There are two signs at the side of the road leading away from Salem. The first reads: ‘Welcome to Frontier Country’. And the second: ‘Potholes ahead’. This is a recurring image in Simon Gush’s work and – given our location in Makhanda/Grahamstown, a space and site of collapsing afterlives and infrastructures in stark and particularly disturbing intensities – it suggests that the call for and obligation to think differently is both relevant and necessary for new directions of research and practice in the arts and in the academy.

Instead of potholes, chasms have opened up before us: the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns, states of disaster, police brutality and mass protests against the racism that that brutality exposes … conflict, contagion, isolation, containment, confinement. How does one find one’s bearings in times like this?

Locked down, but pursuing – if warily – lines of flight enabled in this new era of digital technologies, Sounding the Land listens back across the ground of 200 years to find our bearings now, in 2020. This year is a paradox, ominous, threatening and yet full of possibility. We venture here into that space, and encourage you to think, with Walter Benjamin, how the storm called ‘progress’ has propelled us into a future that we had turned our backs to as the pile of debris before us grew skyward across the last two centuries.


Simon Gush
2019, 30 mins

A Button without a Hole looks at dispossession and restitution of land in Salem Eastern Cape. The film details the history of the dispossession by the director’s family in 1820, and the role of this in the production of a system of wage labour. The settler narrative is contrasted to the narrative of Mongezi Madinda, one of the residents on the restituted land.

If the image appears out of focus please click on the settings icon in the bottom right of the media player to adjust the resolution to suit your system


Healer Oran
2020, 40 mins

A recorded performance by experimental musician Healer Oran, which comprises improvised reinterpretations of the score for the Land is in the Air films. During the performance, Healer Oran talks about the process of scoring the film and how, through this process, he began to explore his family’s dispossession and forced removal from their land in Port Elizabeth in 1970.


Helena Pohlandt-Mccormick, Craig Paterson and Gary Minkley
Slideshow, 20 mins

A slideshow of images and text reflecting on the history of disease, confinement and control and its resonances with the current situation.

Ubuyile uNxele

Akhona ‘Bhodl’ingqaka’ Mafani and Landiso ‘Hlalutya’ Magqaza
2020, 7 mins

A spoken word izibongo dialogue about the life and death of Makhanda Nxele with the sub-themes of contagion, containment, healing and leadership.


Leslie Witz and Helena Pohlandt-Mccormick
2020, 60 mins

A recorded discussion between historians Leslie Witz (UWC) and Helena Pohlandt-McCormick (Rhodes University) around colonial commemorations and centennial celebrations. ‘The most political thing to say is that history is not about politics’ – Leslie Witz


Niren Tolsi

Just outside Makhanda, in an area the British military cleared of amaXhosa with a ‘brutal efficiency’* after the Fourth Frontier War, lies a cricket pitch with claims to being the oldest in the country. It is a wicket watered by the blood of removal and the trauma of forced labour. One rolled with frontier nostalgia and contemporary paranoia. How does it play? [READ ESSAY]

* Justice Edwin Cameron, Salem Party Club and Others v Salem
Community and Others

Land, Labour, Life

Prishani Naidoo and Simon Gush
2020, 26 mins

A recorded discussion between Prishani Naidoo (SWOP/Wits) and Simon Gush around questions of land, work and social inclusion.

About Sounding the Land

We are physically distanced and isolated from each other, while new technologies enable us to zoom in to the living rooms of our friends across the world. We are locked away and simultaneously able to see and hear our societies clearer than ever. But clarity remains elusive. The mechanisms we use to ground ourselves are unmoored. For us, this has been an invitation to a process of (publicly) sharing experiences/thoughts/thinking, in a time of individuation, to think with each other towards collective understandings when physically coming together is impossible. To do so, we need to take our bearings. We need to sound the land.

The year 2020 has opened up new opportunities for review of the world around us, and how we got here; a world ostensibly “new” – a new period, with its own unique events – but one that looks disturbingly like the world of old. “This is what commemoration does”, problematically, “it aligns past, present and future, it puts them in a straight line together” (Leslie Witz). That old world, which now feels unstable, is bracketed into distinct periods, and periods into events, and events into moments. We review one moment here, from which we might begin to navigate.

The Commemoration: 200 Years

This year has, even with the planned bicentennial commemorations and celebrations that have since been cancelled, reanimated interest and an opportunity for reappraisal of the year we call “1820.” Two centuries ago, the British colonial government initiated one of the most ambitious plans in South African history to quarantine, contain and control populations. In this project we engage with the bicentennial marker of the “1820 Settler” project, with its stubborn fascination in the present, and ask what parallels and processes continue to force themselves on us now.

