Karoo and beyond 2023 Conference

The Karoo region, which makes up over 30% of South Africa, tends to be represented in popular and tourist discourses as an empty, pristine semi-arid wilderness. From an ecological and conservationist perspective, this region has often been seen to be a vulnerable and desiccated ecological landscape degraded by overgrazing, poaching and soil erosion, and increasingly threatened by overheating, water scarcity and climate change. Other understandings of the Karoo and the broader Northern Cape Province in the media, policy discourses, and social sciences portray the Karoo, and the Northern Cape more generally, as a ‘negative space’ of lack of development and progress and enduring crises of chronic poverty, structural unemployment, everyday violence, substance abuse, and any number of other social and psychological pathologies and economic problems. Since 2016, the Cosmopolitan Karoo Research Group established by Professor Cherryl Walker at Stellenbosch University (SU) has questioned some of the assumptions of these perspectives. The research has focused on studies of small towns, livelihoods and possibilities of ‘sustainable development”. This has included focusing on the Karoo as a ‘technoscientific frontier’ for megaprojects involving renewable energy (wind and solar) and massive investments in astronomy (i.e., the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope). This interdisciplinary workshop will also engage with other changing land-use practices, developments and technoscientific innovations that are significantly changing the region’s landscape in the Karoo and beyond.

Botanists, ecologists, and biological conservationists have conducted important and extensive research on the complexities of species vulnerability, resilience, loss, and change in the Succulent and Nama Karoo biomes. Historians of the Northern Cape have also investigated the Karoo region’s long history as a ‘resource frontier’ (Tsing 2015) for mining, conservation, sheep and goat rearing and, more recently, wildlife farming. Finally, this region has also been a place of innovation, resilience, and adaptation of hybrid indigenous and scientific knowledge and practices – for instance, by Namaqualand’s herders, who have developed herding techniques to ensure their animals survive in a hot and drought-prone semi-arid landscape that is likely to heat up even further due to climate change.

This workshop seeks to develop an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary exchange of natural and social science perspectives on these questions. Although the focus will be on the socio-ecological dynamics of the Karoo, the papers will not be confined to this geographical area, and will include studies of other places and common themes. The aim of this workshop is to encourage the exchange of ideas about social and ecological research in the Karoo, as well as to explore possibilities for comparative perspectives from other parts of the country.