Trust, an antipoverty and sustainability NGO based on olive growing. Martin’s “story about olives” (115) does reference global flows in the effort “to see the specificity of a location, its nondual, interconnected life, in terms that reveal rather than obscure its interrelatedness with broader systems” (114). But while she may avoid outright romanticizing of the “particularities of place” (114, our emphasis), Martin instead idealizes the capacity of NGOs to rewrite the terms of global connectedness: “Olive Oil is sold online too: Mission, Frontoio, Leccino…the cultivar names speak of California and Tuscany, of old trade routes, new global flows, this place, these children” (119). Martin’s lyrical rhetoric sugarcoats the role of NGOs in the globalization machine, casting the “NGO people” Peter and Annie Templeton (117) in the role of saviors of Africa. She praises their mission “to grow peace in Africa” (120), without questioning, for instance, the paternalistic and animalizing racism of Annie’s cloying description of African laborers as impoverished “little damp squirrels” (117). Perhaps this NGO does succeed in working with rather than for the Goedgedacht community, but such is not evident from Martin’s depiction. Martin’s references to the global do not impede sentimental lyricism about landscape, but enable them, as the closing paragraph of her essay shows: “On the mountain, in the orchards, among the buildings, the place is marked with the tracks of the world, including our own, and our own writing. The weight of the global disaster presses in on the heart. But olives are full of history and imagination. And, stirred into pasta, the oil from this side of the Kasteelberg tastes generous and good” (121). Martin’s article inadvertently reveals that acknowledging a globalized landscape does not prevent the retrogressive tendencies that she associates with parochial representations of place. It also displays more than a trace of the foodie escapism that tempts residents of and visitors to the Cape Winelands, where tastings are a daily ritual—and taste can become an ethos in its own right.

But in its less romantic iterations, the land-focused strain of South African ecocriticism moves beyond the aesthetics of landscape vaunted by early ecocritical work in the United States and the United Kingdom (with U.S. scholars celebrating wilderness, and U.K. ecocritics harking back to a largely vanished pastoral England). It instead investigates the politics of land use, and of the exploitation of natural resources broadly speaking, in ways consonant with much of postcolonial ecocriticism. Cobi Labuscagne nudges the discussion in that direction, in her contribution to the aforementioned Journal of Literary Studies issue. She draws on White Writing and Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism to periodize landscape representation in South Africa, moving from an early colonial wilderness aesthetic to a pastoral “‘colonial’ moment proper” (438). She then identifies a third, “postcolonial” landscape aesthetic, endowed with a new “sense of responsibility” toward the local environment (439). Labuscagne associates this postcolonial landscape tradition with the visual artist William Kentridge’s capacity to ironically “quote,” “play with and comment upon the picturesque canon,” rather than being “beholden to European precedents” (439). Labuscagne differentiates Kentridge’s work from the two earlier landscape traditions, because Kentridge “displays a concern with the fate of the natural environment itself” (439). Labuscagne thus overlooks the fact that earlier forms of the picturesque also may invoke environmentalist concern, but yoke it to imperialist agendas. Moreover, she does not delve deeply into land ownership, the exploitation of human bodies, and South African varieties of land use (at sites as diverse as farms, vineyards, cattle ranches, forestry plantations, private and public hunting preserves, national parks, mines, beaches, gated communities filled with ersatz Tuscan villas, urban apartment complexes, townships, informal settlements, and so on). But she does mention these issues in interpreting Kentridge’s representation of Johannesburg’s postindustrial landscapes, closing her essay by alluding to “the especially close connection between human and environmental exploitation in South Africa’s history” (443). 6

Christine Loflin’s 1998 monograph African Horizons constitutes an early investigation of discourses about landscape in South African, Kenyan, and West African writing, though Loflin does not explore environmental issues per se. Noting statements that landscape rarely appears in black African writing, Loflin remarks that such assessments rely on European landscape aesthetics. Rather than idealizing a nature separated from culture, the black writers Loflin discusses engage landscapes that reveal “the influence of human conflict and compromise” (4). In South African township novels, Loflin argues, landscapes of street life facilitate male authors’ projects to shift the novel from a European individualist focus to a more communal one (83). (It is worth noting that young black artists now sell paintings of such vibrant street life, often with the iconic Table Mountain looming in the background, in the outdoor markets that cater to tourists in Cape Town and Stellenbosch.) Black South African women writers, Loflin argues, emphasize not street life but the “interior spaces of the home and the workplace” (83), using these domestic landscapes to “trace social configurations” (99). Even if these gender distinctions seem a bit programmatic, as distinctions often do when they are first made, Loflin does resist Eurocentric definitions of landscape writing.

