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Coal, custom, and constitution: worldly politics in contemporary KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Peadar Brehony.

The HIV and demographic surveillance system of the Africa Health Research Initiative in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is one of the most comprehensive demographic surveillance sites in Africa. Within its geographical boundaries lies the Tendele Coal Mine, which since 2008 has been mining energy-dense anthracite for use in steel production around the world. The health surveillance site and mining operation are located on communal land under customary authority which overlaps with municipal boundaries, and is surrounded by conservation parks and timber plantations. Efforts to secure mass access to treatment are adjacent to environmental activists’ efforts to stop the mining; both are preceded by long-standing popular claims to restitution of land now under conservation.

In this presentation, I offer a description of a ‘social situation in modern Zululand’, a scene unfolding not far from Max Gluckman’s (1940) famous bridge scene, in order reflect on a set of debates on the nature of political authority, ritual efficacy, the place of the ancestors in contemporary life, as well as employment and ecology. These form the material for bringing together two concepts, worlds/worlding, on the one hand, and doubt or skepticism on the other. My hope is that these materials might provide a way to consider ordinary struggles to secure livelihoods and ‘life itself’ in the minor spaces of rural northern eastern South Africa, alongside structural transformations in political economy, from climate skepticism and coal-based job creation to an emerging politics of authoritarian populism and the re-enchantments of such figures as nature, tribe, and nation.

This talk is part of the Political Ecology Group meetings series.

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