Rock | Water | Life: an award-winning argument for the big picture

21 April 2023 | Story Yusuf Omar. Photo Supplied Read time 7 min.
Prof Lesley Green’s book, Rock|Water|Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa, won a prestigious 2023 ASSAf Humanities Book Award.
Prof Lesley Green’s book, Rock|Water|Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa, won a prestigious 2023 ASSAf Humanities Book Award.

Early-morning cycle rides from Cape Town’s southern coastal suburb of Noordhoek, past Masiphumelele, Ocean View, Kommetjie and Misty Cliffs, around Cape Point and towards Simon’s Town, planted a seed that has ultimately seen Professor Lesley Green land a prestigious book prize from the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).

On 30 March, Green’s book Rock|Water|Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa won the 2023 ASSAf Humanities Book Award, beating a record 44 other top-notch entries to the prize.

The award-winning book has its roots in the serenity of these early-morning rides – lonely pursuits, because “I ride slowly!”, Green admits – which offered a unique glimpse into a confluence of socio-economic ills and oddities that historically have been addressed only from divergent angles and through narrow lenses, but rarely as parts of a whole.

“The thing about cycling in that kind of silence is that you’re receptive to the stories around you,” said Green in her acceptance speech at the ASSAf Humanities Book Awards held at the Vineyard Hotel on 30 March 2023.

“That road was taking me through so many stories: stories of those who had been shipwrecked at Ocean View; stories of tourists; stories of conservation; the Arms Deal bobbing in the waves at Simon’s Town, baboons, the military, beached whales alongside refugee camps for xenophobia; electric fences; and tiny, bubbling streams in unexpected places, where shack-dwellers, surfers and bin-divers [gathered] … That road connected everything."

“Every discipline – history, geology, chemistry, trauma, big finance, the military industry – everything was along that road. And yet, as I was cycling, I was thinking that there was no discipline that could hold it together. There was no discipline that could enable me to hold all of that in one picture.”


“Every discipline – history, geology, chemistry, trauma, big finance, the military industry – everything was along that road.”

Yet when looking at the various environmental conflicts along that road, those conflicts were precisely about the “big picture being resolved with little pictures that were never adequate, so these conflicts would continue”.

And so, the seed was planted for the Environmental Humanities South programme, which Green co-founded within UCT’s Faculty of Humanities, and watered with every cycle along that long road.

Lived experience along that route, says Green, was pitted against scientific advice. The result? Enormous frustration.

“The real battles which I’d learned to recognise were shared, whether it was with baboons, or fisheries or water,” Green explains. “There was a pattern of intense rage from activists towards academics, who were trying their best to resolve conflict by presenting the best available evidence.”

But that best available evidence was not the big picture.

Thinking big

Rock|Water|Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa, then, is an ambitious (and successful) call for reacquaintance with that big picture.

By examining the interwoven realities of inequality, racism, colonialism and environmental destruction in South Africa, the book shows that the arenas in which these big-picture battles are fought are nearly endless.

Green asserts the need for environmental research and governance to transition, to help address South Africa's history of racial oppression and environmental exploitation. In-depth studies of environmental conflict in contemporary South Africa support Green’s call for a birds-eye-view approach to solving a society’s lingering problems by looking at the society as a whole.

Investigating the history of contested water access in Cape Town, struggles over fracking in the Karoo, the call for the decolonisation of science, land restitution versus the politics of soil, contests over baboon management, and the politics of sewage, Green is able to make a convincing argument for addressing landscapes as a whole, including their "past present" and "present futures" rather than only offering piecemeal solutions.

Stiff competition

And it needed to be a convincing argument to win the 2023 ASSAf prize. So competitive were this year’s entries that the judging panel split the field into two categories (Established Researcher and Emerging Researcher), and were able to convince funders to sponsor a second prize.

Even so, the panel was compelled to make two awards in the Emerging Researcher Category. Joint winners were Dr B Camminga, for Transgender refugees and the imagined South Africa: Bodies over borders and borders over bodies, and Dr Dariusz Dziewanski, for Gang Entry and Exit in Cape Town: Getting Beyond the Streets in Africa’s Deadliest City.

The ASSAf Humanities Book Award is reserved for works of scholarly non-fiction that have made a great impact on their field, and the 2023 iteration was by far the most hotly contested. The judging process is rigorous: eight of the country’s top humanities scholars are split into two groups and read each entry cover to cover. The debate that ensues is fierce, and the winners know that their prizes are richly deserved.

Remarking on the judging process, UCT Emeritus Professor Crain Soudien, a member of the judging panel, explained that through the book award, ASSAf was trying to build a culture of the humanities.

 “We are moving to make writing books a feature of the humanities landscape,” said Soudien. “We celebrate our winners; but we honour the larger community of scholars, working hard to make books count – to count in the very best sense, to count towards making a difference.”

Colonisation is ‘thingification’

Green summed up her work by drawing on decolonial writer Aimé Césaire, who described colonisation as ‘thingification’.

“I thought, that’s exactly right,” concludes Green. “Modernity-coloniality reduces the world to objects set in space and time, without thinking through the matrix of relations that set a whole landscape in motion. That was the key to being able to start to rethink the problem: by rethinking the scholarly inheritance through which we are taught to regard the world as a set of objects set in space and time, and [to] start thinking about them in terms of their relation to each other.

“So whether we’re talking about human relations, or bio-geochemistry, change – however slow, or beautiful, or revolting or violent it might be – change in the whole big picture was what we had to start to foreground, in order to understand the gaps between disciplines.”

 Green was recently awarded a US$4.4m grant by the Science For Africa Foundation to develop a social science of the African Anthropocene, in partnership with universities in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, HSRC and Leeds University.

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