Surplus, excess, dirt: slavery and the production of disposability in South Africa

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Centuries before apartheid, South Africa was fundamentally shaped by 176 years of slavery, a period of racialised and gendered brutality that lasted from 1658 to 1834. Enslaved people were brought to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company from African and Asian territories around the Indian Ocean, and eventually came to constitute the majority of the population of the Colony. Françoise Vergès (2005) asserts that slavery in South Africa generated “processes of disposability” that transformed enslaved people and indigenous Africans, the majority of the population, into “surplus” and expendable objects. The scale of this expendability is difficult to discern today because of the invisibility of slavery in conceptions of the country’s history. In this article, I use the lens of “dirt” to render such “processes of disposability” visible. I do so by analysing two texts in which African bodies are portrayed as filthy, menacing and contaminating–the novel Unconfessed and a television advertisement titled “Papa Wag Vir Jou” (“Daddy’s Waiting for You”)–which I situate within a discussion of South Africa’s extraordinarily high rates of incarceration and sexual violence. I point to the seamless continuity in industrial levels of imprisonment employed by the colonial and the modern South African state.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)257-272
Number of pages16
JournalSocial Dynamics
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 4 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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