We now turn to animal studies, the second of the distinctive tendencies of South African ecocriticism that we identified. Like studies of landscape that import European pastoral or American wilderness ideals, South African animal studies may overemphasize Northern or metropolitan models, under the sway of questions about animals raised by Derrida and Coetzee (in later works such as The Lives of Animals). Introducing a 2020 special issue of Safundi on “animal studies and ecocriticism,” Dana Phillips explains that “the essays were originally solicited” for a special issue on “ecocriticism focused on South Africa,” but it became apparent that “they also could be arranged under the rubric of animal studies” (1). The bright side here was the potential “merger of two fields,” ecocriticism and animal studies, that at the moment seemed to have “charted separate courses” (Phillips 1). But spotlighting animals may elide other and equally pressing concerns, as the history of conservation in Africa suggests. Without an awareness of this risk, ecocriticism may inadvertently discount the social and political issues that have sometimes been exacerbated by a fixation on so-called charismatic megafauna. Iconic animals, including the “Big Five” (the lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros), dominate the fantasies of South Africa of many developers, tourists, and conservationists. A fascination with charismatic megafauna can work—and often has worked—to justify the displacement and poor treatment of local communities, quintessentially in the development of national parks. The government takeover of land, and the resulting displacement of local people, in order to create such preserves as the Pilanesberg and Marakele national parks (the latter founded in 1994, the year of the transition to majority rule), exemplify this tendency in South Africa. In a broader African context, one might cite the controversial behavior of the American wildlife biologists Mark and Delia Owens, who in the seventies and eighties conducted fieldwork in Botswana and Zambia. They eventually mounted a privately funded armed campaign against poaching in the latter country—where they are no longer welcomed to work, and where the couple’s son may have shot and killed a poacher in an unsanctioned act of vigilante wildlife conservation. 7

The fact is that questions about animals and questions about the ownership of land, and hence about people, are thoroughly intertwined in South Africa as throughout the continent—something belied by the split between landscape-focused versus animal-focused criticism. (That in South Africa much of the land in question is not arable, and is largely given over to scrubby growth or “bush,” only makes the issues involved that much knottier.) Rob Nixon remarks on this intertwining in his chapter “Stranger in the Eco-Village,” in a discussion of Njabulo Ndebele’s reflections on entering a white game lodge as a black tourist. Nixon theorizes the post-apartheid game lodge as an “antimodern” territorial enclave: a space designated as both “historically colonial” in its race relations and “eternally natural,” partaking of “a time outside of time, before and after the human, when megafauna rule.…[T]he game lodge locates itself in the postapartheid marketplace by selling a blended aura of colonial time and prehuman natural time” (181). The game lodge polices race (and constellates it with and against class) via the regimentation of land as both animal conservation area and tourist spectacle. Nixon thus exemplifies the best South African ecocriticism’s engagement with the inextricability of animals, land, and people. Avoiding an illusory divide between those concerns necessitates a mutual renegotiation of postcolonial ecocriticism and animal studies, as well as a (re)politicization of both landscape and human-animal relations.

Elzette Steenkamp explicitly tackles this task, despite her questionable claim that “there is a dearth of studies on human-animal relations in the South African academy” (178). As Steenkamp acknowledges, Anthony Vital has suggested that a “specifically South African ecocriticism” must draw on the country’s environmental justice movement to emphasize “the need for a ‘people-centred’ interest in the environment” while remaining “alert to both South Africa’s colonial legacies and its peripheral position within a globalised economy” (Vital 2005, 298). But can a “people-centred” ecocriticism, alert to crucial questions of resource distribution, be reconciled with the threats to wild animals that concern conservationists? It bodes well that in “Familiar Animals,” Steenkamp uses Lauren Beukes’ speculative fiction Zoo City to explore what Vital’s “call for a ‘people-centred interest in the environment’ [might] mean for human-animal relationships in South Africa” (178). She argues that Zoo City fuses duties toward humans and nonhumans by restaging responsibility toward animals based on their intertwinement with humans, rather than their Otherness. For Steenkamp, this illustrates how postcolonial ecocriticism and animal-focused inquiry may be interwoven.

A similar possibility of integration animates Mathilda Slabbert’s examination of the songs and musicals of Afrikaans artist David Kramer. Slabbert traces a “shift” in Kramer’s references to animals and nature from an anti-apartheid “political” consciousness to a post-apartheid “ecological awareness” (112), but one that accounts for how the “South African landscape has been systematically contained, plundered, and abused by those who colonised it” (116). Slabbert finds Kramer’s attention to the ecological and social effects of commerce continuous with his anti-apartheid politics: for Kramer, the “exploitation evident in the country’s colonial past…continues in [post-apartheid] socio-economic structures where previously marginalised groups remain in disenfranchised positions” (Slabbert 117). While Kramer does draw a risky “parallel between the plight of the baboons and the oppressed races of apartheid South Africa,” Slabbert argues that Kramer “references the racist stereotypes prevalent” in comparisons of indigenous South Africans to baboons, and “moves beyond the use of [such] ‘animalisation’”—an argument aided by the fact that Kramer’s songs also represent the oppressors as animals, such as “predators and poisonous snakes” (104). 8 What Slabbert identifies in Kramer’s work can be described as a postcolonial environmental consciousness, but not an exclusively people-centered one. In Slabbert’s reading, Kramer attends to the related exploitations of land, animals, and disenfranchised peoples, as configured across the colonial, apartheid, and post-apartheid eras.

