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Fossilized conservation, or the unsustainability of saving nature in South Africa

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This paper argues that the conservation sector in South Africa is fossilized-unsustainable, outmoded and resistant to change-in two integrated ways. First, it is completely dependent on and steeped in fossil fuels and mineral extraction. The historical development of the South African economy's reliance on fossil and mineral resources provides the basis for this dependency but has since tentacularized into the very fabric of conservation and associated wildlife economies in the country. This unsustainable basis of the sector places a major stain on the ways in which South Africa's biodiversity is 'saved' for posterity. Second and relatedly, the social and labour relations that make up conservation in South Africa are fossilized in particularly racialized and gendered ways. This is socially unsustainable, as most of these relations are unjust and exploitative. Building on theories of fossil energy and labour relations that emphasise their everyday character, we argue that confronting the fossilized state of conservation in South Africa is necessary in and of itself, and a prerequisite for a broader societal transformation to sustainability. We conclude that the effective chances for this to happen are low, especially given the massive conservation attention on combatting rhino poaching in the last decade. This seems to have reinforced rather than alleviated the status quo.
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Fossilized conservation, or
the unsustainability of saving
nature in South Africa
Bram Büscher
Sociology of Development and Change, Wageningen University, the
Netherlands; Department of Geography, Environmental Management and
Energy Studies, University of Johannesburg, South Africa; Department of
Sociology and Social Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa
Stasja Koot
Sociology of Development and Change, Wageningen University, the
Netherlands; Department of Geography, Environmental Management and
Energy Studies, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
Lerato Thakholi
Sociology of Development and Change, Wageningen University, the
Netherlands
Abstract
This paper argues that the conservation sector in South Africa is fossilized unsustainable, outmoded
and resistant to change in two integrated ways. First, it is completely dependent on and steeped in
fossil fuels and mineral extraction. The historical development of the South African economysreliance
on fossil and mineral resources provides the basis for this dependency but has since tentacularized into
the very fabric of conservation and associated wildlife economies in the country. This unsustainable
basis of the sector places a major stain on the ways in which South Africas biodiversity is saved
for posterity. Second and relatedly, the social and labour relations that make up conservation in
South Africa are fossilized in particularly racialized and gendered ways. This is socially unsustainable,
as most of these relations are unjust and exploitative. Building on theories of fossil energy and labour
relations that emphasise their everyday character, we argue that confronting the fossilized state of con-
servation in South Africa is necessary in and of itself, and a prerequisite for a broader societal trans-
formation to sustainability. We conclude that the effective chances for this to happen are low,
especially given the massive conservation attention on combatting rhino poaching in the last decade.
This seems to have reinforced rather than alleviated the status quo.
Keywords
Fossil fuels, conservation, mineral-energy complex, South Africa, wildlife economy
Corresponding author:
Bram Büscher, Sociology of Development and Change, Wageningen University, Wageningen, Gelderland, the Netherlands.
Email: bram.buscher@wur.nl
Theme issue: Southern African conservation
EPE: Nature and Space
119
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
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DOI: 10.1177/25148486211062002
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Introduction
Travelling by road from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park, which many tourists visiting South
Africa do, leads one down the N4 highway along some of the most degraded and polluted land-
scapes in the country. Approaching the town aptly named eMalahleni,place of coal, the landscape
becomes dotted with coal-red power stations and large coal mountains. The air is thick with coal
dust and a brownish glow hovers over the landscape. This continues until one of the most popular
stopovers some 60 km after eMalahleni for refuelling, refreshments and sanitary breaks: the
Alzu Petroport; home to a petrol station, ve restaurants and an outdoor supply shop. Alzu is a
special petrol station: it has a small patch of land at the back of the building where you can
view (your rst) wildlife in South Africa, including rhino, gemsbok, buffalo and sable antelope.
There is a special viewing platform and the possibility to take photographs of the wildlife
through a frame that boasts the name and place of the location (Figure 1). Once you have taken
the photo, lled up with petrol and purchased some snacks, you continue the journey of another
three hoursdrive to Kruger National Park.
The Alzu petrol station and the wildlife in its backyard is an interesting metaphor for understand-
ing one aspect of the fossilized state of conservation in South Africa: from your fossil fuel-saturated
platform and with coal-red power plants and coal dust in the background, you can view and enjoy
wildlife. Alzu is literally an enclosed pocket of wildlife, made possible and surrounded by fossil
energy and mineral extraction. In this paper, we argue that conservation in South Africa generally
hailed as an international environmental leader (Death, 2011) is deeply dependent on, even
drenchedin fossil energy and mineral extraction.
1
Given climate change and other urgent envir-
onmental imperatives, breaking through this fossilized state is critical. However, considering the
Figure 1. The three authors (on the right) and two colleagues at the Alzu Petroport wildlife viewing point,
Wednesday 10 July 2019. Photo by anonymous visitor. See also: http://alzu.co.za/alzuPetroportGallery.html.
2Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
power of Mineral-Energy capital in South Africa, this is exceedingly difcult and rendered even
more so when taking into account a second connotation to fossilized conservation, namely
how the social and labour relations that make up the conservation sector are also fossilized,in
the sense that they have been preserved along very specic racialized and gendered ways.
Getting closer to Kruger, after the Nelspruit exit to the R40 road, we get a rst glimpse of these
relations. Here, the journey to South Africas wildlife mecca leads to something that often surprises
the rst-time tourist: extensive former homeland areas on both sides of the road. These hilly areas
are crowded with thousands of houses that belong to a fraction of the 2.3 million mostly Black
people that live along the western boundary of the park (Figure 2). With around 60% youth unem-
ployment, low education, scarce water resources and many other social, ecological and
political-economic problems, these areas form a stark contrast to the wildlife haven you were
expecting. Going through one of the parks gates, the communal areas stop abruptly, and you
enter wildlife territory. The gate is marked by a large sign through which the national park
agency and the parks fossil and banking sponsors bid you welcome (Figure 3). Along with the
over 1.8 million other visitors that normally ock to Kruger annually,
2
you relax and start your
rst of many game drivesto spot wildlife.
