Monday, 7 December 2015

No.6 – The South African fence: notes towards a literary history

I seem to recall that some years ago James Clarke, then writing an environmental column, claimed that there was not a spot in the whole of South Africa that was further then ten kilometres from somebody’s fence.

That would take some verifying, but the point is roughly supported by the experience of travelling through it: compared to the vast spaces of Botswana or Namibia, South Africa feels obsessively fenced-off.  It’s hard to get off the road in most places.  In impoverished areas like the Transkei, road-signs actually warn: “NO FENCING.”   Possession and exclusion, it seems to me, has become the rigid, even paranoid soul of this country.  Fences have become a moral constituent of our very psyches.  Fences to keep people out and keep people in, animals in or out, wilderness apart from domesticity, the legal from the marauding, the rich from the poor, the black from the white.  Wire everywhere, with its rich if vicious set of metaphoric monickers: galvanised wire, barbed-wire, chain-link, chicken-mesh, diamond-mesh, jackal-proof fencing, game fencing, electric fencing, razor-wire (the last allegedly a South African invention – a worthy contribution to civilisation, I’m sure).

The technology of wire transformed our rural landscape, fundamentally altering whole ecologies.  From about 1870 on, wire began to replace native and natural barriers of wood, thorn-branches, kei-apple hedges, bomas of prickly-pear.  Wire accompanied and made possible vast livestock agriculture, new grazing patterns, the banishment of a few remaining wild animals to “protected parks”, the enforcement of divisive racial policy, prison systems.  An 1889 Select Committee inquiring into the effects of the Fencing Act included this testimony:

Are the advantages of fencing great? – The advantages of fencing are very great.  It increases the amount of stock which land can carry, it prevents the spread of contagious diseases amongst animals, it checks thieving, and civilizes the country, as there can be nothing worth calling a farm until the country is fenced...

A huge industry flourished on enclosure.  In 1906 13,400 tons of wire was imported into the Cape; in 1928, 47,600 tons.  Today, as much livestock is replaced by game farming, some quirky relic fences also pass into obsolescence: the fence-posts made from long slivers of rock in the Karoo, and increasingly rare sneezewood posts, sought after by wood-carvers and instrument-makers.

It would be surprising if the fence didn’t make it into our literature.  Never mind the ubiquity of the suburban garden fence, in all its defensive variety – a society-defining industry as vast as the rural one.  Here are just a few rural teasers.

In 1909, the ‘Kipling of Rhodesia’, Cullen Gouldsbury, lamented the loss of the freedom of the Great White Hunter; the fence was destroying romantic nomadism and the migrations of humans and animals alike.  This is the closing stanza from his poem, “The Ring-Fence”:

Hang up thy rusted bandolier, and let the rifle rust,
For now the dreams of yester year and all they held in trust
Must take the place of strenuous days and starlit nights of old
Of morning mists, and noontide blaze, and weariness and cold –
No more the Tusker of those dreams shall charge, with trunk uncurled,
No more, at dawn, thou’lt pace the paths with dancing dew empearled –
No more crouch low and test the wind – the Ring-Fence hems the world!

(And how widely is the term “ring-fenced” used as a metaphor now!)

Fences can be as destructive to animals as they can be protective.  This is writ small, but with a terrible compassion, in a poem by Gouldsbury’s successor as Rhodesia-Zimbabwe’s premier white poet, the now neglected N H Brettell.  This is the evocative description from “Wind and an Eagle-Owl”.  The speaker and his wife are contemplating the aftermath of a quarrel:

We rode out with the pealing day before us,
Down plains all wind and woods in trouble,
With the first tooth of winter in the air:
All the world’s doors flew open for us –
Crippled and craven, the plovers scattered crying
On the shuddering air, peevish, lamentable:
And in a fence, the great bird trapped and dying
With splintered scapulars spreadeagled there.
You luckless fellow of our night of wind,
Who through the breathing solitudes had hunted,
And blindly struck, like us, suddenly pinned
And broken on the barbs that we had blunted.

                I tie my timid filly up
                To get a stick to kill you with;
                With pity brimming like a cup
                I come deliverer in disguise:
                Your great beak gaped in savage grin,
                Your great stare narrowed to a frith
                Of gleaming horror and surprise ...

What starts off as almost Shakespearean symbolism, narrows to grim and visceral mercy, with the fence as the murderous frame or fretwork.

To return to South Africa, and to turn from poetry to fiction:  J M Coetzee’s futuristic masterpiece, The Life & Times of Michael K, follows the meanderings of Michael K from his career as Cape Town municipal gardener into the dry interior, almost haplessly trying to slip past all restrictions and constrictions, including even the need to cultivate and eat.  He is the ultimate nomad, a “wraith” eluding history.  But he gets caught up in a police raid, interned in a labour camp (walled and fenced) and, ironically, assigned to a fencing crew:

... The work was slow, for they were using not new wire but lengths of old wire which when joined together coiled in inconsistent directions.  K liked the leisureliness of the work and its repetitiveness ... Once the farmer took K aside, gave him a cigarette, and commended him.  ‘You have a feel for wire,’ he said.  ‘You should go into fencing...’

But K’s desire is to transcend fencing, his “feel” is to go through and away:

            ‘So can you open the gate?’ said K.
                ‘The only way to leave is with the work party,’ said the guard.
                ‘And if I climb the fence? What will you do if climb the fence?’
                ‘You climb the fence and I’ll shoot you.  I swear to God I won’t think twice, so don’t try.’
                K caressed the wire as if weighing the risk.

The fence reappears countless times in this novel and, I venture to speculate, in sundry other rural and plaasroman farm novels.  I predict that once you start looking for it, the fence will appear everywhere, the all but unacknowledged legislator of our landscapes.  One more sample: Henrietta Rose-Innes’ recent deft novel Green Lion.  Like Michael K  it’s set in the Cape and vaguely futuristic.  Table Mountain is now ringed by a secure fence, ostensibly to protect its wildlife but also inviting transgression; like K, the lion of the title, last of its kind in the remnant of a disintegrating zoo, also effects an escape into something like myth.

Having so trapped ourselves in every direction, it seems, there is something in us that longs to get out again.  One might finally agree with Grahamstown poet Robert Berold, in his poem “boundaries” (from Rain across a paper field):

I no longer recognise these fields
cattle, fences, boundary stones

boundaries make no sense to me
the idea of a country is so strange

can God’s forms, tree and tusk

contain this chaos? ...


  1. Another fascinating blog! The Great Plains of North America, after the Native American genocide and the accompanying bison speciecide, also saw extensive conflict between cultivators, who wanted to fence their land, and the cattle herders, who wanted an open range.

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