Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture / The Irradiated Body as Postcolonial Lost Edge / Jessica Hurley

Image credit: Normform on Shutterstock. 

Two tags adhere to South Africa after 1994: post-apartheid and post-nuclear. The country’s first democratic elections, held in April 1994, swept the African National Congress (ANC) to power, completing the process of disassembling apartheid that had begun with National Party President F.W. de Klerk’s undoing of its legal system in 1990. Faced with the reality of a crumbling and ungovernable social order and isolated in the international political system, de Klerk freed political prisoners (including the future president Nelson Mandela), ended the ban on other political parties, and repealed the laws that had formed the backbone of apartheid’s legal power over bodies, space, and representation. At the same time that he was rolling back apartheid, de Klerk also gave the order to dismantle the country’s nuclear weapons program, which at the time had produced six nuclear bombs and was in production for a seventh. This move, announced to the world in 1993, gave South Africa a particular cachet as the only country ever to have given up its status as a nuclear weapons power, and the new state rapidly became a charismatic leader in non-proliferation and a regional move to ban nuclear weapons from the continent. The Treaty of Pelindaba, which made Africa a nuclear weapons free zone, would be named after the site of South Africa’s SAFARI-I nuclear reactor as a shorthand for the act of renouncing nuclear weapons and all that they stood for.1

The story of Pelindaba itself, however, is not so simple. While “Pelindaba” entered the international lexicon as a shorthand for denuclearization, the reactor at Pelindaba was not shut down. Instead, it reinvented itself as a manufacturer of medical radioisotopes—a supposedly non-nuclear form of nuclearity for a supposedly non-colonial new reality. The Pelindaba website states that

Amazingly, the enriched uranium (HEU) used to fuel SAFARI-1, and provide uranium target plates (for the production of medical radioisotopes), was produced from the very same processes that had originally been used to create South Africa’s nuclear warheads. From weapons of mass destruction to life-saving isotopes, SAFARI-1 was at the very centre of one of the country’s most important and remarkable transformations.2

This reinvention relies on two structuring oppositions: medical radioisotopes as a technology of life that redeems nuclear weapons as a technology of death, and medical radioisotopes as a postcolonial, liberatory technology opposed to the colonial technology of the apartheid bomb. In the former they follow a US tradition dating from the 1940s that insisted on the life-giving potential of nuclearism. Take the example of a single successful radiotherapy treatment that led to an efflorescence of headlines like “Cancer Cure Found in the Fiery Canyons of Death at Oak Ridge.”3 In the latter, they develop an argument that while nuclear weapons may be inherently colonial, other nuclear things can be repurposed to post-colonial ends.4 This argument has become a key part of the ANCs nuclear policy, which against its own earlier policies continues to promote uranium mining and processing, nuclear medicine, and nuclear power in ways that negatively impact South Africa’s most disenfranchised populations.5

The oppositions that justify the ANC’s ongoing use of nuclear technologies rely on a hard edge: a framing of nuclear/postnuclear and apartheid/postapartheid in binary terms that produce both a conceptual and a temporal break between the two sides demarcated by the edge. But in both of these cases, the edge joins even as it demarcates. This is the argument made by Earthlife Africa, a South African NGO led by Makoma Lekalakala, whose anti-nuclear campaigns theorize the lost edges between past and present, nuclear and postnuclear, and apartheid and postapartheid. Through their visual representations of the irradiated body as a postcolonial lost edge, Earthlife Africa simultaneously reveal the rhetorical work required to maintain the distinctions that allow nuclearism to be seen as non-nuclear and non-colonial and the ongoing presence of colonial nuclear relations in the post-apartheid world.

Earthlife Africa, “1994 Freedom in South Africa! 2004–2994 Many more die from radiation from Pebble Bed Modular Reactors and Radioactive Waste Smelter. You and I to blame.” 2002.

In this poster from Earthlife’s 2002 campaign against the ANC’s proposed Pebble Bed Modular Reactors, a frequently used anti-apartheid image type, a photograph of black mourner-protesters carrying a coffin6, is used to historically recontextualize the freedom moment of 1994 from a future anterior perspective within which “many more die from radiation from Pebble Bed Modular Reactors and Radioactive Waste Smelter.”7 The body killed by apartheid is doubled with the irradiated body in the image of the coffin, suggesting that the ANC’s commitment to nuclear technology is a continuation of colonial technopolitics, an edge that joins rather than an edge that separates.

In another poster from the same campaign, a panel focusing on the health impacts of nuclear technologies focuses more specifically on the irradiated body as a marker of ongoing colonial harm.

Earthlife Africa, “Nuclear Energy Costs the Earth!”, 2002. Archive Laka.
Earthlife Africa, “Nuclear Energy Costs the Earth!”, 2002. Archive Laka.

