BOOK REVIEW: Are Trout South African?

01 OCTOBER 2013 - 07:07


NEARLY 20 years after South Africans asserted their rights as citizens, the nation still struggles to decide who and what belongs to the country, the provisions of the constitution notwithstanding. At the heart is the divisiveness of racial classification. Obviously, racism and its attendant catastrophes are unlikely to go away soon, in South Africa as elsewhere, but that is not reason enough to make matters worse, and certainly not when one’s actions carry official sanction.

In flagrante delicto is the Department of Environmental Affairs, which has just published its list and categories of alien invasive species under the provisions of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act. The department listed not only what is officially considered alien to South Africa, but what species are specifically undesirable as invasive. Among the many declared undesirable are trout.

It is reasonable to ask what that has to do with citizenship and racism. After all, Fosaf, the representative organisation of South African fly-anglers for whom trout fishing constitutes the holy grail of fly-fishing, says that "the general intentions of (the act) for the control of problem alien and invasive species, are good and honourable, and that this is much-needed legislation that is essential for the long-term benefit of our country". But the answer to the question is — just about everything.

Professor of English at the University of the Western Cape Duncan Brown asks the same question in his polemic, Are Trout South African? In reviving the decades-long trout and fly-fishing debate, Brown introduces the classification of species as alien and therefore undesirable as a metaphor for the central issue in human relations. Except among the obtusely backward, the social and political debate in South Africa is no longer about racial supremacy, but the degree of authenticity of our South Africanness, yet genealogical origin — race — remains at the core of the narrative.

In South Africa, the notion of authenticity has become equated with black Africanness in that it designates as authentic a citizen who is loyal to the state simply because the state is controlled by other black people. But the politics of authenticity in South Africa, as Brown shows, is historically and scientifically unsustainable. By extrapolation, shades of black South Africans relate to shades of white South Africans as catfish relate to trout: one is African, the other not; both species have been transferred from one habitat to another and each have had a profound effect in the habitats they’ve invaded.

The fact is, all species are colonists. Some precede others, such as trout, which arrived in the Eastern Cape before catfish did. The trout got there more than a century ago by human whim; the catfish via aqueduct from the Orange River since 1976. Which, then, is the alien invader?

They both are, of course, but to conclude that one has a greater right to belong to the Eastern Cape than the other is to conflate native and natural and "effectively hijacks the discussions about the belonging of a species by attaching a moral value to an empirical fact", as Brown puts it.

For whites, public policy has made the issue acute, as it did for blacks under apartheid. Brown refers to the poet Antjie Krog’s narrative about belonging, in which, "despite that she is undoubtedly native in being born in South Africa and choosing this as her home, to her black interlocutors she can never be either native or natural in this place: she is forever a kangaroo — tolerated, even liked perhaps, but always out of place". Much like trout.

Rejecting blackness as a superior national claim, says Brown, does not deny the injustices of colonialism, or that redress is in the national interest, but "to deny or devalue other voices or identities is morally, politically and logically unjustifiable". To class trout as un-South African on its degree of autochthony, as the environment department does, is the same as apportioning or denying authenticity to people on the basis of melanin richness.

Although the book is written by a contemplative trout angler, and is destined to achieve cult status among anglers, it is also a scholarly and philosophical tour de force. It must be read by all South Africans who wish to gain perspective on belonging, citizenship and identity.