Book review: The frightened Land

International Journal of Urban & Regional Research
Text: Yonn Dierwechter, University of Washington

Major monographs that relate issues of synoptic interest to historians, geographers, political scientists and architects — to name only the most obvious fields who might be benefit from reading this splendid book — are always welcome additions to interdisciplinary scholarship. New contributions that map South African society are also cause for celebration, and not simply for those who follow South African or African studies. Finally, treatments that attempt to interrogate both urban and rural themes are of special interest, particularly as the empirical and conceptual lines between what constitutes the ‘urban’ and the ‘rural’ seem ever harder to draw. This book succeeds on all three fronts. 

In her richly textured and often elegiac contribution, Jennifer Beningfield, an architectural practitioner and scholar, offers an admirably well-documented tour-de-force relating land, landscape and politics from various social and temporal perspectives. While most critical treatments of South African society broadly employ political-economy perspectives of various stripes, Beningfield offers a fresh and stimulating interpretation of the South African past and the implications for the present by focusing especially on the role of landscape in the exercise of political power. Beningfield’s hope is that new understandings (and interrogations) of landscape can contribute to a critical cultural re-imagination of power in post-apartheid society, linking past, present and future into a creative new dialogue. To that end, her book attempts to trace the mechanisms used to promote and establish what she calls the ‘imaginative entitlement’ so crucial to understanding South Africa’s geo-historical and social evolution. For Beningfield-the-architect, in particular, the physical form of land — its general spatial structures and detailed designs — depends in many crucial ways on the imagination: on how culture, representation, memory, and identity are infused in representational forms of land, its occupants, their activities and their identities. 

Perhaps reflecting the symmetrical instincts of an architectural training, the book is divided neatly into five main sections, each with three main sub-sections. Collectively, these (sub-)sections synthesize a vast array of fascinating empirical material, including: physical sites (the Voortrekker Monument); tourists brochures (the South African Tourist Corporation’s 1950 Map your holiday); non-fiction (J.M. Coetzee’s White Writings); drawings (E. Toussaint’s depiction of Johannesburg); oral histories, political writings and speeches (Mandela’s first inaugural address); crucial legislation (the Native Lands Act of 1913), photographs (of various cities), maps (Steyler’s ‘Routes of the Great Trek’), magazine material (Drum’s ‘The Frightened Land’, from which the book draws its title), advertisements, museums exhibitions, souvenirs, and even the ubiquitous use of the wagon wheel in small town architecture. While the diversity of this material has the potential to spin out of narrative and analytical control in less able hands, Beningfield moves skillfully and compellingly from landscapes of the ‘Veld’ in Part 1 to ‘Erasures’ in Part 5. In between she deals in Part 2 with representational forms associated with the ‘Farm’. Part 3 examines landscapes of ‘Native lands’. Part 4 charts what she calls ‘invisible landscapes’. 

The urbanists who read IJURR will most likely be interested in the latter parts of the book, which include, inter alia, representations of the city in Afrikaner and black popular publications; photography-rich essays on mining landscapes, in general, and the economic and cultural meaning of Johannesburg, in particular; interrogations of the county’s most infamous landscapes of power and political control like Meadowlands in Soweto and District 6 in Cape Town; and discussions of the imaginative connections that representations of mining areas forge between the veld and the city. However, it is because of topics like this last one — which connect different kinds of landscapes across time and space — that all urbanists will benefit from a careful reading of the earlier, ostensibly less ‘urban’ parts of the book. 

One example of why is found in Beningfield’s analysis in Chapter 5 of how land, landscape and identity formed early connections in the overall racial and spatial politics of the country. ‘In contrast to the “natural” identity of the white farmer ’, she writes, ‘blacks were allowed two “natural” identities in representations: one as tribes people, and the other as providers of labor, either for farming or industry’ (p. 90). Bennington’s larger thesis, though, which is made repeatedly throughout the text, is that representations of land and the politics of landscape ‘[have] always been inseparable from uncertainty and contradictory meanings’ (p. 2). Following this key argument, she notes the uncertainty and contradictions of the ‘natural identities’ just discussed: 

In the first part of the twentieth century the primary goal of legislation was ‘as far as possible to force the natives, of course peacefully, into agriculture. The great object should be to get him to work for the white man of the farms at a wage.’ However, politics and representation of black South Africans within the productive landscape had an uneasy relationship. Depictions of black South Africans as farm laborers would have confirmed their participation in the productive landscape, and therefore threatened the myths which required that farmers themselves be the primary provider of labour (p. 90). 

The discussion is full of these types of novel interpretations of otherwise familiar South African themes. The text does assume more than passing familiarity with South African history and geography, and is sometimes too densely packed with information for one sitting. The book is thus best studied one subsection at a time. In this sense, it would be appropriate mainly for graduate seminars. Notwithstanding these minor complaints, Beningfield’s The Frightened Land is highly recommended. Meticulously researched, logically structured and passionately argued, it not only adds new perspectives to South African and African studies; it also enriches the broader literature on how forms of representation — of the urban, the rural and even the ‘wild’ — constitute crucial aspects of both the making and understanding of a fascinating and illuminating national society.