Power without Knowledge: Three Nineteenth Century Colonialisms in South Africa

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Journal of Natal and Zulu History, Volume 26, p.2 - 30 (2008)




Over the last three decades, scholars of empire have established a very intimate connection between archival knowledge and colonial rule. The works of Franz Fanon on the psychological effects of colonial rule, Michel Foucault on discursive regimes of truth in the making of modernity, and Edward Said on the politics of European scholarly engagement with colonial cultures have underwritten a vast new literature on the intellectual motives of empire. As James Scott observed twenty-five years ago, modern colonialism exercised power as much “in paperwork as in rifles”. The connections here between western knowledge, writing, record-keeping and racist over-rule are intimate. Humble grammarians, philologists and historians have been accorded new imperial significance in these accounts, many of which are preoccupied with the direct links between the politics of writing (and archiving) itself and European colonial supremacy.The great scope and power of these studies has tended to obscure a question that I would like to consider in this article: Was colonial over-rule possible without knowledge? Here my question is not simply whether colonial governments could function with faulty or uncomprehending informational systems, which the British in India evidently managed in the decades leading up to the Rebellion. Rather it is whether the acts of archival government—of gathering and preserving knowledge about the colony and its peoples, and documenting the practice of government—were a necessary part of imperialism in the nineteenth century. I want to make the case here that the nineteenth century history of south Africa shows that imperialism could function quite well without knowledge—at least of the kinds of knowledge regimes that Foucault and Said have studied so productively. In the Transvaal and in the Colony of Natal in the second half of the nineteenth century two explicitly illiberal, anti-utilitarian, undocumented governments were at work. I think, although I do not show it here, that in the making of the Union and Apartheid in the next century, each of these probably held more local influence over individuals (whites and blacks) than the rump of utilitarianism that remained in the Cape Colony.

Digital Humanities

Over the last two decades African humanities scholarship has been powerfully moved by an interest in real and figurative archives in shaping the politics of knowledge. This curiousity about the power of official and private archives in setting the limits of what can be known has coincided with a global change in the forms and qualities of texts that last occurred in the 16th century. The rapid expansion of the Internet, and the proliferation of digital textual forms and repositories that it fosters, presents difficult questions about the project of Humanities scholarship which is so closely bound to the form of the printed book. But it also offers compelling opportunities to reconsider and reorganise the work of private and public archives, and their effects. In the wake of collapses in state-support for academic libraries and book publishing there are real opportunities for African scholarship in the new forms of access, distribution and curatorship that are supported by the Internet. But – when many universities on the continent have no reliable electricity supply – the digital revolution is itself potentially a source of new kinds of intellectual exclusion that must be addressed pragmatically and with cunning. In this theme WISER will mobilize the emerging tools of the digital humanities to investigate, and rework, the deep politics and effects of the inherited archive, of official record keeping, the form of the book and visual cultures.

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