The Making of the ‘White Karoo’

By Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize

The ‘idyllic’ image of the semi-arid Karoo is what I call ‘the White Karoo’. In this landscape, Africans are servants who dote around ‘Baas’, Kleinbaas and Madam. These Africans appear to have always been servants on these Karoo sheep farms. They appear to have come from a vacuum of African history, to have never occupied land except farm land. These are Africans who seem to just emerge from Karoo farms, as if the land was always cut up into farms – die plaase.

“The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain. The dry, sandy earth, with its coating of stunted karoo bushes a few inches high, the low hills that skirted the plain, the milk-bushes with their long finger-like leaves, all were touched by a weird and an almost oppressive beauty as they lay in the white light. In one spot only was the solemn monotony of the plain broken.” Olive Schreiner, Story of an African Farm

Most South Africans may not know that 40% of the country is semi-arid desert.

The semi-arid part of South Africa is the western half of the country generally called the Karoo. From where I live in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), the Eastern Cape Karoo sort of begins about two hours’ drive away, in the dry and dusty towns of Somerset East and Cradock, and moves on north-westwards towards the Northern Cape and Namibia.
Karoo is said to mean ‘land of thirst’ in San vernacular. However, the term ‘Karoo’ today, largely evokes images of large expansive sheep farms, windmills and large, and quaint settler-style farmhouses isolated on vast plains, surrounded by mountains.

The ‘windmill’ in particular has emerged as a symbol of the quirky, quiet rural Karoo life, symbolising a life ‘off the beaten track’. This idyllic rural image has drawn creatives and the wealthy who are looking to get away from the pace and chaotic dynamics of cities.

Ironically, although the word ‘karoo’ is said to have indigenous origins, because of intergenerational settler occupation, ‘the Karoo’ largely now means ‘rural idyll’.

Towns such as Nieu Bethesda and Graaff- Reinet have become high value property investment destinations, with powerful landowning families having an influence in the way tourists and global property seekers see the value of these dusty rural towns.

It was many of these property owners that put up some of the strongest resistance to the proposition of shale gas fracking that was mooted several years ago.

This ‘idyllic’ image of the semi-arid Karoo is what I call ‘the White Karoo’. By ‘White Karoo’, I mean a Karoo that seems to be largely inhabited by White landowners whose main adversary and companion, is the vast and commanding landscape of mountains, long dry seasons and sudden thunderstorms.

In this imagined landscape, Africans are servants who dote around ‘Baas’, Kleinbaas and Madam. These Africans appear to have always been servants on these Karoo sheep farms. They appear to have come from a vacuum of African history, to have never occupied land except farm land. These are Africans who seem to just emerge from Karoo farms, as if the land was always cut up into farms – die plaase.

And yet of course, this is not the case. Geographically, it took the genocidal conquest of indigenous Africans by boer commandos in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was followed by two broad phases of white settlement first by trekboer Dutch farmers, and later English settlers who had arrived poor and land-hungry grabbing land through various phases of settlement.

A final phase of physical transformation was to take place in the late 1880s into the 20th century when scientific agricultural was introduced by segments of white farmers and then later, the white South African state – in an attempt to make the semi-arid areas farmable.

Because it is semi-arid, making the Karoo farmable for white settlement has probably one of the greatest agricultural undertakings of the past 100 years. Windmills, dams and irrigation technology developed in the 19th and early 20th century, primarily to deal with the water needs of farms and also envisaged to promote wide-scale arable production, failed in fundamental transformation of the pastoral nature of the Karoo economy as William Beinart shows in his work The Rise of Conservation in South Africa.

Another key transformation was the introduction of wire fencing and the camp grazing system for sheep. The introduction of fences effectively partitioned out the landscape and created psychical barriers of movement for both human beings and wild animals who had previously roamed the area freely between farms.

Fences affected in particular shepherds, some were indigenous servants and others were particularly of a class of poor white labour tenants called bywoners. These ‘bywoners’ lived on farms in exchange for labour. They flooded the towns of Karoo towns in the early 1910s and 1920s as fences and other innovations made their labour redundant. Later into the 1930s and 1940s these poor whites became a hot political question and critical voter base for successive white South African governments.

From these layers of historical conquest and spatial enclosure, emerged a landscape that landscape of the rural idyll, and right at the centre of this which was the ‘farm house’.

The Karoo ‘farm house’, occupied by baas, became both physical and psychological site of power and occupation. While in the initial phases of settler occupation, many Karoo farmers were poor and lived in simple housing, as the white colonial state evolved there was increasing prosperity and later government subsidy support, which enabled farms to build relatively large and grand homesteads from the 1860s.

In white Karoo literary nostalgia and reminiscences, the farmer’s homestead is an enduring symbol. Farming-family homesteads have been described as “gracious” by Joan Southey, in her memoir Footprints in the Karoo (1990:114).
From the perspective of the workers, however, the farmer’s house is “die huis” or “ihuisie”, and symbolises the source and domain of absolute command and power on the farm.

‘Die Huis’, the farmers house, would emerge as a central symbol in Afrikaner nationalist writing, particularly in the genre of the plaasroman or farm novel – which sets the farmhouse as a natural feature of the land, the centre point for all human life in the Karoo.

From this centre point of Die Huis, the long struggling farmer grapples with the dry and harsh Karoo landscape that almost seems to refuse to yield to being farmed, punishing the farmer.

In Story of an African Farm Olive Schreiner evocatively paints this picture of this landscape to which human endeavour capitulates:

“From end to end of the land the earth cried for water. Man and beast turned their eyes to the pitiless sky, that like the roof of some brazen oven arched overhead. On the farm, day after day, month after month, the water in the dams fell lower and lower; the sheep died in the fields; the cattle, scarcely able to crawl, tottered as they moved from spot to spot in search of food.”

In these genres of writing, the Karoo is a landscape of ‘White man vs Nature’.

The genocides of the indigenous and their violent subjugation are absent.

Novelist JM Coetzee observes in these forms of white literary writing of the Karoo that, there “is silence about the place of black labour, is common not only to Schreiner and Smith but, by and large, to the Afrikaans plaasroman, and represents a failure of ingenuity before the problem of how to integrate the dispossessed black man into the idyll…”

The indigenous inhabitants in this world are ‘Hottentots’ and Kaffirs – servants, shepherds and workers.
Long long erased are their ancestral names and claims to ownership of the Karoo.

This article is based on my 2012 doctoral thesis titled Private Game Farms and the Tenure Security of Farm Workers and Dwellers in Cradock – Implications for Tenure Reform in South Africa (University of Cape Town)


Beinart, W. 2003. The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock and the Environment 1770–1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Butler, G. 1977. Karoo Morning. Cape Town: David Philip.

Butler, G. 1989. Tales from the Old Karoo. Johannesburg: Ad Donker.

Coetzee, J.M. 1986. Farm Novel and “Plaasroman” in South Africa, English in Africa, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Oct., 1986), pp. 1-19

Collett, J. 1990. A Time to Plant: Biography of James Lydford Collett. Kat River: Joan Collett.

Southey, J. 1990. Footprints in the Karoo: A Story of Farming Life. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.

More stories in Issue 109


Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize

Nomalanga Mkhize is a historian based at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth. She currently holds an NIHSS Sam Moyo Postdoctoral Fellowship at Rhodes University.


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