ben silverstein on dispossession in south africa


Ben Silverstein, ‘Dispossession, Reconsidered (Review)’, History Australia 11, 3 (2014).

Until relatively recently, studies of settler colonialism have approached invasions, dispossessions, and eliminations as events which founded a polity and were exhausted as settlement came to fruition. Now, as in the case of dispossession in both Philippolis and Orania, they are considered instead as establishing persistent structures. The failure to reckon with that history and its implications establishes the democratic South African state as its successor. […]  But transposing the analysis of settler colonialism, developed with Australasia and North America in mind, to the South African context necessitates categorical revision. Cavanagh suggests we can understand Indigeneity on the nineteenth century Orange River ‘as a relative condition’. He differentiates between South Africa’s ‘most indigenous people’ and their ‘less indigenous’ followers, a distinction determined essentially by reference to antecedence (10). The Griqua, in other words, were settlers in relation to the San, but Indigenous in relation to the Boers who displaced them.
The settler emerges in this account as the bearer of sovereignty. Cavanagh describes the layered sovereignty of the nineteenth century and its resolution through the victory of the settler’s sovereignty as it becomes ‘ultimate’ or ‘perfect’. This represents an understanding of sovereignty as something which can be possessed: as a ‘capacity’, or as something that could be ‘vested’. And sovereignty determines land rights – ‘it is the sovereign that says which land rights are good and bad’ – and thereby constitutes the settler protagonist of settler colonialism (2, 6, 97–101).

Such definitions involve the historian in practices of arbitration, locating and naming settlers and natives, recognising the success of settler colonialism in its extinguishment of other sovereignties. Recognition, though, is never innocent, and in this case the citation of dominance under the sign of an ultimate sovereignty has the effect of settling the colonial contradictions so intricately traced, but consigned to the past; the book approaches sovereignty not as an ensemble of claims and aspirations but as fact. This produces such discomforting effects as the denotation of the Griqua – a people dispossessed by white settlers who today claim First Nations status – as nineteenth century settlers.

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