We are physically distanced and isolated from each other, while new technologies enable us to zoom in to the living rooms of our friends across the world. We are locked away and simultaneously able to see and hear our societies clearer than ever. But clarity remains elusive. The mechanisms we use to ground ourselves are unmoored. For us, this has been an invitation to a process of (publicly) sharing experiences/thoughts/thinking, in a time of individuation, to think with each other towards collective understandings when physically coming together is impossible. To do so, we need to take our bearings. We need to sound the land.

The year 2020 has opened up new opportunities for review of the world around us, and how we got here; a world ostensibly “new” – a new period, with its own unique events – but one that looks disturbingly like the world of old. “This is what commemoration does”, problematically, “it aligns past, present and future, it puts them in a straight line together” (Leslie Witz). That old world, which now feels unstable, is bracketed into distinct periods, and periods into events, and events into moments. We review one moment here, from which we might begin to navigate.

The Commemoration: 200 Years

This year has, even with the planned bicentennial commemorations and celebrations that have since been cancelled, reanimated interest and an opportunity for reappraisal of the year we call “1820.” Two centuries ago, the British colonial government initiated one of the most ambitious plans in South African history to quarantine, contain and control populations. In this project we engage with the bicentennial marker of the “1820 Settler” project, with its stubborn fascination in the present, and ask what parallels and processes continue to force themselves on us now.

Sounding the Land is an ongoing project of interdisciplinary multi-media collaboration between the Rhodes University History Department, the SARChI Chair in Social Change (University of Fort Hare), the Cory Library for Historical Research (Rhodes University), the National Arts Festival and the South African Heritage Resources Agency. It draws together a combined team of scholars and artists to reinvigorate and reassess debates on the impact and legacy of the settler colonial project in South Africa’s Eastern Cape through discussions of the historical certainties that define the debates and the meanings and commemorations of settler colonialism over time. In a series of works and engagements that cumulatively do the work of Sounding the Land and ungrounding 1820, this project addresses the complex auditions between subject, land and space, and the work of place, home, belonging, and its dispossessions from the past into the present.


In the last of Simon Gush’s triptych of films, Land is in the Air, Salem community land claimant, Headman Goduka says the white farmer “worked the land with his mouth, it was us who did the actual labour”.

Thinking about this challenge posed to the nature of ‘work’/‘labour’, and thinking (again) also about the question of what work art does at the center of a historical reading provides an important prompt for this project. Both from a disciplinary method and an institutional perspective, we want to rethink a past not adequately worked through, a fractured landscape/ground, and a language of history, of conceptualization, of analysis out of sync and seemingly inadequate to the urgent challenges of the present. To do so we have to listen, again; to sound the land.

This is what needs ‘working through’: to think about and to listen to what it means to be human, and to think about and hear anew what is at stake in this work, and in our thinking. Our work is to argue for continuing to radicalise the project of history and for more history, for the enabling practice of history as criticism. Our work seeks to then – institutionally, intellectually and collaboratively – “intensify the work of history by producing more history: histories of concepts, critical histories of historical practices, histories that interrupt the discourse of capitalism and multiculturalism, histories of the formation of objects and subjects, systems of knowledge and the elaboration of discourses” (Lalu).


Image, text and voice are, in Land is in the Air, underscored by a composition/score produced by the musician Healer Oran (Andrei van Wyk) that is simultaneously mesmerizing, evocative and jarring. Healer Oran’s ‘music’ will provide the entry point to continue our engagement with John Mowitt’s compelling argument (in Sounds: The Ambient Humanities, 2015) that a ‘set of theoretical habits grounded in the paradigm of visualism’ and the problem posed by the concept and disciplinary deployment of the gaze, has legitimated a ‘systemic foreclosure’ of thinking differently with, and about sound. In particular our work will track the ways that sound – and particularly music and dialogue – can be shown to hold and perhaps enable a certain (new) way of thinking both the political history of South Africa and the politics of South African history.

iMpuma Koloni/The Eastern Cape

“A title is always a heading [cap].” (Derrida)

This time, this place – the Eastern Cape – lends itself to thinking about another heading, another shore, ‘an other cape’. We ask what it means to privilege the Eastern Cape? To think about how the derivative/referential nature of the term, ‘Eastern Cape’ asks us to consider what and where this Cape is not (not the Cape Colony or the Western Cape), and where and what it is: east; to think about its singularity, both as an example and as a sounding of the universal.

Rather than being either dispassionately logical or returning to the monstrous inventions of colonialism, Paul Carter reminds us that names are “tools for travelling” and “space[s] of exploring”. The ‘Eastern Cape’ – in isiXhosa: iMpuma-Koloni – invites us to pause for a moment and to linger longer than is customary around the very word: ‘cape’. If we do so, there are startling/suggestive associative affinities and proximities that cluster around the etymology and meaning of ‘cape.’

When we think of the ‘Eastern Cape’, it is the isiXhosa iMpuma-Koloni that evokes the relation to Imperial power that has so dominated our historical understanding of this region of South Africa, this part of the world. One variant of the word ‘cape’, therefore, is koloni, colony. Cape/~koloni/ikapa/caput/*kaput: if the Eastern Cape is indeed kaput, in the sense of broken, that anticipation is held in the very notion of ‘cape’, or is it?

We want to take a bearing that orients itself to the particular formulation of “the heading of the other, but also perhaps to the other of the heading” to plot an intellectual course and to invite historical and conceptual explorations that “no longer obey the form, the sign, or the logic of the heading, nor even of the anti-heading – of beheading, of decapitation”: the logic of the material and discursive/epistemological consequences of the violence of colonialism, racism and apartheid.

The ‘Eastern Cape’ is an intriguing problem space, a fault line: a remarkable physical, material, geographical, ecological space with particular characteristics that can also be considered a conceptual space, a political space, a space that looms large in the historical imagination. Here, several lines intersect and clash, become faults, seize time and space: colonialism and conquest; a settler frontier; apartheid/Bantustan social engineering; different climatological and ecological zones; different geological formations (Cape Fold Mountains v. Drakensberg). And so we not only “have a heading” or “headings,” but want also to “change headings”, but with care.

The Eastern Cape is a landscape of colonial containment and destruction, of aesthetic beauty and contradiction, of settlement and of discursive possibility. Read differently again, the Eastern Cape – and the vantage point of the Bantustan, the homeland, the margin – returns us to the repetition of the constitutive inside/outside across time and space, and disciplinary reason. It presents us with the possibilities of sounding the limits certainly of anti-colonial hopes and the romantic discourses that have accompanied them, but even, perhaps, of calling into question the limits of a postcolonial approach.

The Eastern Cape, we want to propose, enables a way of thinking with and at the limit … to thinking from the limit, from the margin, from the ‘frontier’, but also from the limit that this fault line, this space, this place, this territory posed for apartheid, and for the post-apartheid, the excess it marked and from which one might reconsider the conceits and certainties of History as a discourse and as a discipline. This work also reflects ongoing efforts to collectively rethink the University of Fort Hare and Rhodes University’s historical location in the Eastern Cape as suggestive and inspiring of new research paths. We are intent on exploring what a vantage point from and location in the Eastern Cape might offer in this post-apartheid present of political, social and economic rupture and doubt.