"It is drought, locusts, depression ... and the Lord knows what else" : a socio-environmental history of white agriculture in the Union of South Africa, with reference to the Orange Free State c. 1920-1950
Although the environment is of obvious and primary importance in agriculture, the historical relationship between agriculture and the environment has not been widely researched. A socio-environmental paradigm provides a useful, inter-disciplinary framework for writing history. It takes into account the fact that ‘natural disasters’ are not merely happening to farmers, governments and communities, subsequently disturbing economic growth-patterns and reverberating amongst policy-makers and politicians. The relationship is much more reciprocal. The environment is not perceived as a player that sometimes disrupts the historical narrative, forcing the plot in a certain direction before returning to the wings. It is rather percieved as an agent within agricultural history. The social-cultural as well as material relationships between people (in this case white farmers), state and the environment are explored as an ecosystem. The thesis focuses on a time period after the First World War to just after the Second World War (c.1920 – c.1950). It asks questions: whom and what has informed the ideas of the state with regards to agriculture and to what extent did it filtered through to the farming communities themselves? The motives behind these approaches are explored. The thesis will also look at how officials translated the policies, legislation and education into what was perceived as functional for the farmers and effective for the environment, tracing how it changed over time. The shifting perception of the farmers about the environment and themselves, and the role of the state played in ‘management’ of the environment are analysed, using press correspondence, marketing campaigns and popular texts. Two themes that garnered much debate in the agricultural sector at the state, farmer and environment interface, include the ‘disasters’ of soil erosion and locust plagues. On the level of ‘scientific agriculture,’ the shift from Europe as a point of reference to the United States is discussed. This is done against the backdrop of South Africa’s semi-arid landscape and how farmers came to grips with this ostensibly hostile environment in an era where mechanisation and urbanisation are thought to have radically altered the conceptualisation of the natural environment.