Unknown to most tourists, the communal, poverty-stricken areas they just left behind are a
crucial part of the historically built-up social and labour relations of the park they just entered.
Here live the low-wage labourers of the Kruger and other public and private reserves, most of
whom remain conspicuously invisible for tourists (Thakholi and Büscher, 2002). From cleaners,
cooks and guards to rangers, builders and managers, much of the labour in the park and private
reserves functions outside of the tourist gaze (cf. Urry, 2002), which in any event is mostly
Figure 2. Former homeland landscapes on the road to Krugers Numbi gate. Photo: Stacey Büscher-Brown,
5 February 2010.
Büscher et al. 3
xated on wildlife. Sometimes a glimpse of this comes out in the ranger diaries one can buy in the
park, but these are of the romantic and heroic kind. The dominant side of the equation, where labour
is poorly paid, highly insecure and subject to intimidation, racism and other forms of abuse, is rarely
highlighted or noted, save for in some research reports, academic works and internal memos
(Meskell, 2012; Reid-Hresko, 2018; Thakholi, 2021). What makes this situation worse, we
argue, is that the highly unequal and often abusive social relations that characterize conservation
in South Africa are deeply fossilized: stuck in rigid structures highly resistant to change.
3
The
second half of the paper confronts and analyses this second connotation of fossilizedand how
this further renders conservation in South Africa unsustainable.
This paper is based on our extensive collective research in South Africa since 2003.
4
It is meant
to provide a big-picture viewof the political economic position of conservation in the country as
well as the social relations that make up (part of) the sector.
5
The broader message that we believe is
critical is that the idea of South Africa being an international environmental leader and the states
choice to make a wildlife economythe basis for further developing the conservation sector
(Sanparks, 2020) is intensely problematic. We conclude that a structural rethinking and redesign
of the sector is urgently needed, both in and of itself and as part of a broader societal transformation
to sustainability. At the same time, the conclusion tempers expectations. Given that recent mili-
tarised and violent responses to the rhino poaching crisis have arguably reinforced rather than alle-
viated the fossilized state of conservation in South Africa, we believe the chances to confront the
status quo are low.
Importantly and despite the broad brushwe employ in this paper, we emphasise that by no
means do we argue that the conservation sector as a whole is responsible for the current, unsustain-
able status quo, or that there are no positive incentives and results or good people in the sector. To
the contrary: we know and appreciate many people in the sector and have often found that
Figure 3. Entry sign to Kruger national park Numbi gate. Photo: Bram Büscher, 5 February 2010.
4Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
problematic stereotypical behaviours (can) go hand-in-hand with gestures of kindness and generos-
ity. The aim of the paper is not to denounce (people in) the sector, but to unequivocally state that the
sectorsstructural social-environmental foundations and relations are not sustainable in the literal
meaning of the word: that these cannot and should not be maintained despite their averseness to
change. We believe this is a critical message in the current global juncture. Given the manifold,
urgent and integrated socio-environmental crises the world is facing, we must look beyond the
obvious appeals of the rich biodiversity that the South African conservation sector holds in trust
to confront the possibility that the sector is not an antidote to, but deeply implicated in these
crises. We elaborate on this in the conclusion.
Fossil South Africa
Central to our argument that conservation in South Africa is steeped in unsustainable fossil fuels is
an understanding of fossil fuel use as banal, common and everyday, combined with the depend-
ency of the South African economy on the Mineral-Extraction Complex(MEC). Starting with the
former, we follow Huber (2013) and Hughes (2017) in arguing that what is so extraordinary about
fossil fuels is that they are so remarkably ordinary. Huber (2013: xixii) states that the story of oil is
almost always told from the perspective of bigforces geopolitical strategy, oil kingdoms, titans
of oil nance and global oil capital. He argues, however, that the problem with these big stories of
oil is they ignore the fact that oil is also incredibly ordinary because it is embedded in everyday
patterns of life. In his book Lifeblood, he traces the history of fossil fuel use in the United
States and how it became constitutive of a specic cultural politics of lifeitself. Hughes (2017:
2), similarly, focuses his analysis on the everyday, intended functions of our energy system:
When platforms, pipelines, and pumps work properly, oil arrives safely at the gas tank of a motor
vehicle. Then, combusted in the engine, the hydrocarbon spews carbon dioxide into the air unnoticed
and without protest One might refer to this form of pollution as the spill everywhere. It far outweighs
local contamination, both in volume and in planetary effects. Oil, in other words, is most dangerous
when it behaves ordinarily and when people treat it as ordinary that is, as neither moral or
immoral, but amoral.
This everyday, ordinary use of fossil fuels has also infused South Africas society and economy
across all levels. In fact, not only is South African society like most others completely dependent
on the everyday use of oil for much of its transport, trade and many consumptive activities, it is
consistently the worlds top-ranked country in terms of reliance on the most polluting of all
fossil fuels, coal. According to Embers Global Electricity Review 2021, South Africa relies on
coal for 86% of its energy use, compared to a global average of 34% (Graham, 2021). As
Figure 4 shows, progress in phasing out coal towards clean energy is incredibly slow. It is no
wonder, then, that the coal eldsin Mpumalanga province, which one traverses on the way to
Kruger National Park, are in the top three worst sulphur dioxide emission hotspots in the world.
6
The South African government is aware of the scale of the challenge this creates (DME, 1998:
92-93). In its 2020 Low-emission development strategy 2050, it aspires to become a carbon-
neutral economy and society in 2050 by peaking fossil fuel use in 2025 and declining it from
2030 onwards (South African government, 2020).
