chapter  17
12 Pages

From exceptionalism to social ecology in Southern Africa: Isolation, intimacy and environment in Nadine Gordimer’s Get a Life (2005)


In recent years the traditionally anthropocentric orientation of postcolonial literary criticism has been questioned by those calling for a more eco-critical appreciation of colonial and postcolonial conditions and cultures (O’Brien 2001, Nixon 2005, Mukherjee 2006, Huggan and Tiffin 2007). This essay explores both the possibilities and the problems posed by this rerouting in a reading of Nadine Gordimer’s 2005 novel Get a Life. It begins by discussing the changing form of South African environmentalism, the novel’s central frame of reference. In the years since apartheid ended in South Africa, the politics of conservation – previously seen as complicit with apartheid ideology – have been rerouted by a range of protest groups and campaigning organizations in what has come to be known as the movement for environmental justice. In a manner consonant with the way the post-apartheid texts discussed by Jane Poyner elsewhere in this volume unsettle the boundaries between public and private, Get a Life explodes the ‘myth’ of South Africa’s political, cultural and environmental exceptionalism1 through an intensely private drama that simultaneously gestures towards a new kind of political philosophy in southern Africa: social ecology (Bookchin 2005). However, heeding Elleke Boehmer’s call for a greater appreciation of the aesthetic in postcolonial literature in this volume, this essay argues that the literary treatment of social ecology in Get a Life – specifically, the narrative’s selfconscious attention to the limits of discursive knowledge in comprehending the alterity of nature – purposefully contrasts the ethical demands of ecology with the political challenges of social justice intrinsic to this form of environmental activism. In doing so it enables a timely, critical appreciation of the tension between the political and ethical in the emerging interdisciplinary field of postcolonial ecocriticism.