What, asks Jonathan Cane, is the role of the lawn in the construction of whiteness? In this extract from his book Civilising Grass: The Art of the Lawn on the South African Highveld, he looks at the significance of all that mowing
David Goldblatt’s iconic black and white photograph Saturday Afternoon in Sunward Park, 1979, is from the series In Boksburg, published as a book of the same name in 1982. In the photograph, a shirtless white man mows his lawn with an electric lawnmower; the serpentine power cord lies across the lawn that has been mowed in stripes, parallel to the brick driveway and perpendicular to the tar road that edges a veld; there is no boundary wall. Across the road is an apartheid-era suburban house with a low-pitched roof, sheltered eaves and north-facing orientation. On the lawn are two solitary plants. Saturday Afternoon is an arresting image that captures a strange monumentality, a kind of white heroism and eroticism.
The photograph was taken in the winter of 1979, so the lawn may have begun to turn golden, burnt by frost and dormant from the lack of rainfall. Mike Nicol wrote about the “brittle lawns” of the winter suburbs in his poem Returning, as did Ivan Vladislavic in Portrait with Keys (2009). Those who have lived on the Rand through the dry winters, which batter the lawns, can testify to the bleakness of the season: an intractable time for lawn keeping.
In Boksburg includes as many as two dozen other lawns. It is worth noting that the garden and the lawn are important leitmotifs in Goldblatt’s oeuvre. In an earlier work, Some Afrikaners Photographed (1975), the images he captured are landscapes of no-lawn; the Afrikaners he photographed do not seem to garden, or have gardens, but instead dance, work, farm, flirt, sing. In a later work, The Structure of Things Then (1998), the lawns he depicts seem terribly permanent, enduring topographies of apartheid. Goldblatt has made it clear that his interest in land has nothing to do with being a “nature lover” but rather, as Sean O’Toole has it, with “the way we act with the land, work with the land, move on it, mark it”.
The “land” being worked in this image belongs to the white mower. We cannot be sure that he owns it legally but assume that he does because he is white and because of that hard-to-define quality about the way that he occupies the space, physically owns it, which reflects his (presumed) ability to own it correctly and convincingly. The predisposition to inhabit space in such a convincing way has something to do with the notion of whiteness. Far from the garden activities examined below being easy expressions of pre-earned whiteness, they exemplify an uneasy attempt to secure an elusive respectable white subjectivity.
The white gardener’s body is styled in the “heroic mould”, which is characterised by the “inflection of work with nobility”, as Carol Wolkowitz puts it in Bodies at Work. He is muscular, frozen like a statue; if not an Olympian nude in marble then perhaps a Grecian plaster garden statue like that captured in Santu Mofokeng’s photograph Diepkloof Ext 2 Soweto (1991), or Goldblatt’s Garden and House, Sixth Street, Orange Grove, 16 May 1968.
The mower in Goldblatt’s Saturday Afternoon exudes the sense of being a sportsman, healthy, productive; no doubt heterosexual. It is a Saturday afternoon (as Goldblatt has told us by way of his careful and specific titling style) and instead of employing a black worker to mow his lawn, or spending the day watching sport or drinking, he is keeping his own lawn. This man is an archetype of a particular white subjectivity that connects viable whiteness to a form of respectable modernity. Though this white man is being productive, it is important to emphasise that he is not “working”; what he is involved in is broadly conceived of as leisure. Garden maintenance, of one’s own garden, as leisure, is a proper activity for respectable whites.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this kind of thinking is to be found “outside” South Africa’s borders in the Afrikaner volkstaat of Orania. Founded by apartheid ideologue and South African Bureau of Racial Affairs intellectual Carel Boshoff III, Orania was conceived of as the embryonic point for an independent, ambitious Afrikaner geopolitical entity. Built in a wretched, unwanted corner of the Northern Cape, the barren little town is explicitly (though not legally) intended only for whites and founded on the ideology of selfwerksaamheid or self-reliance.
