In 1966, Mary Douglas famously defined pollution as ‘matter out of place.’ The now-ubiquitous presence of waste in South Africa’s Karoo Heartland is one such incongruity.

Traditionally, The Karoo has conjured images of desolate, pristine landscapes. Over the centuries, it has served as a retreat from the pressures and pathogens of city life (Figures 1- 3).

Figure 2 Aloes at Ann’s Villa, near Paterson

Figure 1 Valley of Desolation, Graaff Reinet

Figure 3 Sign from the old Ann’s Villa Health Resort, which housed Victorian consumptives (TB patients) along with other sickly, and weary colonial settlers

For waste-pickers, litter is livelihood. Some are employed by government’s Community Work Project, patrolling plastic in bright orange overalls. Others are trash-heap hustlers, setting up shack-lands on the outskirts of dumps and gathering recyclables in exchange for cash. Yet, the question of waste, and its containment, is now central to the everyday politics of many Karoo towns. Residents use it to bemoan ineffectual municipalities: a few organise drives, clearing litter along the river banks or the national highways. On windy days, plastic is flung against farm fences and cans shoot through the air like bullets. At the dump, slices of plastic, and discarded animal fat are set alight by desert heat.

As a researcher exploring the rise of so-called ‘non-communicable diseases’ in this area, I became interested in waste as a signal of consumption; and indeed how consumption has shifted in this region. Within a relatively short space of time, the Karoo’s food environment has changed dramatically. Big Food — in the form of Super Spars or Shoprite USaves — only arrived in full force in the 90’s. And without Big Food, Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol; much of the waste here would not exist (Figure 4).

Figure 4 Pile of roadside waste, Somerset East

The local markets  (Figure 5) in which farm owners and workers would sell their produce have all but disintegrated, as farmers export to large metros. In an effort to ‘boost township economies’, Coca-Cola has, since the 1990’s, increasingly supported and stocked local ‘spaza shops’ (informal stores), including in the Karoo’s small towns.  Meanwhile, the post-1990-period has also brought new players to the Karoo’s food landscape. Somali, Ethiopian, Parkistani and other ‘foreign’ traders have settled in the region, often opening competing spaza shops, selling cheap (even if highly processed) goods.

Figure 5 The old market, Somerset East

In his autobiographical short story, Nietverloren, J.M. Coetzee describes shifts in Karoo food and farm culture during the course of his lifetime. On the farm where Coetzee grew up, he discovered a flat circle of earth, on which nothing grew. The story is an account of his trying to make sense of it. It would take years for Coetzee to discover that it was a threshing floor, on which donkeys had threshed wheat.

‘The wheat, it turned out (this was the outcome of a long investigation, and even he could not be sure if what he heard was true), was grown right here, on the farm, on what in the old days must have been cultivated land but has no reverted to bare veld. An acre of land had been given over to the growing of wheat, just as there had been an acre of pumpkin and squash and watermelon and sweetcorn and beans. Every day, from a dam that was just a pile of stones now, farmlands used to irrigate the acres; when the kernels turned brown, they reaped the wheat by hand, with sickles, bound it in sheaves, carted it to the threshing-floor, threshed it, then ground it to flour (he searched everywhere for the grinding stones, without success). From the bounty of those two acres the table was stocked not only of his grandfather but all the families who worked for him. There were even cows kept, for milk, and pigs to eat the scraps.

So all those years ago this had been a self-sufficient farm, growing all its needs; and all the other farms in the neighbourhood, this vast, sparsely peopled neighbourhood, were self-sufficient too, more or less — farms where nothing grows any more, where no ploughing or sowing or tilling or reaping or threshing takes place, farms which have turned into vast grazing grounds for sheep, where farmers sit huddled over computers in darkened rooms calculating their profit and loss on sheepswool and lambsflesh.

Older Karoo farmworkers speak of a time when labourers received a food ‘ration’ from the farm: lard, sugar, coffee, some vegetables from the farm’s garden, and some meat or livestock. It was a time in which people both lived on, and off, the farm. ‘Farming used to be a lifestyle’, one farmer’s wife in Cradock told me, ‘Now it’s a business’.

I do not mean to romanticise the period of food rations: workers were paid very little in actual wages; histories of dispossession and forced labour were brutally proximate; and relationships between farm owners and farm labourers were often deeply feudal (even if deeply intimate). Aspects of this still continue today. But there have been some very significant changes in the food culture of  farms, which reflect larger political and economic changes, and have now worked their ways into people’s bodies.

In most places, there is no longer a ration. Workers are paid in cash. This is partly because of the institution of the minimum wage (only R16 p/h for farm workers), and partly because years of below-average rainfall have made it very difficult to grow or farm in the same ways. Many dams are now wastelands of another sort (Figure 6). In 2019, residents gathered to collect tens of thousands of dead fish from the empty Nqweba dam in Graaff Reinet: fish turned to waste and poured into trash bags (Figures 7-8). 

Figure 7 Dead fish in the empty Nqweba dam,

Figure 6 Empty dam, Camdeboo

Figure 8 Collecting dead fish at Nqweba dam,


Although a cash-based wage has given workers greater freedom to choose their food, they must buy it. This means travelling (at a cost) to the nearest informal stall or supermarket — often on a monthly basis — and finding tactics to stretch one’s wages. In this context, more and more are swayed towards highly processed, non-perishable food, which of course has significantly more packaging.
Karoo residents are frequently on the road: as fencers, municipal workers, casual labourers, or ambulance drivers. Because of this, roadside rest stops (Figure 9) are not only for tourists on road trips. Amidst the empty bottles, polystyrene containers, and chip packets at the rest stop, I find blister packs for diabetes medication (Figure 10).


Figure 10 Glimepride, Type2 Diabetes Medication, find amidst a pile of waste at a rest stop near Pearston

Figure 9 Roadside rest stop near Pearston

Uncontained waste is both a signal of what is moving in and out of people’s bodies; and a potential contaminant in itself.

Using waste, and its politics, as a lens to understanding long-term illness helps to locate people’s experiences of sickness in their particular time and place, while also signaling the shared futures of land and bodies. 



About Dr Beth Vale