Monday, April 12, 2010

Sawyer seminar - Racial Frontiers

The Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was awarded a Sawyer Seminar by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to host a series of events during 2010 and 2011. The Seminar is to be used to develop fresh perspectives on the quandaries and puzzles of the present democratic moment in South Africa from the vantage point of the relationship between race, property and poverty and justice. More information on the series is available on http://www.sawyerseminar-wits.co.za/

The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) is hosting the series, and the first reading group on Old and New Racial Formations began last week. Over the next months, participant will reflect on the readings and the discussions on race. Today’s blogging is by Kelly Gillespie, Anthropology lecturer at Wits and one of the JWTC organisers of the Sawyer Seminar Series, and Rebecca Freeth, an organisational development practitioner working in social justice organisations.

Please feel free to participate in the developing conversation by posting comments.

Is the 'frontier' a useful concept for (South) Africa?
Kelly Gillespie

The first session of the Sawyer Seminar on Property, Race and Poverty took place at Wits University on Wednesday, with about forty people around the table discussing a set of readings concerning the early foundations of race in South Africa. To begin thinking about South Africa’s racial experiment, Achille Mbembe had selected for the group three historical texts on the ‘frontier’ in early colonial South African history (authored by Legassick , Giliomee and Penn).

The main thread of the conversation was to try to understand the worth of the ‘frontier’ as an analytical concept both in the historiography of South African racism as well as in understanding the historical present in South African society. The idea of the frontier has been often used by white liberal historians to characterize the colonial history of South Africa. Many have argued that the particular character of South African society, especially its virulent forms of racism, was produced at the geographic and social frontier between different colonial-era constituencies. But is the frontier-concept a fundamentally colonialist/white idea? Does it rely on a white political subject of conquest for its justification? Or is it possible to use the frontier-concept stripped of its historiographic positionality? Is it therefore useful in the project of producing histories attentive to black experience?

In our discussion, there seemed to be some discrepancy in answering these questions. Some saw the frontier as irrevocably tied to the project of white privilege, and were angered that we were even discussing it as a possible lens for characterizing South Africa. Some wondered what kinds of analytics would be useful in writing black history, or at least a history not founded on a supremacist doctrine. Some thought the frontier irrelevant in the face of later industrialization, a much more significant event in the production of South African life. Others, however, tried to find what might be of worth in the concept of the frontier. Some were of the position that the frontier was always a moment of resistance simultaneous to being a moment of conquest, necessarily implying the co-presence of black subjects in history. Some reflected on literatures from other parts of the world that were attempting to rework the frontier as a plausible concept. Others saw frontiers as a necessary development of capitalism more generally. Of most interest seemed to be a distinction made by Giliomee and elaborated by Nigel Penn on the nature of the frontier. Both used the distinction between the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’ frontier to write about the different phases in the experience of encounter between different kinds of subjects in colonialising territory.

While Giliomee’s text is more in the tradition of white history, Penn’s text uses the frontier to reflect as much as possible, given the constraints of South African archives, on the plural experience of colonial, and racial, encounter. Both, however, show how the frontier’s different phases allowed for shifts in the kinds of social arrangements and relations possible in that encounter. The ‘open’ frontier was a place in which encounters between white/European and black/African were by no means established, and new orders of law, power and property were flexible, volatile and contested, even as they were in production. Penn gives a rich account of the labour involved in effectively ‘closing’ the frontier, a phase in which property relations calcified and a region became subject to a more-or-less singular dispensation and law, one which secured the interests of white colonists. Closure was not an easy feat and not to be assumed as obvious.

It is this relationship between open and closed frontier that may provide a way for the frontier to be reclaimed as a useful analytic. The frontier, here, is the place and time at which diverse interests and a certain violence of plurality are narrowed into some kind of singularity, at which point sovereignty is established (and exception thereby produced). The frontier as a social and geographic formation is the space in which the temporal relationship between contestation/liminality/possibility and conquest/order/fixity is worked out.

One of the more interesting questions to emerge from this discussion was “If the ‘closed frontier’ is the point at which sovereignty is created, then does it not cease to become a frontier?’ In other words, is the concept of the ‘closed frontier’ not an oxymoron? What this question prompted was a conversation about the worth of retaining the concept of the ‘closed frontier’ precisely because it allows for a description of a state of sovereignty in which the traces of its own history remain. That is, in which sovereignty has not annihilated the memory of the violence of its own inception. In a sense then, the ‘closed frontier’ describes a tension between established sovereign relations and the residues of prior social relations, a tension that opens the possibility for political subjectivities and imaginations that could come to challenge the sovereign.