Sounding the Land is an ongoing project of interdisciplinary multi-media collaboration between the Rhodes University History Department, the SARChI Chair in Social Change (University of Fort Hare), the Cory Library for Historical Research (Rhodes University), the National Arts Festival and the South African Heritage Resources Agency. It draws together a combined team of scholars and artists to reinvigorate and reassess debates on the impact and legacy of the settler colonial project in South Africa’s Eastern Cape through discussions of the historical certainties that define the debates and the meanings and commemorations of settler colonialism over time. In a series of works and engagements that cumulatively do the work of Sounding the Land and ungrounding 1820, this project addresses the complex auditions between subject, land and space, and the work of place, home, belonging, and its dispossessions from the past into the present.


In the last of Simon Gush’s triptych of films, Land is in the Air, Salem community land claimant, Headman Goduka says the white farmer “worked the land with his mouth, it was us who did the actual labour”.

Thinking about this challenge posed to the nature of ‘work’/‘labour’, and thinking (again) also about the question of what work art does at the center of a historical reading provides an important prompt for this project. Both from a disciplinary method and an institutional perspective, we want to rethink a past not adequately worked through, a fractured landscape/ground, and a language of history, of conceptualization, of analysis out of sync and seemingly inadequate to the urgent challenges of the present. To do so we have to listen, again; to sound the land.

This is what needs ‘working through’: to think about and to listen to what it means to be human, and to think about and hear anew what is at stake in this work, and in our thinking. Our work is to argue for continuing to radicalise the project of history and for more history, for the enabling practice of history as criticism. Our work seeks to then – institutionally, intellectually and collaboratively – “intensify the work of history by producing more history: histories of concepts, critical histories of historical practices, histories that interrupt the discourse of capitalism and multiculturalism, histories of the formation of objects and subjects, systems of knowledge and the elaboration of discourses” (Lalu).


Image, text and voice are, in Land is in the Air, underscored by a composition/score produced by the musician Healer Oran (Andrei van Wyk) that is simultaneously mesmerizing, evocative and jarring. Healer Oran’s ‘music’ will provide the entry point to continue our engagement with John Mowitt’s compelling argument (in Sounds: The Ambient Humanities, 2015) that a ‘set of theoretical habits grounded in the paradigm of visualism’ and the problem posed by the concept and disciplinary deployment of the gaze, has legitimated a ‘systemic foreclosure’ of thinking differently with, and about sound. In particular our work will track the ways that sound – and particularly music and dialogue – can be shown to hold and perhaps enable a certain (new) way of thinking both the political history of South Africa and the politics of South African history.

iMpuma Koloni/The Eastern Cape

‘A title is always a heading [cap].’ (Derrida)

This time, this place – the Eastern Cape – lends itself to thinking about another heading, another shore, ‘an other cape’. We ask what it means to privilege the Eastern Cape? To think about how the derivative/referential nature of the term, ‘Eastern Cape’ asks us to consider what and where this Cape is not (not the Cape Colony or the Western Cape), and where and what it is: east; to think about its singularity, both as an example and as a sounding of the universal.

Rather than being either dispassionately logical or returning to the monstrous inventions of colonialism, Paul Carter reminds us that names are “tools for travelling” and “space[s] of exploring”. The ‘Eastern Cape’ – in isiXhosa: iMpuma-Koloni – invites us to pause for a moment and to linger longer than is customary around the very word: ‘cape’. If we do so, there are startling/suggestive associative affinities and proximities that cluster around the etymology and meaning of ‘cape.’

When we think of the ‘Eastern Cape’, it is the isiXhosa iMpuma-Koloni that evokes the relation to Imperial power that has so dominated our historical understanding of this region of South Africa, this part of the world. One variant of the word ‘cape’, therefore, is koloni, colony. Cape/~koloni/ikapa/caput/*kaput: if the Eastern Cape is indeed kaput, in the sense of broken, that anticipation is held in the very notion of ‘cape’, or is it?

We want to take a bearing that orients itself to the particular formulation of “the heading of the other, but also perhaps to the other of the heading” to plot an intellectual course and to invite historical and conceptual explorations that “no longer obey the form, the sign, or the logic of the heading, nor even of the anti-heading – of beheading, of decapitation”: the logic of the material and discursive/epistemological consequences of the violence of colonialism, racism and apartheid.

The ‘Eastern Cape’ is an intriguing problem space, a fault line: a remarkable physical, material, geographical, ecological space with particular characteristics that can also be considered a conceptual space, a political space, a space that looms large in the historical imagination. Here, several lines intersect and clash, become faults, seize time and space: colonialism and conquest; a settler frontier; apartheid/Bantustan social engineering; different climatological and ecological zones; different geological formations (Cape Fold Mountains v. Drakensberg). And so we not only “have a heading” or “headings,” but want also to “change headings”, but with care.