7
Critics, however, argue that the governments
actions completely undermine these targets. In 2011, Weston argued that despite both peak oil and
global warming, South Africa is expanding its coal-intensive electricity infrastructure, locking the
country into a fossil fuel future that contradicts any political claims of attempting to mitigate climate
change(Weston, 2011: 142). Mwenda and Bond (2020) more recently argue that South African
and global capital do little to prevent a climate holocaust.
Büscher et al. 5
One of the reasons for the governments inactivity in this regard, is that South Africas
industrial-economic structure and development is historically based on a mineral-energy
complexthat is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, highly centralized and resistant to change (Baker
and Phillips, 2019; Fine and Rustomjee, 1996). Therefore, instead of scaling down fossil invest-
ments, we have seen a continuing expansion of coal-red energy production capacity, most
notably through the controversial Medupi power station, South Africas largest and most expensive
plant ever built (Marcatelli, 2020). Moreover, the MEC is at the basis of South African capitals
expansion plans towards large parts of the rest of Africa:
aggressive expansion plans for new power generation in southern and Central Africa provide enor-
mous potential for the continued growth of an electricity-intensive MEC-plus [minerals-energy
complex] economy out of South Africa. Once in place, this new electricity infrastructure will
provide a long-term platform for stable (if unpredictable) accumulation patterns for South African
capital. (McDonald, 2009: 37)
But again, it is not just the big energy plans and actors that we should focus on. Even more con-
sequential is the everyday, common use of fossil fuels and the way this continues to be facilitated
by the fossil fuel industry. This is less visible than large power stations like Medupi, but equally
important in determining action regarding climate change. One example of this facilitation concerns
the regular, large conferences organized by the fossil sector, like the IHS McCloskey South African
Coal Exports conferences, in 2012 attended by the rst author (Büscher, 2015). Every year, these
bring together heads of state, market leaders, executives, experts and market participants for learn-
ing, idea exchange and networkingin support of coal.
8
From participatory observations, one thing
stands out: these actors work hard to ensure the continuing smooth ow of coal into global eco-
nomic infrastructures, regardless of socio-environmental costs and organized resistance against
coal-derived energy.
9
The global infrastructures of extraction, production, consumption and nance that fossil capit-
alism subsumes, clearly took a long time to become indistinguishable from life itself, as Malm
(2016: 13) has convincingly shown. Yet the banal commonality of fossil fuels under contemporary
capitalism not only makes it difcult to shift to a low-carbon economy, it also renders invisible how
Figure 4. South Africa energy trends. Source: Graham (2021: 1).
6Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
it is the everyday basisfor most dimensions of life under late capitalism, including greensectors
such as conservation.
Fuelling conservation
Like South African society more generally, the conservation sector has become so foundationally
dependent on fossil fuels that pointing this out almost sounds trivial. Yet this is exactly the argu-
ment we want to emphasize and build on. Moreover, as the history of fossil capitalism itself was
not self-evident (Malm, 2016), the historical development of fossilized conservation was never pre-
ordained either. As Carruthers (1995) and Bunn (2003) show, especially given its green image, bar-
riers had to be overcome to enable, for example, the building of tarred roads and other modern
tourist infrastructures in Kruger National Park.
In this paper, however, we are not interested in recounting this history and the obstacles, but
emphasize the outcome, namely that fossil-fuel consumption and conservation are deeply integrated
in everyday, common ways: rst, almost all national and provincial parks and nature reserves in
South Africa have an excellent road and car infrastructure, including petrol stations. Second, the
nancing of parks and nature reserves heavily depends on tourism,
10
which is completely facilitated
and made possible by automobile and other forms of (fossil-fuelled) transport. This is further
emphasized by the fact that dangerous animals roam the parks and that motorized vehicles are
the only safe option to have millions of tourists see them (which in practice often leads to trafc
jams around sightings, see Figure 5).
Third, South Africa is the main tourist destination on the African continent and wildlife one of its
main tourist attractions. This means that the conservation sector depends for a good part on
Europeans and Americans ying far to get to South Africa, and then having to y or drive yet
further to get to the main parks (as our introduction showed). Ironically, southern Africa seems
to be the region that will be most affected by and vulnerable to climate change impacts; temperature
increases for this region are predicted as much higher than in other world regions: 3.4°C annually
(and up to 3.7°C in spring) when comparing the periods 19801999 to 20802099 (Lotz-Sisitka
and Urquhart, 2014; see also IPCC, 2021).
Fourth, much electricity used in protected areas is, like the rest of the country, dependent on coal
and hence unsustainable.
11
Fifth, many parts of the conservation sector depend on or are linked to
high-endforms of luxury tourism, which is even more fossil-fuel intensive due to private ights,
use of luxury SUV vehicles, high water consumption (e.g. bottled water, but also swimming pools
etc.), transport and a continuous promotion of excessive consumption of luxury items (like cold
champagne), and more (Koot, 2021).
12
Finally, all this links to the braaimeat culture that is
deeply engrained in the country and especially related to conservation (Brandt and Josefsson,
2017). Practically every house and campsite in all national parks have braais. This stimulates the
consumption of large quantities of meat, which has been shown to have a tremendous impact on
the global environment (Godfrey et al., 2018).
13
Above and beyond these everyday yet consequential and foundational ways in which the South
African conservation sector (and its counterpart, the tourism sector) is drenched in fossil fuels, we
argue that the countrys political economy steeped in the MEC and the conservation sectors con-
tinuing capitalist intensication provides further evidence of the sectors environmentally unsus-
tainable basis. Three main elements are critical.
