The Karoo


This is the introduction to the  MArch studio based in the Karoo in South Africa that Roberto Bottazzi and I will be conducting at the University of Westminster this year:

The Karoo is an almost Darwinian archive of information about the phase transitions the earth and its animal, plant and human populations have gone through over its long history. 320 million years ago it was part of the super-continent Godwana and lay over what is now the South Pole. Its lowest geological strata was formed by glaciers to its north depositing a layer of mud into in a vast inland basin, forming a 1km thick sedimentary layer. 200 million years ago, as Godwana drifted northwards, this turned into a swampy inland sea inhabited by all manner of long extinct carnivorous reptiles. The peat in these swamps turned into coal, now mined in other provinces of South Africa. Muddy deposits flowing from the mountains to the south then deposited a 5.6 km sedimentary layer of mud that stratified into sandstones and shales. 180 million years ago, Godwana broke up and the earth exploded with volcanic activity on a titanic scale, bringing an end to a teeming reptile population, then engulfed and transformed into fossils. Lava covered the surface in a 1,6 km layer of basalt, forced under high pressure between horizontal layers of sedimentary rock solidifying into dolorite sills, and welling up through long vertical fissures solidifying into dykes. This is what gave the Karoo its distinctive geomorphology: horizontal, loosely bound sandstone and shale layers that weather easily,interrupted by hard, resistant dolorite dykes and sills that appear as flat topped hills and weather into rounded rocks. Underground, dolorite dykes and sills trap water, creating water reservoirs are pushed upwards through fissures and emerges as springs, from around 20,000 years ago, the attractors around which the lives of Koisan hunter-gatherers (formerly known as Bushmen) revolved.

“Even rocks flow: their atoms migrate along grain borders (self-diffusion), dislocation boundaries within grains move, cracks and fissures propagate. In this sense, the flow of rocks is very viscous; they constantly change, but at extremely slow speeds. Furthermore, under extreme heat and pressure, rocks may undergo a bifurcation (limestone, a sedimentary rock, metamorphises into marble). Alternatively, rock may be melted into lava and reincorporated into the convection flows driving plate tectonics. Stratification then, is in no way a terminal state: free matter and energy stratify, and the stratified destratifies” (DeLanda 1992: 143).  

The Koisan lived in groups in accordance with human metabolism and range. Each group of between 12 and 25 had a water source and a defined territory, adjusted seasonally according to availability of resources. Their society was egalitarian, people lived in small brush shelters, resources were shared through loose ties and alliances and wealth was not accumulated. They bonded with the landscape through myths and legends about its features and rock painting and engravings were used as part of ritual practices to mediate social conflict and record experiences in the spirit world.

stone engraving 2

Arthur Iberall (in DeLanda 1992: 154) describes this form of society as a system of “weak force” and “gas-like” interactions and the phase change into a pastoralist society one of liquification or condensation around more fixed centres of population. In response to external pressures (diminishing resources, external social pressures etc.), human society became less gaseous and more viscous. The domestication of plants and animals and new technologies made it less mobile and more stratified.


This phase change occurred in the Karoo around 2,000 years ago when Khoekhoe pastoralists (formerly known as Hottentots), from the same genetic pool as the Koisan, introduced sheep, cattle, domestic dogs and pottery into the region. People began to live in mat covered houses and travelled with their stock, carrying their possessions on the back of oxen. Wealth began to be accumulated in the form of livestock used for food and milk or exchanged and passed down from one generation to the next. Social hierarchies developed. However, there was constant oscillation between the gaseous and the liquid social groups: Khoekhoe rarely slaughtered their stock other than for ritual purposes and lived, like the Koisan on game and wild plants, and Koisan hunter gatherers sometimes broke into Khoekhoe society by becoming their servants.

