Sweetening the Pill: Inflections of Aesthetic Humanism on a South African Sugar Estate

Professor Peter Merrington
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T.S. Eliot visited the Tongaat Sugar Estate in the South African province of Natal during his visit to South Africa. His interest lay in the success of the utopian community that this private commercial concern had developed since the 1930s. This paper examines the development of a cultural policy at Tongaat Sugar Estate in the first half of the twentieth century, for the purpose of improving the quality of life of Zulu and Indian labourers on the estate. The proprietors drew on a range of cultural commentators and social philosophies, as they sought to develop a multicultural and multiracial progressive society which would exist outside of the apartheid social ideology of the time. The governing philosophy of the Tongaat proprietors was aesthetic, based on the maxim that an attractive fa├žade leads to improvement in other areas of experience. The paper sketches the history of the Tongaat experiment and explores the rich set of cultural discourses which the management reproduced (in the monthly estate periodical, as well as in material forms) in order to urge their view of humanity and its developmental needs. The Tongaat experiment provides a microcosm of the meaning of liberal western humanism in the first half of the twentieth century, and it generated this meaning for the express purpose of social improvement. A major challenge was to find ways to include the cultural paradigms of the Zulu and Indian labourers, while still in a late colonial fashion promoting western European cultural views. The paradigms on which Tongaat drew underwent a variety of modernising inflections from the 1960s on. The company still pursues its inclusive policy of social development through aesthetic development at the present time, albeit without the dominant premises of Eurocentric cultural superiority that governed concepts of the humanities and of humanism in the colonial world in the first half of the twentieth century.

Keywords: Aesthetics, Social development, Sugar refining, South Africa, Racial theories, Architecture, environment
Stream: Aesthetics, Design, Philosophy, Ethics, Consciousness, History, Historiography, Ethnicity, Difference, Identity, Science, Environment and the Humanities
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Professor Peter Merrington

Chairperson, Department of English, University of the Western Cape
South Africa

MA, PHd from the University of Cape Town. PhD thesis on the making of the symbolic order and the invention of heritage for the Union of South Africa circa 1910. Published extensively in this field. Fellowships at Cambridge, Oxford, Cairo, London, Emory (Atlanta). Currently chairperson, Department of English, University of the Western Cape. Taught literary studies at UWC for twenty years. Published short stories. Twice awarded Pringle Prize of the English Academy of Southern Africa. Member, Council for Heritage, Western Cape; local preacher, Methodist Church of Southern Africa; member, local environmental and conservation organisations. Hobbies: motorcycling and motorcycle restoration, mountain hiking, gardening, architecture, writing. Planning an Institute of Thaumatography.

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