It soon becomes clear, then, that the “people versus animals” juxtaposition is overly simplistic—even if reemphasizing people has been necessary to prevent ecocriticism and animal studies in South Africa from occluding continuing social inequalities. Ecocritics such as Slabbert, Steenkamp, and Nixon address the complex entanglements of these issues, rather than ignoring people in order to focus on animals or landscape, or vice versa. Similarly, conservation in South Africa has in many ways transcended a narrow concern with charismatic megafauna, instead addressing a whole range of threatened species and communities of animals and plants—witness, for example, the efforts being made in Addo Elephant National Park, where road signs “give right of way to dung beetles: they are that vital to the whole ecosystem” (Wylie 2008 46). At the same time, attempts are being made to re-enfranchise local people by giving them a hand in the running of concessions in the parks and by employing them not merely as trackers (a traditional role for local men to play in the old South Africa), but also as safari guides and park rangers, some of whom are women. Yet clashes can emerge from lingering preoccupations with megafauna in the public imagination, their commodification for touristic purposes, and the various ways that ecotourism projects can sideline social injustice. In the next section of this chapter, we explore how the novelist Zakes Mda enters this tangle, with an eye to the relationship between ecocritical approaches and the need to broaden African and South African literary canons.

Ecocriticism has offered compelling new approaches to canonized white South African authors such as Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. 9 However, as South African literary studies seeks to embrace a more inclusive national canon, ecocritics also must ask how they can aid in that project. Scholars such as Jane Carruthers and Derek Barker have bemoaned what they perceive as a dearth of “nature writing” or “ecologically oriented [literary] works” in Africa or South Africa (Carruthers 87, Barker 56). William Slaymaker counters in a widely cited PMLA piece that “[t]here is no lack of writing in Africa that might fall under the rubric of nature writing” but that “[t]he bulk of nature writing about sub-Saharan Africa—particularly as practiced by white writers—is connected with the Euro-American academic literary traditions of thematizing landscape, space, and conservationism” discussed in the previous section (132). Slaymaker notes that “there is no rush by African literary and cultural critics to adopt ecocriticism or the literature of the environment as they are promulgated from many of the world’s metropolitan centers,” because such models may be “imperial paradigms of cultural fetishism that misrepresent the varied landscapes of sub-Saharan Africa” (134).

Despite this cogent analysis, Slaymaker sees the only possible relation of black Africa to ecocriticism as “response,” closing his article by presaging that “[t]he low visibility of ecolit and ecocrit in recent black African writing is temporary. The green revolution will spread to and through communities of readers and writers of African literature, ‘ecoing’ the booming interest” elsewhere (139, our emphasis). Slaymaker positions ecocrit and ecolit as necessarily flowing from metropolitan centers “to and though” black Africa. But a global ecocritical conversation must be multidirectional. As Byron Caminero-Santangelo and Garth Myers insist, rather than scholars relying on rubrics from “first-wave ecocriticism in judging if a piece of literature is properly environmental,” ecocritical theory itself needs “to be decentered…to be relevant in the context of African literature and criticism” (7). African ecocriticism should not be expected to identify works of interest solely by using principles developed in Anglo-American academies.

Particularly troubling is Slaymaker’s tacit agreement with Jhan Hochman’s argument that “whites have more time for nature than blacks since blacks must use a great deal of energy resisting or coping with white hegemony. Whites, more than blacks, also have greater access to some semblance of nature because blacks have been forced into urban areas for jobs” (Hochman quoted in Slaymaker 133). This argument relies on an outmoded definition of “nature” as wilderness or pastoral—as something that does not exist in urban settings, and that could not possibly be addressed in the course of resisting white hegemony. Hochman and Slaymaker should stop waiting for black Africans to become interested in this version of “nature,” and instead allow for the renegotiation of environmental literature and theory from African and other Global South perspectives. Moreover, they should attend to Northern reworkings of “wilderness” that examine (post-)industrial urban, suburban, or semi-rural landscapes, such as Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ Edgelands and Robert Sullivan’s The Meadowlands. Farley and Roberts do not explore the mythical English countryside, preferring to examine “edgelands”: porous borderlands associated with urban sprawl, “hollows and spaces between our carefully managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism” (10). Sullivan similarly maps the Meadowlands, the “thirty-two-square-mile wilderness, part natural, part industrial…five miles from the Empire State Building” where in 1998 “a cameraman [could] get a shot of an aquatic bird rising off a seemingly bucolic stretch of water with the World Trade Center at its back” (18). All of us, North and South, must interrogate ecocriticism’s foundational concepts by embracing a multidirectional ecocriticism, rather than asking black Africa to “respond” to yet another white and/or Northern imposition. (Bearing in mind that not everyone in the North is white!)

