Yim'uthi gomololo: Land, Labour, Poetry, and The Struggle for Environmental Justice in South Africa
McGiffin, Emily Jean
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The present work is an interdisciplinary investigation of the environmental politics of written and oral literature in South African society and the shifting role of the amaXhosa imbongi, or oral praise poet, from colonial times to the present. I argue that since colonial times, African literature has played a vital role in constituting understandings of and responses to the social and environmental impacts of capitalism, exploitation, and uneven development. I begin by situating the relationships between amaXhosa people, their environments, and the Western political economy historically, drawing on existing scholarship in the fields of human geography, political ecology, and postcolonial ecocriticism. I then examine a number of examples of isiXhosa poetry in translation against the backdrop of their historical, political, and environmental contexts, investigating how these poems grapple with the arrival and expansion of extractive capitalism in South Africa and the entrenchment of oppressive patriarchal, colonial, and profoundly racist politics that the process entailed. My research includes several months of field work in the Eastern Cape, where I conducted semi-structured interviews with iimbongi and their audiences. Based on these interviews, I show how the ongoing practice of ontologically and spiritually rich literature has a profound effect on audiences, contributing directly to the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of people and their communities. In recent times, despite radical changes in South African society, poetry has continued to provide a forum for political transformation, social relationships, and environmental justice. In rural and peri-urban areas alike, iimbongi remain a relevant and respected source of knowledge and cultural identity that can help heal the lasting psychic trauma wrought by colonialism, apartheid, and contemporary crime and unrest.