Uncovering relations between place and space

In her literary study Apartheid and Beyond (Oxford), Rita Barnard refers to Mamphela Ramphele’s book A Bed Called Home: Life in the Migrant Hostels of Cape Town, in which “Ramphele argues that space is always multidimensional and must be examined on at least four levels, the physical, the psychosocial, the political-economic, the ideological-intellectual”. These spaces, Barnard writes, are of course “inextricably connected”, especially if one is trying to uncover how place and space embody power relations, as they have done (and continue to do) in South Africa.

The way this disposition of power is shown in physical space is obvious. Apartheid was as much about geographical divisions as it was about creating social and racial hierarchies: the “homelands” system, the placement of black townships on the margins of the “white” cities. Politico-economic space was defined by laws that determined who could engage in which activity within the apartheid polity and economy. The “psycho-social space” is made up of a set of sites “which determine an individual’s ‘place’ in the social and hierarchical sense of the world and thereby his or her expectations and aspirations”—again, the way apartheid deployed such space(s) is apparent.

The “ideological-intellectual space” relates to “the symbolic, cultural, linguistic and discursive framework within which social interaction is conducted ... an individual’s imaginary geography and conceptual horizons”. Expanding a bit on that definition, one could read Barnard’s study of writers Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee, Athol Fugard, Miriam Tlali and Zakes Mda as a mapping of such imaginary geographies, as manifested in their work, on to the other spaces of the Ramphele taxonomy.

The idea of reading South African literature in terms of its negotiations with place, particularly, goes back a long way—to Coetzee’s own consideration of literary dealings with the land (in the form of the pastoral) in White Writing, and to Malvern van Wyk Smith’s key 1990 study, Grounds of Contest. Recent works such as Duncan Brown’s To Speak of This Land expand on this discourse in various ways, and Barnard’s book is a detailed, nuanced (and often entertaining) study that contributes significantly to the field.

She investigates Coetzee’s “dream topographies” and the way Gordimer’s novel The Conservationist deals with land ownership, reading it in the present-day situation of contestation over land and restitution. Barnard looks at the way Tlali’s work sought to carve out a space for black women in the apartheid era, and asks how Mda’s “ludic sensibility” finds a “location” for post-apartheid culture. This brutal summary hardly does justice to Barnard’s work, which is sure to find a long-lasting place in South African literary studies.

Culture, of course, can mean more than artistic production as such—culture in its broadest sense encompasses everything from food to music, gangs to sex, crime to how we treat animals. Such a wide range of topics is dealt with in Imagining the City (edited by Sean Field, Renate Meyer and Felicity Swanson, HSRC Press) and Undressing Durban (edited by Rob Pattman and Sultan Khan, Madiba Publishers). Both are collections of work by various writers (and their informants) who explore, in many differing and stimulating ways, the overlapping spaces outlined by Ram- phele and how they are enacted on the level of urban life. If, in the most obvious sense, the physical space of the city (Cape Town and Durban respectively) circumscribes the content of each volume, their psychosocial content goes way beyond any city limit.

Cape Town has been limned and probed through fictional writing and personal essays in a collection with a similar title, A City Imagined, edited by Stephen Watson. Imagining the City has a narrower remit in that it is specifically a work using oral histories “conceptually [to] interrogate memory, space and culture in the city”: that conceptual interrogation is what one might call an act of the imagination, one directed both towards the past and towards the future. Memory is particularly important in the way it illuminates and gives texture to history; culture is vital in how it shows communities using the most basic means to act creatively, as it were, upon historical necessity.

For instance, Gabeba Baderoon’s essay in Imagining the City looks at Muslim food as a kind of edible interaction with large-scale political forces, as both a memory of slave culture and a riposte to harsh realities. Quoting Malay cuisine expert Cass Abrahams, she describes how a Cape Malay biscuit called the “Hertzoggie” comments upon the moment, early in the last century, when JBM Hertzog promised votes for women as well as racial equity (or so it is recalled in communal memory). The biscuit, with its egg white and coconut on top, celebrated this promise; but Hertzog reneged on the second commitment, and the Hertzoggie became the “twee gevreetjie” or “two-faced” hypocrite, now covered with “runny brown icing and pink icing”.

Other pieces in Imagining the City delve into personal histories and memories that include dealings with crime (“living with urban fear, paradox and possibility”), bomb-blast survival, jazz and rap, “trans-national migration and identity among Nigerians in Cape Town” and visual-art practice. The narratives created by individuals in these areas help to construct usable identities for them, thus contributing to the formation of a psychosocial space in which to place themselves.

Undressing Durban has similar aims, but its pieces are shorter, more diffuse and even more broad- ranging. Growing from a conference of the International Sociology Association in 2006, the book started as a document providing some orientation for delegates visiting the city and expanded richly from there. The Durban that “dresses itself up for tourism” is here shown in various stages of undress—or perhaps one might say in a variety of fascinating costumes.

The essays presented are largely by sociologists or practitioners in related disciplines, but they often take a first-person view of matters rather than the sometimes chilly approach of academic research. But even those that follow the procedures of investigative sociology tend to be lively. For example, Geoff Waters conducts a series of interviews to investigate “streetwisdom” and surviving on the streets of Durban, while Thorin Roberts provides a series of “thick descriptions” of Durban shelters in the urban underworld. By contrast, Ravi Baghel and Anna Mayr’s piece Glimpses through the Cage of Fear is a very personal account of foreigners’ take on how perceptions of crime inflected their experience of the city. In my view, the material in Undressing Durban too infrequently pushes into the “ideological- intellectual space”, but perhaps that was not part of the book’s agenda.

The idea of psychosocial spaces, used in one way or another in all these three texts (whether stated or not), provides a fruitful way of reading both literature and the material situations in which different members of our society find themselves. Combine that with the notion of imaginary (or “imagined”, in a positive sense) geographies, and we have a good set of analytic tools for asking questions about ourselves and our societies; about who and how we are.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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