Caminero-Santangelo and Myers’ edited collection Environment at the Margins: Literary and Environmental Studies in Africa makes strides toward addressing these conceptual issues. However, the editors acknowledge that “there is somewhat of a focus on white African writing” (13–14) in their volume, a shortcoming of the field as a whole. In the afterword to the aforementioned Safundi issue, Jennifer Wenzel flags the “disproportionate attention” paid in South African ecocriticism (and literary studies more generally) “to European languages (particularly English) and to a few prominent authors,” and decries “the relative paucity of black creative and critical voices, the emphasis on elite and literate cultural forms, the over-reliance upon frames of interpretation and evaluation imported from elsewhere, and the ambivalence about political engagement” (129–130). On a more conciliatory note, Dan Wylie (2007) urges that “[t]here is little point in ignoring the fact that ‘ecocriticism’ is an import ineluctably tied to the literary, if not indeed to the academy, and therefore implicitly to the politics and ideologies of industrial capital—even as it often asserts itself as a vehicle of challenge to those very hegemonies” (256). Part of the problem, then, is reconciling the revolutionary goals of many practitioners of ecocriticism with the field’s intellectual and institutional baggage.

Identifying works of ecocritical interest that venture beyond the confines of American-style “nature writing” can address such concerns, by focusing on (for instance) how black authors represent ecosocial issues such as urban poverty. Anthony Vital and Laura White have made strides with this approach in readings of novels by Zakes Mda and Ken Sello Duiker. In “Beyond the Eco-flaneur’s Footsteps,” White points out that while Mda’s later novels are read ecocritically, such interpretations have remained separate from assessments of urban space in Mda’s Ways of Dying. In White’s view, this reception ignores that some of “the most crucial environmental issues facing the Global South” are “urban poverty, waste management, housing and urban development,” which Ways of Dying foregrounds (99). In “Ecocriticism, Globalized Cities, and African Narrative,” Vital addresses urban nature and critiques Duiker’s Thirteen Cents, Mda’s Heart of Redness, and several other narratives for their distorted appeals to “nature outside city-limits” as spaces of escape from urban modernity (226). Yet Vital acknowledges that the “political motives” of these narratives may imply reduced attention to the ways in which “urban mediation complicates social and individual relation to nature” (226). Although aspects of his reading may be questionable, Vital, like White, makes an ecocritical perspective useful for engaging social inequality in representations of urban space by black writers.

Mda may indeed be the exception that proves the rule, as a black South African author garnering substantial (eco)critical attention, particularly with his novels The Heart of Redness and The Whale Caller. 10 We now turn to a discussion of how The Whale Caller attunes the reader to the entanglement of questions about animals, questions about the land, and the attendant social and political issues. Mda denounces the aggressive commodification of animals in the new (read “neoliberal”) South Africa. But he also discredits sentimental desires for closeness with individual specimens of charismatic megafauna. As he presents it, such attachments detract from ecosocial concerns about development, tourism, inequality, and access to resources. As a result, they can prove deadly for both humans and other animals.

Mapping the critical field around The Whale Caller will accentuate the contours of South African ecocriticism that we have sketched. Scholars such as Wendy Woodward, Graham Huggan, Helen Tiffin, and Harry Sewlall approach the novel from animal studies perspectives, drawing on Coetzee and Derrida. Woodward (2007) contextualizes the novel as one of many stories in which fictional animals are sacrificed to a human idea of “the Animal,” even in cases of deaths classified as euthanasia (301). In Woodward’s view, this showcases how compassion toward animals occurs only when they are individualized (295–297). Sewlall, like Huggan and Tiffin, argues that Mda’s novel pushes toward “erasing the boundary between the human and the non-human,” in Sewlall’s words (138). But Sewlall rather banally describes The Whale Caller as “celebrat[ing] the possibility of existing in harmony with nature” (138), whereas Huggan and Tiffin, in their coauthored book, tackle the novel in relation to bestiality, “a profoundly difficult subject to confront” (194). While these three readings contextualize Mda’s representation of human-animal relations differently, they all suffer from the same limitation: the authors engage only the parts of the novel that are explicitly about whales, ignoring how animal questions are intertwined with social justice themes explored elsewhere in the novel. 11 We will instead follow the lead of Jonathan Steinwand, whose article “What the Whales Would Tell Us” combines approaches from postcolonial ecocriticism and indigenous studies. Reading The Whale Caller in relation to three other postcolonial and/or Native whale narratives, Steinwand approaches Mda’s animal themes in relation to the novelist’s concerns with resource distribution.