This reflection on the relationship between a disciplining sovereign and a political space for the remembrance of its origins – its denaturalisation – is perhaps a fruitful place to begin reconsidering the frontier as a useful analytic tool. This perhaps even more so in analyzing postcolonial contexts in which the past, the remains, the ruin have such purchase on the present, and the present always seems so vulnerable to exploitation and extreme forms of inequality. As private security companies secure territory for the extraction of mineral resources on the African continent; as they secure territory for the production of privileged lifestyles in gated communities and government enclaves, the manner in which frontiers are found, contested and closed (even as this closure contains the possibility of being reopened), seems to remain an important site for social concern and analysis.

Frontiers: Lines in the sand

Rebecca Freeth

A frontier is an imaginary line imbued with meaning. The meaning I imbue it with is a function of which side of the frontier I’m on.

As a frontierswoman, sitting on this side of the frontier, I invest it with hope and ambition. The only future I can imagine is forward, continuing to push this line into new realms of freedom and opportunity. Over there, beyond that line, I believe there is a world of untapped resources to which I can lay claim. My pioneer blood knows that this frontier is only a temporary pause, a short-lived resistance from the other side, before we move ourselves and our frontier forward again.

As a person indigenous to this land, sitting on that side of the frontier, it represents a sense of being crowded out. This is not my frontier. It was created by, and belongs to, those on the other side. The logic of it is foreign. I know what it is like to compete for the most prized land, to win or to lose, to assimilate or to be assimilated, to kill or to be killed. But the people on the other side of this new frontier play with different rules and, in their eyes, all I see are new horizons.

In this short blog piece, I would like to argue that we all have experience of being on both sides of a frontier. We know what it is like to push into new spaces – intellectual, physical or psychological – with exhilaration, determination and, sometimes, fear of the unknown. And we know what it is like to be intruded upon, to feel the space around us get smaller, more cramped, more threatening.

But it is too simple to suggest that these two frontier locations are experienced, in equal measure, by everyone. The co-creation of race and class, now – echoing the era of colonial frontiership in South Africa, then – means that if I am white and privileged, I am more likely to continue to push into new spaces, to exercise my birthright of power, to dislodge what is in the way of my pursuits. Shannon Sullivan, examining white privilege as a deeply ingrained and often unconscious habit (which is not to abdicate responsibility for it) writes, “To be a white person means that one tends to assume that all cultural and social spaces are potentially available for one to inhabit. The habit of ontological expansiveness enables white people to maximize the extent of the world in which they transact. But as an instance of white solipsism, it also severely limits their ability to treat others in respectful ways. Instead of acknowledging others’ particular interests, needs, and projects, white people who are ontologically expansive tend to recognize only their own, and their expansiveness is at the same time a limitation.” These ontological incursions, and the limitations they create, tell of the many invisible lines, or frontiers, we cross as we navigate race and class in South Africa.

In this last week with the murder of Terreblanche (AWB) and threats on the life of Julius Malema (ANC youth league), the frontier of race and racism urgently carved its way across our social landscape, visible this time even to those South Africans who usually enjoy the luxury of forgetfulness. For most, this line has been here all the time; sometimes a fault-line, sometimes a jagged edge, this time a precipice. What frontier mentality will we adopt? Will we just push this frontier back and forth between us, raising the ante each time? Or will we see that freedom lies, not on the other side of the frontier, but at the frontier itself? Can we stand at the frontier, fully committed to its transformation, neither stepping away in denial or hopelessness, nor pushing the other over the precipice?


Legassick, Martin. 1980 [1970]. ‘The frontier tradition in South African historiography’, in Marks and Atmore (eds.) Economy and society in pre-industrial South Africa. London: Longman.

Giliomee, Hermann. 1988 [1979]. ‘The Eastern Frontier 1770-1812’, in Elphick and Giliomee (eds.) The Shaping of South African Society 1652-1840. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Penn, Nigel. 2005. ‘Introduction’ in The Forgotten Frontier: Colonist and Khoisan on the Cape’s northern frontier in the 18th century. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Sullivan, S. 2006. “Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege” page 25. For those interested in Sullivan’s theorizing about whiteness, Dr Samantha Vice will present her paper “How do I live in this strange place?” at the Hoernle research seminar in philosophy on April 15th at Wits. While she draws on Sullivan’s ideas about the habitual enactment of white privilege, her thesis about white shame is her own.