VOC Table Bay

In the mid 17C however, the phase transition that was to ‘crystallise’ these cyclical gaseous and liquid social formations into a hard, stratified, hierarchical society began, when the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) established a base in Table Bay (Cape Town) as a refuelling station for their ships sailing to the far East. The base was surrounded by Khoekhoe pastoralists who controlled flows of trade to the interior and by the Koisan hunter-gatherers, most of whom lived in the mountains. Within five years, the VOC had transformed Table Bay from a trading and refuelling post to a colony and Dutch company men were granted land to farm on the Cape Peninsula. What followed over the next two centuries was a nonlinear process of social crystallisation as the Dutch extended their colony further and further inland. They frequently faced brutal resistance from and, in turn, brought brutal pressure to bear on the two indigenous groups. Through this process, Khoekhoe society hardened close to the bottom of the social hierarchy as farm labour and Koisan society was virtually exterminated. Hundreds of men, women and children were killed, captured or enslaved; those who survived were incorporated into the strata of colonial society at the lowest possible level. Today many of their descendants still live as impoverished shepherds, labourers, or domestic servants, or as unemployed township dwellers.

The British arrived at the Cape at the end of the 18th Century, laying claim to it as part of the British Empire through force. This ‘liquified’ the bonds of Dutch colonial society and farmers (Trekboere) resistant to British rule began flowing along lines of flight into the interior, where violent confrontations with social groups already there ensued. During the 19th Century, the Trekboers established independent forms of republican order in the interior and the Karoo became the boundary of the British Cape Colony. But then the discovery, first of diamonds, and then of gold in the interior brought unprecedented flows of energy (prospectors, railways, new technologies, new concentrations of people and money, etc.) into the boer republics, pushing the near equilibrium conditions that had been reached into a phase change again. The two Anglo Boer Wars (1880-1881 and 1899-1902) followed, pitting the rigid might of the British Empire against the fluid Boer commando system with its gaseous guerrilla tactics (they melted into thin air). Eventually the British won war by stopping flows of energy to the boer commandos and solidifying their populations into concentration camps. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was established as a dominion of the British Empire. Key to British victory had been the railway line through the Karoo along which men and supplies had flowed to the interior. This transformed the Karoo into a front line in the war, still visible in the British blockhouses guarding strategic bridges and the social tensions that divide it.


The war contributed to rural poverty, increased urbanisation and fanned Afrikaaner and African nationalism. The British Empire had been shaken by two small republics, which were resolved in their determination to be rid of British influence and stratify society in their own interests. Black Africans, despite being used by both sides during the war, were not given the franchise in 1910. Following this, the South African Native National Congress was formed in 1912, becoming the African National Congress in 1923. The 20th Century is largely a history of the phase change of South African society into one rigidly stratified under Afrikaaner control and the lines of flight taken by the black majority to bifurcate it. This was eventually achieved in 1994, with the first democratically elected South African government, which liquefied the country’s racially based social stratification, while crystallising society in new ways and making new bifurcations possible.

This is the context in which our Karoo studio is situated. It has essentially to do with geology, people, land and energy.

Koisan hunter gatherer’s relationship to the land was a ‘gaseous’ one – they believed that their society was held together by stories that floated across the land, with waterholes as their attractors. People lived in small brush shelters, the extent of a group’s territory determined by the distance they could roam and the land’s ecological resources. Khoekhoe pastoralists on the other hand had a ‘fluid,’ cyclical relationship to land; their herding strategies comprised large transhumance cycles, centred on perennial springs and rivers and exploiting seasonal ecologies. They were constantly on the move and their houses and belongings were lightweight, assembled and disassembled and carried with them. Colonial relationships with land in the Karroo proceded through a series of phase changes, resulted in a highly stratified, crystallised landscape. Occupation was initially based on fluid, short-term grazing licenses that gave rights to as much grazing as the licensee needed in a vaguely defined area of common land. This was replaced with a loan farm system combining mobile and fixed rights, itself replaced by fixed freehold tenure on a surveyed area, in return for an annual rent. At the end of the 19th Century, farmers were able purchase their properties and tenure was fixed. Most land in the Karoo is today under private ownership and managed on a commercial, rotational basis. These phase changes in land tenure have been matched by evolving grazing practices. As water sources and rangeland was privatized, grazing orbits shrank and a rigid kraaling system was implemented. Livestock was herded from kraal to rangeland to water source to kraal on a daily basis. Over time, this linear system resulted in erosion and disruption to the ecology. Imported windmills and fencing in the early 20th Century, enabling rangeland to be subdivided into camps each with its own water source, produced a more flexible system, rotating flows of animals through highly striated land. Today 80 % of land in the Karoo belongs to private owners where sheep and goats are farmed on this rotational basis, or as game conservancies. 50% of farms are smaller than 3,000 ha, 25% larger than 6,000 ha.