Mda criticizes the commodification of animals for touristic purposes, but also questions more sentimental alternatives. The novel takes place in Hermanus, a Western Cape town popular as a site for whale-watching, as large numbers of southern right whales arrive in the region in late winter and use inshore waters as calving grounds, where they can easily be viewed from the waterfront. Mda opposes his protagonist, the self-identified Whale Caller of Hermanus, with the “official whale crier…employed by the tourist office,” who “alerted people to the whereabouts of whales, whereas the Whale Caller called whales to himself” (13–14). Whale crying, Mda suggests, instrumentalizes animals to garner tourist money, while whale calling stems from a personal interest: the Whale Caller “preferred to call them when he was alone, so as to have intimate moments with them. He was not a showman, but a lover” (14). The Whale Caller aspires to a romance with his favorite whale, Sharisha. This might trump using whales to make money, except that the Whale Caller’s intense attention to whales occludes human suffering. (There is a considerable irony here: the Whale Caller, as his story develops, becomes rather like Timothy Treadwell, the American “activist” whose desire for intimacy with Alaskan brown bears resulted in his own death, the death of his girlfriend, and the shooting of the two bears found feeding on his remains. This irony is apparent in Werner Herzog’s film about Treadwell, Grizzly Man, though it is not sufficiently emphasized by the filmmaker.) Steinwand aptly describes the novel’s central conflict as “a ridiculous, yet strangely sublime, triangulated love story,” as the Whale Caller is torn between Sharisha and the village drunk Saluni, with whom he has a difficult romantic relationship (191). As we will argue, the strife between the Whale Caller and Saluni allegorizes the tension between environmental movements focused on charismatic megafauna and movements for social justice.

Mda uses dialogue between the Whale Caller and Saluni to illustrate the troubling polarization of these movements. Saluni disparages mainstream environmentalism, especially the Whale Caller’s obsession with whales. When she and the Whale Caller fish, he gets upset whenever “an angler does something unseemly, such as use a piece of lead to sink the hook. Although it is illegal to do since it pollutes the water, selfish people do it all the time” (166). Saluni instructs the Whale Caller to

“Forget about other people…and focus on your work.”

“It is dangerous to the wildlife, Saluni. Hooks and tackle in the sea will kill many innocent fish and other sea creatures.”

“We are catching them here, man. They are going to die in any case. And we’re going to eat them. What’s the difference?”

Oh, this Saluni! She will never understand these things. He chuckles at her logic. (166)

The Whale Caller closely attends to environmental problems that Saluni dismisses out of hand. Saluni prefers to stress social issues, to which the Whale Caller is oblivious, particularly in relation to Lunga Tubu, a boy from nearby Zwelihle township who sings for tips. (Lunga Tubu is based on a real figure, one of the small boys who a few years ago regaled tourists on the streets of Hermanus by imitating Pavarotti, as Mda’s acknowledgements make clear.) The Whale Caller cannot hear his singing, and asks who Lunga Tubu is. Saluni demands, “You can hear your whales a hundred miles away but you cannot hear a boy only a few meters below us?…It is Lunga Tubu singing to the waves.…He is here at least twice a week. But you never see him because you only see whales” (84–85, our emphasis). This scene reveals that the Whale Caller’s monocular attention to megafauna is an alibi for his blindness to poverty, while the fishing scene mocks Saluni’s ignorance about environmental issues. (Nonetheless, the Whale Caller’s own environmental knowledge may be questionable, given his dubious claim that lead weights pollute the water—although they are dangerous to waterfowl, which can ingest them.) Mda uses his differently minded characters to dramatize the confrontation between a range of views, rather than privileging his protagonist’s (rather naïve) environmentalism.

That the novel neither fully endorses nor scorns outright human-nonhuman romance emerges in the complexities of Mda’s tone toward both Saluni and the Whale Caller. As Steinwand writes, the Whale Caller’s attitudes toward whales and “nature” are alternately “explored, undermined, challenged, ridiculed, and defended throughout the novel” (190–191). As for Saluni, Mda ridicules her at times, too: for example, when she stoops to moon Sharisha out of jealousy. But she acquires gravity in scenes such as the encounter with Lunga Tubu. Mda writes:

Saluni explains to the Whale Caller that Lunga Tubu’s presence here destabilises the serenity of Hermanus—a sanctified playground of the rich. Lunga Tubu is disturbing the peace of the world. His tiny frame nags the delicate souls with what they would rather forget: that only a few kilometres away there is…a whole festering world of the disillusioned, those who have no stake in the much-talked-about black economic empowerment, which is really the issue of the black middle class rather than of people like Lunga Tubu. While the town of Hermanus is raking in fortunes from tourism, the mothers and fathers of Zwelihle are unemployed.…Once, they had dreams, but they have seen politicians and trade union leaders become overnight millionaires instead. Only tiny crumbs trickle down to what used to be called “the masses.” (86, our emphasis)