“There were to be no blacks in Orania,” writes Goldblatt. “There was to be none of the culture of dependence of whites on blacks for physical work.” The ideology of “self-work” operates on a number of practical levels, the most basic of which is that whites perform all labour, including domestic and garden work. “Ons werk self!” reads the caption below an image of garden tools hanging against a face-brick wall on the official website.
The muscular diligence of this kind of whiteness is epitomised by the semi-official mascot of Orania, Kleinreus (Small Giant), a little boy rolling up his sleeves, bracing for good physical work. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find young, shirtless white people in rugby shorts mowing lawns in Orania.
Carel Boshoff IV, the son of Orania’s founder, current president of the Orania Beweging and self-styled philosopher, got fed up with his home’s lawn, tearing it up and planting vegetables instead, fertilised by rotating chicken coops. His rejection of the lawn relates to its uselessness and its non-sustainability, and is part of a subscription to ultramodern ideas such as bicycle-sharing schemes, off-the-grid electricity strategies, digital and web-based teaching methodologies and curriculum development, extensive recycling systems, research into sustainable building technologies and town-wide wireless internet coverage in Orania.
The melodramatic performance of white work and the self-conscious concern with modernity evident in Orania is germane to the respectability in Saturday Afternoon. The garden as an important site of white subjectification, of becoming white, is highlighted in two ethnographic studies.
The first, The Making of a Good White (2004), by Annika Teppo, a study of the “rehabilitation of poor whites” in Epping Garden Village, Cape Town, argues that “gardens were central semi-public spaces where [respectable poor whites or armblankes] could demonstrate their commitment to rehabilitation”.
The second, Apartheid Modern: South Africa’s Oil from Coal Project and the History of a South African Company Town by Stephen Sparks (2012), is an investigation of Sasol, the apartheid state’s oil-from-coal project, and its accompanying built environment, Sasolburg and the township of Zamdela. Sparks argues that “respectability was a synonym for whiteness inflected with particular class and gender emphasis … Respectability’s key external markers in Sasolburg were properly tended gardens, houses and yards.”
At the core of both studies is a certain observation about whiteness, or rather a particularly South African whiteness, which resists some of the more universal definitions of racial privilege. A number of other authors (such as Sarah Nuttall, Kopano Ratele and Zoë Wicomb) have proposed a reworking of “traditional” whiteness theory in the context of South Africa. Whiteness, we are generally told, as in Samantha Vice’s analysis, is the “norm that is invisible, working in the background as a standard, not of one particular way of being in the world, but as normalcy, as universalisability, of just being ‘the way things are’ ”. Further, we are told (by Melissa Steyn, in this case) that whiteness operates as “taken-for-granted privilege, allowing white people to be unconscious of their own racialisation and the unearned advantages they take as simple entitlement”.
In their précis of orthodox whiteness, Vice and Steyn point to two things against which I would like to put question marks. The first concept that seems questionable is the un-markedness, the invisibility, even the unconsciousness of whiteness. The argument is that white people are just white, that white is not a race; it just is “the way things are”. The reality is that whiteness was marked in South Africa, legislated for in a number of Acts, and very much visible. The second is the idea of entitlement, or “unearned” privilege, the argument being that benefits (economic, cultural capital) just accrue to whites by virtue of their race.
The key word here is “just”. In South Africa, where earning credentials by correct living as a white was necessarily a process, whiteness was not something one could just presume to benefit from, always, for all “white” people. One should avoid even the slightest sense that pointing out the unfinishedness of some white people’s racialisation lends any sympathy to the notion of whiteness in crisis during or after apartheid. What this line of argument implies, however, is that whiteness always needed to be affirmed, even created.
This makes whiteness very similar to the lawn, which also needs to be constantly worked at.
Jonathan Cane is an art historian at the University of the Witwatersrand. Civilising Grass is published by Wits University Press. The project was made possible by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation’s Programme in Critical Architecture and Urbanism at the Wits City Institute