The Madman and the Migrant

At its broadest, this essay explores the nature of historical consciousness among a South African Tswana people. On the basis of the imagery of two Tswana men – a “madman” institutionalized by the apartheid regime and a former migrant laborer – it examines the content of Tswana historical consciousness as expressed in vernacular cultural practices, specifically in relation to productiv work and wage labor. These differ from the narrative modes of representation associated with “history” in Euromodernist contexts, and build on various poetic devices – most strikingly, on the rhetoric of contrast – to give voice to contemporary experience and its historical roots. Thus the opposed concepts of productive work and wage labor, one associated with Setswana (Tswana ways) and the other with Sekgoa (European ways), are major tropes through which Tswana construct their past and present. It is argues that this excursion into the poetics of history in South Africa illuminates very general questions concerning the connection between consciousness, culture, history, and the poetics of representation.