Tourism’s aversion to poverty is characteristic “of Hermanus” in particular, yet it is fundamental to South Africa’s national politics and to “the world” of globalized capitalism. In his depiction of Hermanus, Mda uses the local not as an occasion to celebrate ecological wholeness and integrity (the default move in environmental literature), but to concretize ecosocial concerns that are both national and global. This strategy of interlocking frameworks and telescoping scales could help ecocriticism move beyond the conflict between place-based thought and the “sense of planet.” 12 Ecotourism masquerades as a “holy grail” uniting equitable development and sustainability efforts (Büscher 54). But under South Africa’s neoliberal governance, “the tourism market is set to benefit … (overwhelmingly white) market leaders” and “black political elites” rather “than (poor) local people, a state of affairs recognized the world over” (Büscher 59). The ANC’s policies fall short of its rhetoric about simultaneous conservation and community empowerment, as illustrated by the iconic Makuleke case. Following a successful land restitution claim in 1998, the Makuleke community owns the northernmost part of Kruger National Park and co-manages its conservation with South African National Parks. This has led the Makuleke “to be seen…as a model for reconciling (tribal) community and conservation needs” (Robins and van der Waal 172). However, the ins and outs of this situation have been simplified for good PR. In fact, the ANC has limited the Makuleke’s governance. For instance, the Makuleke “were particularly indignant when they, as owners of the land, were not taken seriously in negotiations” on forming the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park linking Kruger with the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique (Büscher 55). Fearful of losing the asset of Kruger given the Makuleke’s successful case, the South African government decided in 2009 to address the outstanding Kruger land claims of thirty-eight other communities “by ‘equitable redress’ rather than restoring land rights” (Büscher 55). As Bram Büscher argues, such situations epitomize a strategy of legitimating neoliberal conservation practices with empty rhetoric about community empowerment, which such projects in fact continue to undermine. Today, in 2020, the corrupt and disingenuous ANC government, rather than the World Wildlife Fund, may pose the greatest threat to local South African communities when it clothes itself in the guise of conservation.

Attributing a cogent critique of such neoliberal governance to Saluni, Mda counterbalances her aspirations to conspicuous consumption throughout the novel. Saluni lacks the resources to engage in consumerism, but she simulates it through “civilised living”: a ritual in which she and the Whale Caller go to the grocery store and restaurants to “eat…with [their] eyes,” looking at foods they cannot afford (70, 160). The novel criticizes gluttonous consumerism in many ways, deriding “[t]he boerewors-roll-chomping tourists, mustard and ketchup dripping from their fingers and chins” (19). But to condemn Saluni’s yearning to consume, as Astrid Feldbrügge does, is to ignore one of the basic failings of bourgeois environmentalism: it would deny the poor the consumerist pleasures—the foods and other goods—that the wealthy already enjoy. 13 For Mda, the problem is not Saluni’s desire for prosperity, but the disarticulation of concerns about social inequality from environmentalism, as allegorized in the arguments between the Whale Caller and Saluni.

The tension between them springs from the Whale Caller’s sexualization of Sharisha. Although the Whale Caller never touches the whale (until her death), Mda includes several erotic passages like the following:

He breathes even faster.…He blows his horn even harder, and the whale opens its mouth wide.…She…performs the tail-slapping dance that is part of the mating ritual…making loud smacking sounds that leave the Whale Caller breathing more and more heavily.…He is drenched in sweat as his horn ejaculates sounds that rise from deep staccatos to high-pitched wails. (41)

After the Whale Caller spends the night playing his horn for Sharisha, “He was drenched in sweat and other secretions of the body. The front and the seat of his tuxedo pants were wet and sticky from the seed of life” (66). Saluni reacts by shouting, “You have shamed yourself—and me!” (66). However difficult we may find it to take seriously softcore scenes like these (and they are of a piece with other moments of over-the-top sexuality in Mda’s work), the bickering between Saluni and the Whale Caller hinges on his sexualization of a nonhuman animal. This suggests that overstepping species boundaries can cause a conflict between social justice priorities (espoused by Saluni) and environmentalism (endorsed by the Whale Caller, but in a problematic form). Though the passage functions as satire, Mda risks obscuring the political allegory with the sensationalism of the Whale Caller’s Leviathanic amours (to borrow a phrase from Melville).

