In 1920 Ernest Schwarz, a geology professor at Rhodes University College in Grahamstown, South Africa, proposed the “reconstruction” of what he said were the former drainage patterns of southern Africa. He urged the diversion into the Kalahari of two rivers that lay beyond South Africa’s borders, in Namibia and Botswana. The river diversion would re-create massive inland lakes that Schwarz claimed had vanished only several centuries before, reversing what he described as a downward spiral of regional desiccation in which reduced surface water had led to lower humidity levels and declining rainfall.
Schwarz’s scheme was quickly dismissed by elected officials and government scientists as impractical, too expensive, and based on faulty science, but it garnered enormous support among a wide swath of white southern African society. White South Africans demanded that the government launch an expedition into the Kalahari to investigate the scheme – which it did three times, in 1925, 1937, and 1945. The expeditions’ pessimistic conclusions did little to dampen popular enthusiasm, however.
This paper uses the popularity of this scheme as a window into popular views of massive technological interventions into the natural world. It seeks to expand a literature that casts officialdom and experts as the proponents of “certain schemes to improve the human condition” (James Scott) and situates everyone else as victims, resistors, or passive spectators of such schemes. In defiance of their elected officials and government scientists and bureaucrats, white South Africans demanded a massive state commitment to engineering schemes that they believed would transform not only the wider southern African environment but also South Africa’s social landscape, reinforcing and safeguarding the emerging racial order against threats from a hostile natural world.