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“The railway network had brought, for the first time, all parts of the country into a single temporal and spatial frame of reference” (Foster 155)

As I read Jeremy Foster’s article on the role of the “South African Railroad and Harbours” in the construction of South Africa as a nation, the word infrastructure kept surfacing in my mind. I decided to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary in order to perhaps discover a new way of understanding the term – and I did. I have always visualized infrastructure as the manmade structures imposed upon the world in which we live. Such an imposition would suggest the obvious visibility and intervening character of these structures. And yet, as I looked at the etymology of the word, I discovered an interesting philosophical and highly ‘colonial’ charge:

INFRA (prefix) - Denoting ‘below’, ‘beneath’ (i.e. ‘lower down than’) in respect of local situation or position. Denoting ‘below’, ‘beneath’ in respect of status or condition. Denoting ‘within.’

STRUCTURE (from Latin ‘structura’) - The action, practice, or process of building or construction. Manner of building or construction. The mutual relation of the constituent parts or elements of a whole as determining its peculiar nature or character. In linguistics: deep structure. The coexistence in a whole of distinct parts having a definite manner of arrangement. That which is built or constructed.

When I consider the meaning of the word infrastructure in this manner – as that which is below the surface or within the process of building or constructing – the word literally embodies the life blood of the colonial project. Thus access, transportation and communication as both material realities and ideological devices lie beneath or at the heart of the construction of nations.


Foster, Jeremy. “Capturing and Losing the ‘Lie of the Land’: Railway Photography and Colonial Nationalism in Early Twentieth-Century South Africa.” Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination. Ed. Joan Schwartz and James Ryan. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003. 141 -161.