This inappropriate attachment also endangers Sharisha, who beaches herself after pursuing the Whale Caller’s horn too close to shore. (We suppose that this is an example of what is sometimes called “loving nature to death.”) Conservation “experts” attempt to rescue her, and eventually euthanize her (219). Meg Samuelson (2020) sees Sharisha’s death as “a direct result of the human presence in and on the seas and of the overdevelopment of the shoreline” (19). This is possible, but whales often beach themselves for mysterious reasons. Within the novel’s logic, however, Sharisha’s death results from the Whale Caller’s desire: “If he had not selfishly called her with his horn…she would not have come to such a terrible end” (Mda 229). Mda implicates the tourism industry and conservation science, but also blames aspirations to excessive intimacy with wild animals. (The desire to get close to large, dangerous wild animals poses an ongoing problem in South Africa’s national parks, as Mda must be aware, and appears in other recent South African eco-fictions such as Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Green Lion and Justin Cartwright’s White Lightning.) Dismissing species boundaries outright proves tragic for both humans and nonhumans: Sharisha and Saluni both die, and the Whale Caller renames himself the Hermanus Penitent.

As Steinwand argues, the tragic conclusion of The Whale Caller communicates a “renunciation of sentimental attachment to charismatic megafauna” (192). But Mda does not advocate a people-centered environmentalism as such: he insists on both human and animal welfare. Rather than dismissing human/nonhuman dualism, Mda illustrates that it is precisely because of this reified binary that we lack appropriate ethical paradigms for relating to wild animals. The Whale Caller has no model for closeness to Sharisha other than romance, conducted on inappropriately human terms. But Mda does not deride the Whale Caller and Sharisha’s relationship (perhaps because it is, just as Steinwand suggests, both ridiculous and sublime). Nor would we impute some prudish sexual moralism to Mda, whose novels give sexual behavior wide range, even as they make it an object of satire. Rather than being about bestiality in any literal sense, the Whale Caller and Sharisha’s sexualized relationship functions allegorically to insist that we need some notion of species difference to achieve socially engaged environmentalism. 14 So the novel serves as a double corrective: while it questions our differentiation of human and nonhuman concerns, it also reminds practitioners of animal studies (especially those influenced by thinkers like Derrida) that, while wild animals may not be Other, they are nonetheless different from us, and different in ways that will continue to matter—ways that can be, to use a word with several meanings, specified, and that would preclude cetacean bestiality as anything other than a sexual fantasy (or allegorical trope). Thus, Mda warns against a sentimental anthropomorphism that invites nonhuman animals into human relations, rather than taking them as they are.

Speaking in a continental context, Caminero-Santangelo and Myers assert that African ecocriticism will share many points with a more generalized postcolonial ecocriticism, but must “take into account the specificity of cultural, discursive, and material contexts in Africa” (8). Through an even more specific localization, South African ecocrit and ecolit are poised to integrate questions about the treatment of animals and about land and resource use, as so many ecosocial issues in South Africa throw their complex and dense entanglement into sharp relief. Ecocritics need to avoid the narrow emphases on charismatic megafauna and beautiful landscapes that have informed bourgeois environmental thought in South Africa, as in many other countries, but without abandoning wholesale such traditional matters of concern (Saluni’s mistake, in Mda’s novel). Rather than avoid the depiction of charismatic megafauna, Mda engages head-on with its iconic value, but in ways that challenge us to understand how tourism and economic development can exploit both animals and humans. By doing so, Mda suggests that South African ecocriticism may be enriched, if it also begins to treat animals and other traditional environmental concerns as if they were—so to speak—down on all fours with concerns about people and environmental justice. This conceptual reorientation will go hand in hand with embracing a more inclusive literary canon. By innovating in this fashion, South African ecocriticism can help to articulate the several ways, which are much less obvious than mainstream environmentalism has assumed, in which saving whales turns out to be part and parcel of saving ourselves.

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( 1 ) See Nixon (2020) 191, and Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism: A Global History (New York: Longman, 2000) 2, 46–53 .

( 2 ) For a brief early discussion of the “ecothriller” genre in the Global North, see Richard Kerridge, “Ecothrillers: Environmental Cliffhangers,” in The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism, ed. Laurence Coupe (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 242–252 .

( 3 ) See Hedley Twidle, “‘In a Country Where You Couldn’t Make This Shit Up’?: Literary Non-Fiction in South Africa,” in Safundi 13. 1–2 (2020): 5–28 .

( 4 ) Prior to the appearance of his well-known book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Nixon published a seminal article interrogating the theoretical disjunctures and integrative potential of postcolonialism and ecocriticism: “Environmentalism and Postcolonialism,” in Postcolonial Studies and Beyond (ed. Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul, Matti Bunzl, Antoinette Burton, and Jed Esty, Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 233–251, reprinted in African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory (ed. Ato Quayson and Tejumola Olaniyan, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 715–724 and Ecocriticism: The Essential Reader (ed. Ken Hiltner, New York: Routledge, 2020) .

( 5 ) See also “Themed Section on Literature and Ecology,” in Scrutiny2 19.2 (2020): 6–70 ; “Special Edition 6: Coastlines and Littoral Zones in South African Ecocritical Writing,” in Alternation: Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of the Arts and Humanities in Southern Africa 6 (2020): 1–245 ; and the special issue of Safundi we later discuss.