First, we argue that the conservation sector is tied into the MEC in a broader way than the above
elements suggest, which focus mainly on fossil fuel consumption. Central here is that many con-
servation areas are surrounded by or even implicated in MEC activities: famous parks like
Kruger and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi are next to and impacted by mining (Cock, 2019; Leonard,
2021),
14
while other parks like Ai-Ais-Richtersveld and the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier
Büscher et al. 7
Conservation Area (GMTFCA) include extraction of diamonds and coal, respectively. Relatedly,
there are strong and intimate ties between big conservation and big MEC players: inuential
NGOs like the Peace Parks Foundation consist of and are supported by many corporate and indi-
vidual players in the fossil, MEC and related tourism, luxury goods and other industries
(Ramutsindela, 2007). Even more directly, some of these major players, like Richard Branson of
the Virgin empire, own conservation land in the Sabi Sand private nature reserve next to Kruger
while the mining giant De Beers leased their nature reserve and four other properties to
SANParks to consolidate the GMTFCA (Sinthumule, 2017).
Regarding public parks, Total is not the only sponsor of the Kruger National Park (Figure 3);
the large mining giant AngloAmerican is another (Figure 6). Coal mining is even seen as com-
plementary to conservation: in 2014 the then Department of Environment, SANParks and Coal
of Africa (now MCMining) signed a 55 million ZAR biodiversity offset agreement. The latter
operates a coal mine 7 km from the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site and has committed to dis-
burse the funds over a period of 25 years. The money will be managed by SANParks and used for
conservation and the protection of archaeological sites.
15
While high prole, this example is not
the only one: there are many more offsetting initiatives in South Africa, such indeed that in 2017 a
draft national biodiversity offset policy was published by the Department of Environmental
Affairs.
16
While all this may seem contradictory, the history of conservation shows that the sector has
always been integrated with big business, including fossil and mineral interests (Brockington
et al., 2008; Ramutsindela et al., 2011). Taylor (2016: 27), in her history of the US conservation
movement, argues that business environmentalism,an amalgam of utilitarianism, preservation-
ism, conservationism, and capitalist interests, was central to late nineteenth, early twentieth
century conservation, while MacDonald (2010) and others show that this has intensied in
recent times. Interestingly, and arguably because of its historical integration and ability to
combine a greenoutlook with business-as-usual, Ramutsindela et al. (2011: 27) show that afuent
Figure 5. Typical trafc jam in the Kruger National Park. Photo: Bram Büscher.
8Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
businesspeople particularly emphasized the conservation aspect of the biophysical environment,
more than, for example, climate change or pollution. It is for this reason, perhaps, that they are able
to point to animal populations and intact ecosystems as proof of their sustainability, while disre-
garding their highly unsustainable use of fossil fuels and celebratory participation into global con-
sumer culture.
Worryingly, the public sector seems fully on board with this. In relation to the above offset
agreement, then Acting Director General of Environmental Affairs, Ms Judy Beaumont, stated:
We have indeed reached a momentous stage in our countrys development, where sectors origin-
ally perceived to have competing mandates, have realised the common vision of growth and pros-
perity for our country, and are beginning to walk this path towards sustainability together.
17
To be
clear: this common vision as worked out in the agreement fully supports coal capitalism, and even
believes this to be sustainable. The problem here is not that the actual benets of offsets to regio-
nal or global environment are often minimal but that this joint public-private uptake of offsetting
supports a slightly modied form of business-as-usual that continues to be deeply unsustainable
(Apostolopoulou and Adams, 2017).
Second, the conservation sector in South Africa is developing rapidly, most notably through the
growth of the wildlife economy, which leads to a further integration between conservation, fossil
fuel use and consumer culture. This includes, for example, the translocation of wildlife by the
game capture industry, which depends heavily on roads, automobiles and aviation (e.g. when trans-
porting animals); the fact that some game auctions have become extravagant affairs where well-to-do
game breeders and investors y into the location; but also conservation labourers who in many areas
have to commute to work daily to service the wildlife economy. These examples are, again, forms of
regular, everydaydependence on fossil fuels, but newer dynamics in the wildlife economy seem to
intensify rather than alleviate let alone question this everyday dependence. Notable here is the
emergence of wildlife estates as new forms of nature-based living. Wildlife estates are gated estates
that leave part of their property as wildernessand are predominantly occupied (permanently or as
second homes) by bourgeois, well-to-do classes, including the (very) rich (see Koot et al., 2002).
Figure 6. Signboard for Kruger sponsor AngloAmerica at the entrance of the Orpen gate. Photo: Bram
Büscher.
Büscher et al. 9
Some of those we interviewed in the wildlife economy believed that because these estates focus
on habitation, they have little to do with conservation.
18
Yet estates often present themselves as
such. Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate, for example, believes it is a beautiful, conserved part of the
Lowveld bushveldwhile the Zandspruit Bush and Aero estate states that:
In conjunction with various specialists, our game farm manager is involved in a variety of conservation
projects on the Estate, which aid the study of endangered animals. His work also extends to the natural
vegetation on the property, ensuring that the vegetation is protected from destruction and ensuring the
natural balance is maintained.
19
Astoundingly, estates like Zandspruit do not see any contradiction between these statements and the
fact that they have aero standsalong a 1 km runway with the option of building a private hangar
for private planes: Zandspruits website shows a big 4 ×4 SUV vehicle driving into the estate while
urging viewers to move to sustainability(Figure 7). Several respondents working in the estate
sector in Hoedspruit told us that you can work in Johannesburg and leave your family safelyin
the estate, and y back home for the weekends, all of which is apparently part of sustainability
for the wealthy.
20
More generally, as Koot et al. (2002) show, Hoedspruits wildlife estates have
become directly linked to extensive patterns of global consumption that promote rather than ameli-
orate fossil fuel use.
Apart from the estates, nature reserves across South Africa are often equipped with landing strips
whose presence has moved from raising eyebrows to being celebrated as easing mobility. Another
example of the deepening relations between the wildlife economy and fossil fuels is the question-
able alliances between private and state-owned defence and security companies and SANParks in
response to (rhino) poaching (Lunstrum, 2018). Beyond green washing, the concern here is the ease
with which these partnerships have been accommodated. Even the most vocal environmental
groups against mining have let slip this marriage with defence companies, which are notorious
for pollution (idem).
Third and perhaps most consequentially, the wider conjoining of capitalism and conservation in
South Africa leads conservation to not just normalize fossil fuel use, but indeed regard the global
trajectory of (fossil) capitalism as natural and inevitable (Büscher, 2013). Oberem and Oberem
Figure 7. Zandspruit website and introduction lm. https://www.zandspruit.com/.
10 Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
(2016: 203), two prominent South African game ranchers, for example, state that commercial
game ranching has been a huge success and contribution to the economyand is indeed part of
the green economy of South Africa. They, and many of the (nearly exclusively White), contribu-
tors to their book posit commercial wildlife industries as sustainable and critical to the South
African economy despite mentioning many challengesto be overcome. They are not an exception:
most conservation actors in South Africa, in our joint experiences, do not resist but celebrate cap-
italism, while simultaneously ignoring or wishing away deep contradictions, even those that may
ultimately undermine the very wildlife and ecosystems they own and wish to preserve.
21
But if indeed capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with a sustainable world and solving
current ecological crises (Büscher and Fletcher, 2020), then conservations long historical
embrace and continuous deepening of capitalism is intensely problematic and outmoded. For
one, as we have shown, as conservation is not outside of capitalism, so it has never been outside
of fossil capital. And if, as Malm (2016: 279) argues, fossil capital is the energy basis of bourgeois
property relations, and conservation (in South Africa and beyond) has largely been built on these
property relations (Thakholi, 2021), then it means that the relations that undergird fossil capital and
capitalist conservation are the same or, at least, very similar.
This is something Huber (2013: xv) also stresses, namely that capital and hence fossil capital, is
not a thing but a social relation. The integration of fossil capital and capitalist conservation means
that they fundamentally share relations focused not on sustainability but, rst and foremost, on
private property, growth markets, unequal labour relations and prot. These relations were laid
bare when international travel was suspended as a result of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, which
exposed the deep dependency of conservation even animal lives on travel and fossil fuel.
22
It also showed that these relations go far beyond fossil fuels, into the broader social domain that
undergirds conservation. These relations, too, have a long and unsustainable history in South
Africa that has become fossilized in problematic ways.
Fossilized social relations
Social relations in the conservation sector in South Africa are deeply fossilized and resistant to
change, particularly in racial but also in gendered ways (Brandt and Josefsson, 2017; Kepe,
2009; Koot, 2016; Musavengane and Leonard, 2019; Ramutsindela et al., 2011; Thakholi,
2021). We will discuss both, but start by noting that these largely preserved social relations
(can) serve a similar purpose as do fossil fuels: they energize and indeed enable capital accumula-
tion and prot. Capitalist conservation needs cheap labour to function and to be protable all of
which is amply provided by the continuing dismal inequality of South African society. Hence,
cheap (mostly Black) labour fuelsthe conservation sector in South Africa like fossil fuels do.
This comparison is not without precedent. David Hughes, for instance, writes about plantation
slavesas the rst fuelfor early Caribbean capitalist energy systems. The ideal for slavers and
plantation owners was a scientic slaverythat would work seamlessly and without issues: if
every slave worked at the same rate every day, then the master could reliably stock his elds
with three per fanega.
23
Laborers would function like barrels of sugar or, better yet, as wood
used to heat cane juice to a boil: they would serve as the faceless fuel of the plantation machine
(Hughes, 2017: 39).
Hughes is acutely aware that the relation between early capitalism and slavery-as-energy is not
straightforward and that the latter preceded the former. What he emphasizes is that capitalism could
not have ourished without cheaplabour and lives (and, as Patel and Moore (2017) argue, without
cheap resources more generally), while also stating that enslaved people resisted their harrowing
treatment in numerous ways. One critical way was to insist they were not faceless at all: they
were people, just like the slave-owners, and hence deserving of the same (human) rights and
Büscher et al. 11
possibilities.
24
Conservation labour, however, has a distinctive challenge in this regard: as conser-
vation is supposedly all about animals and nonhuman nature, it is often faceless. Most conserva-
tion images are without people in general, and if there are people, they are often working in the
service of conservation, like locals in traditionalgarb or service-oriented labourers (mostly
Black), or anonymous tourists (mostly White). It is therefore hard to see exploitation in the conser-
vation sector as the whole idea is to invisibilize much of the basic labour that goes into the conser-
vation experience (Thakholi, 2021).
This is not to say that Black people who sit on the exploited or neglected end of conservation do
not try to be heard. For example, when service deliveryor other protests happen in the former
homelands around Kruger, they often target the Orpen and Numbi park gates to the irritation of con-
servationists and tourism operators. So, although the relations are resistant to change, locals and
labourers still nd spaces to push back and make their claims heard. Yet, we argue that these
spaces are limited and that trying to change the status quo is challenging.
25
Next we provide evi-
dence for this, mainly in relation to race though we also briey touch on gender.
The more things change: Racial and gendered relations
Conservation in South Africa is still dominated by Whites. Although Black people have in many,
especially state conservation organisations, risen to inuential and management positions, this has
not always changed the structure of the sector in a fundamental way (yet). For instance,
Maguranyanga (2009: 183) concluded that the “‘de-racializationor Africanizationof park man-
agement does not necessarily ensure the transformationof park management practices.
Importantly, this does not mean that nothing has changed or improved in public parks; fossilized
for us means that certain structural, historical relations and ways of working are preserved and resis-
tant to change, even as we have seen Black ofcers rise to power in public conservation agencies.
One generic way to explain this is how the neoliberalization of state protected areas (and of con-
servation more generally) can reproduce the original conditions of production, including the differ-
ential value of humans along racial and gender lines, even when minorities or individuals from
previously disadvantaged groups occupy positions of power (see Pulido, 2017). More specically,
neoliberal conservation in South Africa comes with a commercial incentive to please the key cli-
entele responsible for income. And since these are still overwhelmingly White and often expect
certain experiences and images that chime with historical, exclusionary forms of park management,
it makes it harder in practice to change certain relations or management practices (Büscher, 2021).
In the private or nongovermental conservation sector, the picture changes drastically: here the
majority of those in inuential positions are White, often exclusively so. This is a conclusion
that many Whites in the conservation sector themselves also draw and which was on full display
at the 2016 CITES conference of parties, where many, especially private conservation panels
often consisted exclusively of White conservationists. If we look at conservation NGOs, a
similar picture emerges. Take, for example, the wealthy, inuential South African NGO Peace
Parks Foundation. Their top leadership has always been almost exclusively White
26
while their
elite origins in White business networks (Ramutsindela, 2007) continues to live on in their board
and current clubof donors. In May 2020, these included Anglo American, Virgin, De Beers,
Eskom and other major MEC players, as well as over 220 business and individual members, the
far majority of which are (led by) Whites.
While the Peace Parks Foundation is but one example, the fact that private conservation in South
Africa is overwhelmingly dominated by Whites is not a surprise or contested. What matters to us
here is that the social relations underpinning this racialized inequality are often very problematic
and highly resistant to change. There are several aspects to this. Most importantly are the labour
relations. While most private reserves in the country are owned and run by Whites, low-wage
12 Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
labour in these spaces is almost exclusively done by Black people. As Thakholi (2021) has shown
in her research on private conservation next to the Kruger, not only is there a starkly racialized div-
ision of labour, but this situation is compounded by the fact that low-wage labourers tend to be
stuckin manual jobs with little prospects of moving up the ladder. Koot (2016) has analysed
similar patterns in the Northern Cape, while Büscher (2013) has observed comparable issues in
KwaZulu Natal. These labour relations are a continuation of the colonial and apartheid racialized
migrant labour system (Trimikliniotis et al., 2008; Wolpe, 1972) which resulted in the aforemen-
tioned labour regimes.
Next to problematic labour relations, White-owned private conservation and wildlife economies
across South Africa are notorious for hoarding land and so inhibiting and even actively resisting
spatial justice (Thakholi, 2021). This is due in part to the fact that the land restitution process
has thus far been treated as a threat to conservation (Ramutsindela and Shabangu, 2013), so
much so that the state has made it legally impossible to restitute land in nature reserves (Mollett
and Kepe, 2018). But apart from land claims, in the Waterberg area in Limpopo, Marcatelli and
Büscher (2019) found that transformations of farms to high-end wildlife reserves forties White
land ownership while simultaneously exposing ex-farm workers and their families to many vulner-
abilities, including a lack of consistent safe drinkable water. In the Northern Cape, Koot (2016)
nds that colonial farm relations, based on paternalism, continue in todays tourism and conserva-
tion spaces, withholding local San workers from the promises that tourism often holds for them to
improve their living conditions. Similarly, in KZN, Josefsson (2014) shows that wildlife farms are
nearly exclusively White-owned spaces that almost literally –‘laager(encamp or barricade)
themselves in the land to protect their property and safety. These cases, spread across South
Africa, demonstrate that conservation remains a bastion where many Whites continue to control
land and so actively or passively resist (fundamental) transformation.
These unequal labour and property relations, in turn, fuel the private wildlife economy which
ourishes precisely because there are 60% unemployed and mostly Black youth in the country,
many of whom have no option but to work for low wages. And while there has been much political
mobilization against unequal distribution of land, labour in conservation has received much less atten-
tion, adding to the normalization and ordinariness of this unsustainable status quo. In addition to being
fossilized in racial terms, the conservation sector is also gendered in often racialized ways, again espe-
cially in private conservation and the wildlife economy. Brandt and Josefsson (2017: 28) state that
common characteristics of the South African game farmare explicitly tied to racial hierarchies
as well as patriarchal and paternalistic relationships; and to histories of contestations over belonging.
Doing research as western, White women at game farms in the eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal, they
experienced how masculinities were cultivated, how African landscapes and wildlife are eroticized,
and how White men in particular maintain a position of power, and reassert their sense of belonging in
landscapes constructed around hunting, wilderness, manhood and domination.
Burnett and Milani (2017) found that such conceptions reafrm White masculinity as belonging
to nature while othering the deviant Black poacher. Conversely, Black women, many of whom
work in hospitality and conservation NGOs, are often invisibilized and rarely celebrated as conser-
vationists (Thakholi, 2021). And even in the rare cases where they are celebrated, like in the case of
the Black Mambas, an all-Black, all-female anti-poaching unit in a private reserve in Limpopo, the
hidden reality behind their spectacularization is that White managers are still in charge of anti-
poaching and running the reserve they work in. Moreover, as they are unarmed, they often do
not feel safe in the presence of dangerous animals. In case of danger, they are supposed to call
in the all-male armed rangers to protect them. In her study on the Black Mambas, Huijssoon
(2017) referred to this situation as instrumentalizing gender.
Having said all this, a note of caution is critical. While many social relations in the conservation
sector remain problematic and resistant to change, it is important not to oversimplify or
Büscher et al. 13
overgeneralize. Draper, already in 1998 (page 801), showed that social relations have changed over
time, and that both the racial and gendered aspects of nature conservation need to be seen in a
multi-dimensional frame that accommodates the insouciant agency of people, as well as nature
(see also Dlamini, 2020). Moreover, we do see some Black leaders emerging in the sector, while
there are many (visionary) female conservation leaders, including in the private sector and, ironi-
cally, in organised wildlife crime (Hübschle, 2014).
Is all this then a matter of the more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying
goes? Yes and no. No, because we should not lose sight of the changes that have happened since the
end of apartheid, including the positive examples of Black women leaders in conservation, includ-
ing in the private sector, some of whom are simply not named.
27
At the same time, and this is the
main reason for writing the article, the social relations underpinning conservation in South Africa
remain highly problematic and have, in some situations, become even worse (Koot et al., 2002). In
this way, conservation in South Africa is not different from and perhaps even worse than the
broader society it is part of, where the hoped-for gains in equality and a post-racial society have
been very disappointing (though not unforeseen; Alexander, 2002).
Hence, the paper connects with a broader literature that shows how unequal, racialized social
relations in South Africa have endured after apartheid, especially Patrick BondsElite transition
(2014), where he convincingly showed how the transition from apartheid to post-apartheid kept
elite economic structures in place and hence a lot of Whites in power. Another reason for these
enduring social relations could be borrowed from Daggetts (2018) analysis of the fossil fuel indus-
try in the US which she suggests reproduces subjectivities of conservative White American men.
Consequently, she argues challenges to fossil-fuelled systems, and more broadly to fossil-soaked
lifestyles, become interpreted as challenges to White patriarchal rule(Daggett, 2018: 29).
Similarly, calls for just land redistribution and fair labour relations in South Africa are often erro-
neously perceived as a threat to White belonging. In this process of consolidating White power,
land ownership, agriculture and conservation have played a crucial role. Indeed, through conserva-
tion including farm conversions from agriculture to the wildlife economy Whites have been able
to consolidate and often even expand their belonging to Africathrough a focus on animals and
nature rather than relating to their fellow nonWhite citizens, all in the context of private property,
markets, unequal labour relations and continuing inequality (Brooks et al., 2011; Büscher, 2021).
Conclusion
Let us briey go back to the journey we started the paper with. There is nothing too extraordinary
about the road to the Kruger perhaps except for the quite extraordinary Alzu petrol station. And
when one travels along the 30 km Orpen road towards Krugers Orpen gate, nothing seems extra-
ordinary either. And yet the Orpen road separates two completely different worlds. On the left (or to
the north), there are private nature reserves and electried fences that skirt the road. On the right (or
to the south), there are low-income houses, interrupted by rolling hills, bushes and cows, but these
are mostly hidden from sight. The road is emblematic of the fossilized relations we discussed. To
get here, one ought to have travelled some 400 km from Johannesburg or own into local airports to
nally make this last stretch. The Orpen road also separates rich from poor and (generally) White
from Black. The main connection between these two spaces is the Black labourers that traverse the
Orpen road to work in private nature reserves. If one pays attention, they can often be seen sitting on
the side of the road. Yet most visitors focus on getting to the Orpen gate of the Kruger after a spec-
tacularly ordinary voyage, enabled by South Africas MEC.
We argue that this situation is emblematic of conservation in South Africa, which is essentially
unsustainable; it cannot and should not be maintained. This is, therefore, quite a different idea of
sustainability than the one often used by the sector, which is either focused on spectacular
14 Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
biodiversity or seems predominantly focused on the local or small scale: saving (or hoarding) wild-
life in geographical pockets of nature, complemented by using environmentally degradable mate-
rials to build tourism lodges; saving energy, prompting guests to save water, and the like.
Socially, the sector often focuses on initiatives like environmental education, creating jobs
for local community members and building schools for children. Although such initiatives
can be praiseworthy, they are at best complementary to the structural, systemic changes that
are needed to transform the sector and the context in which it operates in a truly sustainable
direction. At worst, they enhance air travel, car use and the unsustainable fossil fuel and MEC
industries, while deepening problematic race and gender relations under the guises of sustain-
abilityor development.
One major reason why this is hardly recognised is that both the intense use of fossil fuels and the
unequal social relations are completely normalized in how everydaylife simply seems to work in
South Africa (and many other places). But on reection, it is precisely this ordinariness that makes
South African conservation so fossilized: deeply outmoded, unsustainable and resistant to change.
Challenging the fossilized state of South African conservation therefore means challenging the every-
day relations it is built on. This is, clearly, a tall order. Even worse, since 2008, the rhino poaching
crisis that swept the country seems to have further entrenched rather than alleviated the fossilized state
of conservation. Ironically, the rhino is often referred to as a fossil animal, a living dinosaur that
deserves all of ourcollective energy to safeguard it from extinction. This focus on saving the
rhino from extinction, seems to not only have set back the clock on challenging the social and
fossil relations underpinning conservation but almost made this unthinkable (Büscher, 2021;
Massé, 2018). We therefore believe the chances to confront the status quo are currently low.
However, the even more recent SARS-CoV-2 pandemic showed the cracks in these relations,
therefore perhaps opening up some space for thinking differently about conservation. In our
view, if conservationists really want to do something for the environment, they should start con-
fronting and challenging the countrys MEC instead of partnering with them. Furthermore, the
sector ought to move away from a reductionist, capitalist and ecocentric conceptualization of sus-
tainability to one where public values, public responsibility and human welfare, especially of mar-
ginalised people, is central to the agenda. This means challenging the highly regressive racialised
and gendered labour relations underpinning the conservation sector. Only by structurally and sys-
temically addressing these issues could the conservation sector in South Africa hope to move from a
fossilized, unsustainable state to a more convivial, sustainable state.
Highlights
The South African conservation sector presents itself as sustainable due to its focus on saving
important biodiversity.
We argue that the South African conservation sector is fossilised: unsustainable, outmoded and
resistant to change.
Fossilised conservation comes in both environmental and social dimensions, with a particular
focus on race and gender.
The chances to effectively confront the fossilized state of the conservation sector in South Africa
are currently low.
Declaration of conicting interests
The authors declared no potential conicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publica-
tion of this article.
Büscher et al. 15
Funding
The authors disclosed receipt of the following nancial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication
of this article: This work was supported by the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek
(grant no. 425-14-001).
ORCID iD
Lerato Thakholi https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9848-6499
Notes
1. In the literature on the political economy of South Africa known as the Mineral-Energy Complex(Fine
and Rustomjee, 1996).
2. SANParks https://www.sanparks.org/assets/docs/general/annual-report-2019.pdf last accessed 22 May
2021.
3. See Carter (2020: 5), who argues similarly for environmental policies in Canada that these are fossilized,
which she denes as perilously outmoded and resistant to change.
4. The paper is grounded in the combined, in-depth research experience of the three authors over many years
across the country. The rst author has been working on multiple studies on conservation and energy
issues in different parts of the country, including the Greater Kruger Area, KwaZulu Natal, Limpopo,
Western Cape and other areas, since 2003. The second author has been working in the Northern Cape
and the Greater Kruger Area since 2010, while the third author has done in-depth dissertation research
on social and labour relations in the Greater Kruger Area since 2016.
5. Especially in and around public and private protected areas, game farms and related wildlife economic and
touristic elds. We mostly exclude nongovernmental and other environmental organisations, unless they
are explicitly mentioned.
6. https://www.greenpeace.org/africa/en/press/7678/mpumalanga-so2-pollution-as-bad-as-no2-new-study-
nds/, accessed 11 October 2021.
7. The South African government has accepted that if climate change is left unabated its potential threats
could undermine the benets that it believes have been created by the countrys tourism industry since
1994. Some initiatives have been taken to greenthe tourism economy (Novelli, 2016), but so far they
seem to be marginal.
8. https://www.opisnet.com/ihsmarkit-southern-african-coal-conference/, accessed 11 June 2021.
9. Most notable here is the Life After Coal/Impilo Ngaphandle Kwamalahle campaign by Earthlife Africa
Johannesburg, groundWork, and the Centre for Environmental Rights, see https://lifeaftercoal.org.za/.
See also https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-south-africa-clings-to-coal-a-struggle-for-the-right-to-breathe,
accessed 11 October 2021.
10. According to SANParks20192020 annual report, SANParks generates 80% of its operating budget
from its ecotourism business, therefore fullment of its conservations mandate is heavily reliant on thriv-
ing and sustainable tourism operations(Sanparks, 2020: 3).
11. Sanparks even regularly puts out tender bids to supply parks like Kruger with high-grade coal, see https://
www.sanparks.org/docs/groups_tenders/2020/grade-a-peas-coal-knp/invitation-to-bid.pdf, accessed 11
October 2021.
12. See, for example, the luxury redenedcampaign by Kapama private reserve, which can easily be
described as beyond excessive: https://www.kapama.com/luxury-redened/.
13. Related issues are, for example, an increase in illegal harvesting of indigenous wood.
14. In the case of Kruger, the Phalaborwa copper mine is a major local polluter, while the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi
park is still threatened by the development of major coal mining plans (which are also heavily resisted),
see: https://saveourwilderness.org/, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-06-25-obscure-company-
targets-coal-mining-project-on-kruger-park-doorstep/, accessed 2 June 2021.
16 Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
15. See https://www.mcmining.co.za/downloads/send/70-genaral/1286-biodiversity-offset accessed 4 June
2021.
16. See https://www.environment.gov.za/sites/default/les/legislations/nema107of1998_draftnationalbio
diversityoffsetpolicy_gn40733_0.pdf, accessed 11 October 2021.
17. https://mcmining.co.za/component/jdownloads/send/70-genaral/1286-biodiversity-offset, accessed 11
October 2021.
18. First author interviews, 10 January 2017; 11 January 2017.
19. http://www.hoedspruitwildlifeestate.com/; https://zandspruit.com/about-us/wilderness/, accessed 2 June
2021. Zandspruit is the only estate in Hoedspruit with an airstrip, but elsewhere, like in the Waterberg,
there are other estates with possibilities for landing private planes, see: https://www.nyathi.co.za/.
20. First author interviews in Hoedspruit, 8 May 2017; 11 May 2017.
21. This, obviously, is not only a South African phenomenon. Another typical example of fossilized conser-
vation is the United States, see: https://harpers.org/archive/2021/04/the-business-of-scenery-why-national-
parks-need-new-management/.
22. https://time.com/5888730/south-africa-conservation-private-game-reserve/, accessed 2 june 2021.
23. A fanega is approximately 3 hectares.
24. To be sure: we are in no way suggesting that contemporary conservation uses or condones slave labour.
This is a historical example that serves to make the point that cheap labour is, and always has been, critical
for capitalism to work.
25. As we noticed when we ourselves tried to raise these issues in our research in Hoedspruit on 11 July 2019.
26. See https://www.peaceparks.org/about/team/.
27. See, for example, Lewyn Mafela who runs the bush babys: https://www.pointfoundation.co.uk/bush-
babies-environmental-education-programme/, or some of the leaders of Southern African Trust: https://
southernafricatrust.org/team/.
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... The lifestyle in HWE and other estates, while masked under the veneer of sustainability is far more resource-intensive than the Mokoena and Bangu settlement. The infrastructure, frequent travel of residents, 20 high consumption lifestyles, dependency on coal-fired energy and many Sport utility vehicles (SUVs) arguably make wildlife estates the opposite of eco-friendly (Büscher et al., 2021). ...
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