In interpreting this image, I turn to the work of Frantz Fanon and especially Stephanie Clare’s analysis of his use of the categories of life and death. Reading across Fanon’s writings, Clare argues that “for Fanon, death is less a drive than the result of colonization… That is, although colonization certainly targets, in part, the life of the colonized, life itself remains generative, active, and future-oriented—the problem is that death has come to inhabit the living. Life, in other words, is not diminished; it does not become something else. The issue is that death has also come to permeate living beings and that living beings come to bear the qualities both of life and of death.”8 As Fanon describes it in The Wretched of the Earth, decolonization entails the production of a body rid of death and bursting with life: decolonized embodiment is in lively motion, “jumping, swimming, running, climbing.”9 The irradiated body, however, figures a much murkier distinction between death and life, colonial and post-colonial. The irradiated body after apartheid continues to be injured by the materials of the apartheid bomb. The radiation from those colonial materials continues to harm the generations of the postcolonial present. It continues to be a way in which death inhabits life. Nuclear/non-nuclear in South Africa is a postcolonial lost edge: the nuclear complex tries to contextualize it as a hard edge, where the transition from apartheid to democracy is the context within which the edge between nuclear-colonial and postnuclear-postcolonial is supposed to become apparent, but Earthlife Africa challenge this contextualization to reveal that there is no edge here at all. The hard edges produced by axiomatic historical periodizations such as the end of apartheid are mobile and self-replicating, bringing with them the assumption that other distinctions between before and after will be equally sharp. Nuclearized materials and bodies, bringing violent colonial relations into the post-apartheid present, demonstrate rather the softness and sometimes absence of the edge that periodization is meant to secure.

The irradiated body is an example of the “debilitated body” that Bhakti Shringarpure locates as a “Cold War ruin” in the postcolony: a site where the traces of superpower conflicts and their technological developments remain to shape visceral life long after the end of the Cold War that produced them.10 The irradiated body in South Africa reveals the Cold War, apartheid-era, and nuclear entanglements that thread through the supposedly post-apartheid and post-nuclear present. An edgeless analysis of South Africa’s nuclear past and present foregrounds continuity over disjuncture, demanding a transformation in decolonial political, scientific, and environmental practice in the present. In an essay analyzing the construction of the irradiated body in occupational and public health regulations, Shannon Cram shows how “building the nuclear body has required untangling exposure-related illnesses from the social and spatial relations that give them meaning.”11 In Earthlife Africa’s visualizations, the irradiated body is placed back within the dense web of social, historical, and spatial relations that compose it, drawing connections between historical and contemporary state practices, global politics, and embodied life and making those connections available for public scrutiny and debate. And this process has larger ramifications in post-apartheid South Africa; as Cram writes, “building the nuclear body has ultimately meant first defining life, and then determining the conditions in which that life should be considered livable.”12 Through their depictions of the nuclear body, Earthlife Africa work against the top-down definition of life imposed by the post-apartheid nuclear state (whose nuclear corporation’s motto is “actively enhancing life”), demanding instead a truly democratic and decolonial process of antinuclear worldmaking where both life and the conditions in which life is lived are open to negotiation and redefinition.

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This is part of the cluster Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. For a history of the South African nuclear weapons program see Jacob Darwin Hamblin, The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
  2. “Pelindaba Site,” NTP, accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.ntp.co.za/pelindaba-site/.
  3. Quoted in Angela N.H. Creager, Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2013), 148.
  4. For “nuclear things” see Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2014).
  5. For the ANC’s nuclear policies and the ways that they have continued apartheid-era technopolitics, see Jo-Ansie van Wyk, “The Geography of Nuclear Power, Class and Inequality,” in South African Review 6, ed. Gilbert M Khadiagala et al. (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2018), 268–84; David Fig, Uranium Road: Questioning South Africa’s Nuclear Direction (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2005).
  6. While I would normally capitalize Black in the U.S. context, this is not currently common practice in South Africa. My usage here reflects the context of the work.
  7. See for instance the prevalence of this type of photograph in the “Taking Sides. Conflict in South Africa 1984–1986. An Afrapix Exhibition” collection, archived online at the Historical Papers Research Archive at the University of the Witwatersrand, http://historicalpapers-atom.wits.ac.za/taking-sides-conflict-in-south-africa
  8. Stephanie Clare, “Geopower: The Politics of Life and Land in Frantz Fanon’s Writing,” Diacritics 41, no. 4 (2013): 60–80, 64.
  9. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 52.
  10. Bhakti Shringarpure, “The Postcolony as a Cold War Ruin: Toward a New Historiography,” Research in African Literatures 50, no. 3 (2019): 157–65, 158.
  11. Shannon Cram, “Becoming Jane: The Making and Unmaking of Hanford’s Nuclear Body,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33, no. 5 (2015): 796–812. 802
  12. Cram.
Jessica Hurley
Jessica Hurley is Assistant Professor of English and affiliate faculty in Native American and Indigenous Studies, Cultural Studies, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University. She is the author of Infrastructures of Apocalypse: American Literature and the Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Quarterly, College Literature, symplokē, Comparative Literature Studies, Commonwealth Essays and Studies, American Literature, and Extrapolation, among others. She has also co-edited special issues on the topics of Apocalypse (ASAP/Journal, 2018) and The Infrastructure of Emergency (joint special issue of American Literature and Resilience, 2021). She is currently working on her next book project, Nuclear Decolonizations.