( 6 ) That connection is also explored, and with considerable wit and visual panache, in the 2020 South African film Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema, which tracks the career of Lucky Kunene. A Soweto schoolboy who fails to get a scholarship to university, Kunene embarks on a criminal career that takes him from hijacking cars on the fringes of the townships to repackaging himself as a tenant’s rights campaigner in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow neighborhood—perhaps the most dangerous place in the city, one where drug use and prostitution are rampant and apartment buildings crumble thanks to the neglect of absentee white landlords. In his new guise, Lucky amasses a personal fortune while gaining control of a score of high-rises, which he manages on behalf of black tenants who see him as a folk hero and admire him for outwitting both the police and his criminal archrival, a Nigerian drug dealer and pimp. Ultimately, after he moves to the northern suburbs but is arrested and escapes from jail (something that seems to have been part of his plan all along), Lucky finds himself living under an assumed name in Durban. In a final scene, we listen as he walks on the beach along the Golden Mile, looking out over the Indian Ocean and pondering his good fortune by musing on the combination of criminal activity and understanding of the new South African economy, and its attendant racial politics, that has made it all possible. He is an antihero of a new kind, one perfectly suited—literally: he is a very sharp dresser—for the freebooting era of neoliberalism working in combination with South African practices of affirmative action and the (very) limited redistribution of wealth. The film thus offers a twist on the environmentally themed crime novels Naidu has urged ecocritics to read, by immersing its viewers in the realities of contemporary South African urban ecologies while still affording its protagonist all the supposed pleasures of a more bucolic life in the end.

( 7 ) See Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Hunted: Did American Conservationists in Africa Go Too Far?” The New Yorker (April 5, 2020). Thenewyorker.com. Accessed July 25, 2020 .

( 8 ) For an account of how comparisons of humans and baboons may buttress, destabilize, or complicate racial and species boundaries in imperialist discourses, see Dirk Klopper, “Boer, Bushman, and Baboon: Human and Animal in Nineteenth-Century and Early Twentieth-Century South African Writings,” in Safundi 11.1–2 (2020): 3–18 .

( 9 ) See, for example: Graham Huggan, “‘Greening Postcolonialism’: Ecocritical Approaches,” in Modern Fiction Studies 50.3 (2004): 701–733 ; Caminero-Santangelo, “Never a Final Solution: Nadine Gordimer and the Environmental Unconscious,” in Caminero-Santangelo and Myers (2020), 213–234 ; Anthony Vital, “Toward an African Ecocriticism: Postcolonialism, Ecology, and ‘Life & Times of Michael K,’” in Research in African Literatures 39.1 (2008): 87–106 , and “‘Another Kind of Combat in the Bush’: Get a Life and Gordimer’s Critique of Ecology in a Globalized World,” in English in Africa 35.2 (2008): 89–118 ; and Dana Mount, “Playing at Home: An Ecocritical Reading of Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup,” in ariel: A Review of International English Literature 45.3 (2020): 101–122 .

( 10 ) Ecocritical readings of The Heart of Redness include Vital (2005); Laura Wright, Wilderness into Civilized Shapes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020) ; Caminero-Santangelo (2020); Rita Barnard, Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) ; and Meg Samuelson (2020).

( 11 ) Woodward does broach the racial politics around animal killings in discussing the public controversy over ANC politician Tony Yengeni’s ritual slaughtering of a bull (295–297). However, this crucial aspect of her discussion merits expansion in relation to Mda’s novel.

( 12 ) Some Anglo-American ecocritics have emphasized “sense of place” as a source for environmental ethics. Ursula Heise seminally critiques this tendency in Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global, instead advocating “eco-cosmopolitanism” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) . Mda has underscored the importance of place to his writing (see White 99), but his localities are always-already globalized, aptly read by Caminero-Santangelo (2020) in terms of “cosmopolitan bioregionalism”.

( 13 ) This issue with bourgeois environmentalism has been noted since the early days of South African ecocriticism. See, for example, Julia Martin, “New, with Added Ecology? Hippos, Forests, and Environmental Literacy,” in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 2, no. 1 (1994): 1–11 . Feldbrügge misses this, seeing the “selfishness” of Saluni’s entrepreneurial ideas as “[e]ven worse” than the behavior of rich tourists (164).

( 14 ) The Whale Caller disapproves of the attempts of tourists to touch whales, which may harm the animals. He himself “has never even touched Sharisha, except with his spirit—with his horn” (132). Rendering the “spirit” phallic, this passage underscores the fact that the Whale Caller would find a physical relationship with Sharisha inappropriate.

Brooke Stanley is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania. She works on contemporary fictions of the global South, postcolonial ecocriticism, food studies, globalization, and theory of the novel. Her current research interrogates the relations between food politics and the contemporary global environmental novel, focusing on fiction from South Africa, India, and the US.

Walter Dana Phillips is a professor of American Literature and Ecocriticism and Environmental Studies at Towson University.

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