Powerful portrayal of a ‘Cosmopolitan Karoo’

By Maeder Osler / On the margins of the recent Forgotten Highway Summit, held in late autumn at Melton Wold between Victoria West and Carnarvon, I was given a wonderful gift – a copy of a limited edition book titled Cosmopolitan Karoo: Views from the Field.

It came from the noted academic Cherryl Walker, its co-editor together with Stephanie Borchardt, on behalf of an interdisciplinary research programme at Stellenbosch University, focusing on land and sustainable development and centred on the Karoo. (For details, see the notes below.)  It largely comprises  photographs taken by researchers in the course of their work, mostly on mobile phones. A few were taken on Hanglip Farm, which hosted some of the researchers from time to time.

Captured in time, Ganora Guest Farm, Nieu-Bethesda, 2018. Stephanie Borchardt.
Out in the veld, near De Aar, 2018. Stephanie Borchardt.
Rock engraving, Hanglip Farm, near Colesberg, 2018. Stephanie Borchardt.
Counting sheep, near Carnarvon, 2016. Davide Chinigò.
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In a short but illuminating introduction, Walker explains that the photographs were among hundreds taken by researchers between late 2015 and 2022. They spoke to themes that were important for understanding the changes under way in the region as well as the continuities that link its past and present, and ‘potentially shackle its future’.

By way of context, she then makes three points. The first concerns the actual extent of the Karoo. Here she refers to a remarkable map of South Africa which depicts the ecological definition of the Karoo in the form of the Succulent and Nama Karoo biomes. Together, as Walker points out, they make up almost a third of the country.

Just as surprisingly, the maps shows the boundaries of local municipalities falling within the Karoo. As Walker explains: ‘To define the Karoo simply in terms of its ecology and biophysical features is to miss its deeply social character. This is signalled indirectly … by the overlay of local municipalities cutting across the biomes that themselves straddle four of South Africa’s nine provinces. Unlike many depictions of the Karoo as a desolate landscape in which little happens, our selections of images reveals these drylands to be very much a peopled and a storied environment …’

Untitled, Williston, 2021. Cherryl Walker.
Empty reservoir, Prince Albert, 2017. Neil Schoeman.
Untitled, Vanwyksvlei, 2016. Cherryl Walker.
Stop, Loeriesfontein, 2019. Cherryl Walker.
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While poverty and neglect are widely present, she continues, the social and economic problems rooted in an ‘often violent history’ do not define all of contemporary life in the Karoo. At the same time, significant changes in land use are reworking the landscape and everyday life, as new sets of investors look to capitalise on the region’s natural resources. This is signified most vividly by the pylons, wind turbines, telescopes and solar panels which increasingly form part of the Karoo landscape.

Why ’Cosmopolitan Karoo’? According to Walker, this term – which invokes a specific body of social theory — acknowledges the Karoo as a ‘series of sites in which different kinds of encounters occur, some open-ended and creative, others power-laden and destructive’.

It emphasises that, ‘for better and for worse, the Karoo is a connected as well as a connecting place, not separate from the rest of South Africa and the world. As the observatory outside Sutherland and the Square Kilometre Array near Carnarvon proclaim, the Karoo is also a place for viewing the cosmos – but the exploration of the universe has a terrestrial footprint that is being laid down on the layers of encounters … that have shaped this land over centuries.’

Lastly, the subtitle – ‘Views from the Field’ – underlines that the photographs were taken during the field work which gives content to social science research. All the photographers are or were members of the research team. None were professional photographers, and most pictures were taken with cell phones. Although they are the outcome of academic research, there was no ‘narrowly didactic purpose’ behind their composition, and they weren’t selected in defence of a single thesis. Indeed, Walker concludes, different readings are welcomed.

Public meeting about fracking, Beaufort West, 2016. Stephanie Borchardt.
Loeriesfontein Windpump Museum, 2017. Renelle Terblanche.
Blades in the Karoo, outside Loeriestontein, 2018. Stephanie Borchardt.
Square Kilometre Array billboard, Carnarvon, 2016. Davide Chinigò.
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The book is rich beyond words. Each image suggests a different story, and each story suggests another image. Images on many of the spreads are carefully juxtaposed, adding further layers of meaning, which we regrettably cannot always reproduce here.

The very first image in the book was taken on Hanglip Farm. You may well wish to place your own construction on this ancient and silent artwork. It features a lion, marked by what the experts call ‘powerlines’, rather like porcupine quills, as my late cousin Charles Frater used to say, staring at a prancing eland, which is leaping over an ostrich. I have visited this engraving, and many others on or around Hanglip Farm, many times. Their power is overwhelming, dissolving boundaries between the past and the present, the physical and the spiritual.

The book ends by listing members of the research team, the programme’s (very impressive) research output, and another map with pins on the places where the images were taken. Again, the map is more than it seems – by indicating some 25 towns, as well as major road routes, it links the Karoo to mobility and commerce. It’s a fitting end to this multifaceted and provocative work.

Untitled, outside Leeu Gamka on Fraserburg Road, 2022. Jan Vorster.
Arriving for the matric dance, De Aar, 2018. Stehanie Borchart.
Dumped on the Karoo, De Aar, 2018. Stephanie Borchardt.
Untitled, Carnarvon, 2017. Kylie Bolton.
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Notes: The full title of this project is the DSI/NRF SARChl Research Chair in the Sociology of Land, Environment and Sustainable Development, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Stellenbosch University. It’s a bit puzzling until one realises that the term ‘Chair’ doesn’t only refer to its incumbent, usually a professor, but also the department working under his or her direction, and even its research programme. Cherryl held the Chair from 2015 until her retirement in March 2023.

More information about the Chair appears on the website ‘Cosmopolitan Karoo: sustainable development’, at https://cosmopolitankaroo.co.za/.

Most of the images were first displayed at an exhibition accompanying a colloquium on ‘Social and environmental justice in the Karoo’, held at Stellenbosch University in November 2021.

Regrettably, copies of the book are not available at present, but a digital version should soon appear on the ‘Cosmopolitan Karoo’ website. All images supplied by the publishers, and used with their kind permission.


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