The Eastern Cape is a landscape of colonial containment and destruction, of aesthetic beauty and contradiction, of settlement and of discursive possibility. Read differently again, the Eastern Cape – and the vantage point of the Bantustan, the homeland, the margin – returns us to the repetition of the constitutive inside/outside across time and space, and disciplinary reason. It presents us with the possibilities of sounding the limits certainly of anti-colonial hopes and the romantic discourses that have accompanied them, but even, perhaps, of calling into question the limits of a postcolonial approach.

The Eastern Cape, we want to propose, enables a way of thinking with and at the limit … to thinking from the limit, from the margin, from the ‘frontier’, but also from the limit that this fault line, this space, this place, this territory posed for apartheid, and for the post-apartheid, the excess it marked and from which one might reconsider the conceits and certainties of History as a discourse and as a discipline.

This work also reflects ongoing efforts to collectively rethink the University of Fort Hare and Rhodes University’s historical location in the Eastern Cape as suggestive and inspiring of new research paths. We are intent on exploring what a vantage point from and location in the Eastern Cape might offer in this postapartheid present of political, social and economic rupture and doubt.

Instagram @soundingtheland

List of Contributors

Helena Pohlandt-McCormick is associate professor of African history at Rhodes University. She completed her Ph. D. in 1999 at the University of Minnesota. Her work focuses on postcolonial and postapartheid history and theory, archival studies and gender/sexuality studies.

Simon Gush is an artist and filmmaker living in Johannesburg. His research looks at the relationship between work, subjectivity and land from the perspective of Southern Africa. Gush has a postgraduate certificate in fine art from the Hoger Instituut van Schone Kunsten in Gent, Belgium (2007/8), and a MA (Sociology), University of the Witwatersrand (2019).

Gary Minkley currently holds the NRF SARChI Chair in Social Change and is a Professor of History at the University of Fort Hare in East London. He has a PhD from the University of Cape Town. His research interests are in South African history and the dynamics of social change, in public and visual history, public memory and public space.

Healer Oran (Andrei van Wyk) is a Johannesburg-based experimental musician and sound artist with a research focus in sound collage, muzak and noise. His practice includes sound installations, performance, and composition for film and dance.

Landiso “Hlalutya” Magqaza is a voice-over artist, playwright, actor, musician and imbongi who hails from Nqabarha in Willowvale. He was born in Imizamo Yethu (Mandela Park) in Hout Bay, Cape Town in 1997. He is currently an MA candidate at  Rhodes University in the Department of History with a research interest in media histories, sound studies, oral literature / history and rural development in the Eastern Cape.

Akhona “Bhodl’ingqaka” Mafani is an imbongi, playwright, dramatist and musician who hails from Vukani community in the east of Makhanda. At the age of 23 he has established a name for himself in the national cultural and music scene as Bhodl’ingqaka, which means “He-Who-Burps-Cream”. He has been in the local music industry for almost a decade and has earned an award for one of his passionately performed plays at the National Arts Festival.

Niren Tolsi is an award-winning journalist and recipient of the Ruth First Fellowship and the Heinrich Boell Journalism Fellowship. Formerly a senior journalist at the Mail & Guardian and the Times Media Group’s Deputy Legal Editor, he was a co-founding editor of The Con. He tells stories.

Leslie Witz is a professor in the Department of History at the University of the Western Cape. He teaches African history and public history and his research focuses on how different histories are created and represented in the public domain. Books include Apartheid’s Festival; Hostels, Homes Museum (with Noëleen Murray); and Unsettled History (with Ciraj Rassool and Gary Minkley). He is presently working on a book on changing histories in South African museums.

Prishani Naidoo is director of the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, a position she has held since the start of 2019. Since 2008, she has been a member of the sociology department at Wits. Before that she coordinated the collective Research and Education in Development (RED), and worked at the Heinrich Boell Foundation (Southern Africa office) and Khanya College. She also has a long history of activism that began in the student movement in the 1990s. She is currently working on a book with the provisional title of ‘The Subject of Poverty. Policy, Protest and Politics in South Africa after 1994’.

Craig Paterson is an historian based in the Eastern Cape and a Postdoctoral Fellow with the NRF SARChI Chair in Social Change (University of Fort Hare). His research interests include the everyday life of people in rural areas of southern Africa and the politics of land & property, particularly as it relates to the history of domesticated plants and animals; cultural history, legal culture and prohibitions; and, the development of ideas around the meaning of ‘citizen’, ‘denizen’, ‘civilian’, and ‘subject’.


Lerato Bereng and Dineo Diphofa from Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Zaida Allie and Melven, SAHRA

Professor Alan Kirkaldy

History Department, Rhodes University

Jaine Roberts, Research Office, Rhodes University

SARChI Chair in Social Change, University of Fort Hare

Tom Jeffery
Facebook @TomJeffereyPhotography

Dr Cornelius Thomas, Cory Library