It is this complex landscape, the product of a multitude of non-linear, self-organising processes of human and more-than-human life that we will be investigating in this studio. Our pretext will be the imminent introduction of fracking in the Karoo, as a potential phase-changing moment, when solidified, stratified geological and social formations could be disrupted, bifurcate and transform along any number of fault-lines.

The Karoo, given its geological history and climatic conditions, has long been viewed as a reservoir of energy – sun, wind and hydrocarbon. In the 1960’s, the South African state owned company, Soekor, drilled a series of exploratory wells for oil near the town of Aberdeen. This was abandoned as a failure, but provided evidence of the far from equilibrium conditions that pertain under the earth’s surface here: in 1967, after drilling to a depth of 4 km, the drilling fluid in a well vanished. Six weeks later, a farmer 30 kms away noticed that this borehole was discoloured. Investigation indicated that the contamination was toxic and could only have come from the Soekor well.

The first formal interest in fracking for shale gas was in 2008, when Bundu Oil and Gas, a subsidiary of Australia’s Challenger Energy, applied for exploration rights on a conservancy close to Graaff Reinet. Three years later, on the basis of a U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) assessment of 390 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable reserves, Dutch Shell applied for an exploration licence covering more than 95,000 square km, almost a quarter of the Karoo. Such quantities, if realised, could be a phase changer an economy that has always been a big oil and gas importer. An outcry from activists, citizens and farmers and legal challenges however, led to a moratorium on the granting of licences, lifted in 2013 when President Jacob Zuma described shale gas as a game changer for the economy, saying that Pretoria would allow fracking within the framework of environmental laws. The Department of Mineral Resources released draft technical regulations on oil and gas exploration and production in late 2013 and was expected to publish regulations before the elections in May this year, but has still not done so. Shell currently has three pending exploration license applications, Bundu Gas & Oil and another company, Falcon Oil and Gas Ltd, one each.


Two kinds of human institutions are at play here, interacting dynamically in the struggle to channel, amplify and control this land and its reservoirs and flows of energy – on the one hand, the hierarchical structures of state institutions, on the other the equally hierarchical structures of energy monopolies, and on the other, the more or less fluid structures of farmers, citizens and activists acting without any central organ directing their processes of assembly. In the current stand off between them, the opportunity exists for us to re-evaluate the energy resources and flows of the Karoo, organic and nonorganic, human and more-than-human, and, through design, to develop strategies, maps, models and prototypes to channel the dynamical behaviour of its flows in creative new ways.


Deacon, H.J. and Deacon, J. (1999). Human Beginnings in South Africa. California: AltaMira Press

DeLanda, M. (1992). “Nonorganic life.” Zone 6, Incorporations, 129-167. New York: Zone Books.

Hoffman, M.T., Cousins, B., Meyer, T., Petersen, A. and Hendricks, H. (1999). “Historical and contemporary land use and the desertification of the Karoo.” The Karoo: Ecological Patterns and Processes. Richard, W, Dean, J. and Milton, S.J. (ed.), 257-273. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Morris, J., Rusch, D. and Parkington, N. (2008). Karoo Rock Engravings. South Africa: Krakadouw Trust.

Palmer, E. (1966). The Plains of Camdeboo. London: Fontana.

Ross, R. (2012). “Khoesan and Immigrants: the Emergence of Colonial Society in the Cape, 1500-1800.” The Cambridge History of South Africa, Volume 1. Hamilton, C., Mbenga, B.K. and Ross, R. (ed.), 168-210. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s