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Restoring the Earth: South African Literature and Environmental Justice



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Klein, Benjamin 


This dissertation investigates the ability of literature to enrich our understanding of environmental justice in South Africa. The aim of the project is to explore how literature and other forms of cultural imagining have provided a productive medium with which to conceptually reconfigure relations among people and the natural world in a region shaped by the interwoven realities of colonialism, racism, inequality and environmental destruction. I argue that “South African literature” and “environmental justice” are developing and mutually enriching concepts. Environmental justice furnishes a robust framework with which to uncover a largely unexplored dimension of South African creative life attuned to struggles over the natural world. Literature, in turn, deepens and complicates our understanding of such struggles by restoring alternative imaginations of people and place.

My project positions itself against past studies of environmental justice in South African literary studies and postcolonial studies that have emphasised the need for an anthropocentric perspective that prioritises the needs of people over the environment. In contrast to these studies, I contend that literature can furnish an alternative approach to environmental justice anchored in the concept of “restoring the earth”. My concept of “restoring the earth” challenges both people-centred and nature-centred ideologies that pit the interests of human communities against those of nonhuman nature. The concept highlights literary processes of identifying, recuperating and recovering human relationships with an expansive notion of “earth”, one that transforms the dichotomising worldviews of colonialism by emphasising the needs of both people and nature. “Restoring the earth” underscores an epistemological intervention into the concept of environmental justice that can expand existing debates on transformation, land restoration and ecological crisis in postapartheid South Africa.

My dissertation examines both canonical and lesser-known works of literary fiction, poetry, art, film and activism that furnish restorative imaginaries with which to reconcile binary ways of thinking about people and nature. Chapters 1 and 2 consider works covering the periods of colonialism and apartheid. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 consider problems specific to the period of postapartheid democracy, including struggles over development, attempts at reimagining the sustainable city, and engagement with Johannesburg’s degraded mining landscapes. Considered together, my chapters investigate the destructive proliferation of binaries that remain part of modern South Africa’s colonial legacy, and local attempts at unmaking this legacy by attending to human relationships with the natural world. By situating human-nature relationships at the centre of my inquiry, I establish a South African ecocritical practice that contributes to existing debates on the relationship between postcolonialism and environmentalism in literary studies and the humanities more broadly.





Warnes, Christopher


South Africa, postcolonial literature, environmental justice, ecocriticism, environmental humanities


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge