An historical examination of South Africa’s biodiversity conservation and it’s link with persistent development inequality.

by Hannah Williams

South Africa (SA) is an infamous country for two very contrasting attributes: one of the most unequal countries in the world, and the third most biodiverse (Posel and Rogan, 2019; Wynberg, 2002). Over half of SA’s population live in poverty, 70% of whom live in rural areas entrenched in colonial and apartheid legacy (Aliber, 2003). Alongside economic, spatial and social inequality, SA hosts between 250,000 to 1,000,000 endemic species (Wynberg, 2002). The diversity of ecosystems and habitats, in addition to extreme inequality, promotes an ongoing challenge for the South African government, trying to balance iodiversity conservation with the nation’s social, political and economic development agenda. Despite the African National Congress (ANC), in the post-apartheid era, declaring their commitment to both issues within the ‘1996 Constitution of the Republic of SA’ (section 24 and 27), the possibility of achieving these in harmony remains practically questionable, especially alongside a governance regime where neoliberal development and economic growth has become hegemony (Hart, 2014; Kepe, 2009).

By following the political progression of the nation from colonial independence in 1934, through the National Party’s (NP) apartheid regime, to the current ANC neoliberal development project, the essay explores the complex nature of racial inequality. This demonstrates how inequality is entrenched in historical, political, spatial and economic forces. Focussing on the establishment of South African National Parks (SANPs) as the main practice of biodiversity conservation, the essay will draw upon the Kruger National Park (KNP), one of the oldest and largest reserves, to provide contextual and empirical evidence. Consequently, the dynamic links between biodiversity conservation and racial inequality will be exposed (Büscher, 2016; Kepe et al., 2004; McCarthy and Prudham, 2004).

First, analysing the influence of colonial rule and apartheid policies on racial land segregation, the rise of ‘fortress conservation’ will be examined. Following this, the post-apartheid neoliberal project of the ANC will be critiqued, analysing the implications of a neoliberal ideology on nature and society. Finally, examining SANPs as part of the ANC development project will expose biodiversity conservation’s continuation of historical racial segregation. This will conclude that neoliberalising nature, as part of a development growth-centric policy, continues and exacerbates racial inequalities founded from colonial rule.

‘Fortress Conservation’ in the apartheid regime:

SA’s independence from Britain in 1934 was followed by promotion of Afrikaner nationalism, white supremacy and Afrikaner ideologies. This resulted in the governance of the NP from 1948 to 1994, instating racial segregation policies and marking the start of the apartheid regime. Through a variety of structural policies against non-whites: Group Areas Act 1950, Population Registration Act 1950, Bantu Authorities Act 1951, Reservation of Separate Amenities Act 1953 and Bantu Self Government Act 1959, SA became a nation that was institutionally and systematically racist with structural, economic, spatial and social segregation dependent on race and class (Clark and Worger, 2013). The range of spatial policies forced rural black South Africans from their lands into peripheral Banustans, to transform ancestral land into national parks as part of the SANP project (Cock and Fig, 2000). As a result, black South Africans, 70% of the population, owned only 13% of land, resulting in forced overcrowding, increased degradation and erosion of the Banustan’s land (Cock and Fig, 2000). In contrast the whites, 30% of the population, had control of 80% of agricultural land, exacerbating poverty, social dislocation and driving environmental racism (ibid.). This history of racism, land and resource dispossession formed a country of hierarchies, boundaries, borders and power structures, overcoming all realms of society (Hart, 2014).

“In the African version of wildlife conservation history, the experience has been that game reserves are white inventions which elevate wildlife above humanity and which have served as instruments of dispossession and subjugation” (Carruthers 1995: 101).

Racialised land and resource dispossession marginalised non-white communities from land of significant ‘importance’ or value, for biodiversity or agricultural potential (Kepe et al., 2005). This had significant economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts creating a ‘fortress conservation’ regime, excluding local communities despite their indigenous knowledge and non-exploitative behaviour. This was justified by the Afrikaner rationale that local people degrade and exploit natural resources and consequently cause biodiversity loss and land degradation (Domínguez and Luoma, 2020). The dependence of the local communities on the natural resources was not considered, exacerbating poverty, economic and social inequality with devastating impacts on livelihoods and culture (ibid.). The ignorance of ancestral land rights, with colonial ideology of dominance and possession rendered black rural livelihoods as mere objects within the reserves. As a result, local people were forced to adopt colonial agricultural methods by white Afrikaners, seen as a way of civilising them, reducing the multiplicity of local livelihoods and appropriating indigenous knowledges and skills. The dominance of the nonlocal, colonial epistemology centred conservation efforts on the survival of certain species, rather than posing questions around quality of life and rural livelihoods (Harvey, 1996).

Fortress conservation, the construction of barriers and patrols authorised by the SANP, was largely driven by the white elite and external NGOs, maintaining conservation as a practice which supported and benefited colonial states and white landowners through tourism, scientific research and trophy hunting. KNP, otherwise known as ‘Fortress Kruger’ is one of the most mediated parks globally, critiqued for its impermeable separation of race and class, with the internal space a romanticised white fortress containing unspoiled nature and wildlife, acting as a “modernist form of symbolically enclaved space” (Carruthers, 1995: 67). Access to KNP by black South Africans was minimal, with poverty and lack of access to motor vehicles making it highly inaccessible. Additionally, visitors to KNP were forced to stay in an external facility in Balule, resulting in only black labourers allowed ‘inside’. The further marginalisation and forced loss of livelihoods and their disrespect towards ‘unproductive’ conservation, resulted in green militarisation and a new guerrilla warfare between poaching and hunting driven by black rural poverty and negative attitudes towards conservation (Büscher, 2016; Fabricius and de Wet, 2002).

“The colonial notion of pristine wilderness and human exclusion was sectional and exacerbated national divisions along racial lines. Rather than being a means of nation-building, the parks worked against national unity to reflect and maintain the privileges of the white minority.” (Cock and Fig, 2000: 23)

Ongoing colonial acts, and the racist class-based segregation of the NP’s apartheid regime resulted in increasing resistance and ongoing, exacerbated inequalities through conservation practices. As a result, there was increasing resistance with responding police and military brutality (Hart, 2014). Additionally, political oppressive forces on a nation scale resulted in a deep economic crisis, with extreme labour shortages, high black unemployment, and economic failure, framing the nation’s “state of emergency” (Williams and Taylor, 2000: 21). This highlights how oppressive historical policies rendered biodiversity conservation a colonial, racist and unequal practice in the form of ‘fortress conservation’.

Neoliberalising nature and the South African transition:

In response to the ‘state of emergency’, the changing governance from the NP to the ANC in 1994 saw dramatic political, structural and ideological shifts, resulting in the birth of the ‘rainbow nation’ and post-apartheid SA (Hart, 2014). This ideological shift involved an enthusiastic commitment to neoliberal ideology, inspired by the success of other country’s development across the globe and the work of the World Bank. The neoliberal development project was driven by Mandela and Mbeki’s conservative macroeconomic policies up until 2008, this resulted in the “institutional separation of society into an economic and political sphere”, believing in the constructive role of privatisation, capitalism, liberalisation, state building and regulation reform for driving development activity (Hart, 2014; Williams and Taylor, 2000: 22). Their macro-economic policies included Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), and Reconstruction and Development programmes articulated in the Government of National Unity’s (GNU) White Paper (Williams and Taylor, 2000). This national restructuring was part of the negotiation to end apartheid, a call to achieve political equality whilst driving the economy’s growth.

As neoliberalisation is the “fashioning of socio-cultural and political dynamics in commodification, commercialisation and marketisation”, market-based reform homogenised nature governance, in line with international and global ideologies of conservation regulation (Castree, 2008a: 155). This ignored local, regional and national specificity creating tension between local communities and colonial conservation agendas (Benjaminsen et al., 2008). For example, under the rhetoric of GEAR policies, nature was neoliberalised as an economic development opportunity, through strategies such as eco-tourism, trade and hunting (Castree, 2008a). Additionally, land reform in relation to conservation was framed as a positive desegregating practice, with expanding conservation areas, new models, new opportunities and improved relations between stakeholders (Fabricius and de Wet, 2002). However, the idealistic promises of GEAR to have equitable land return to local communities held significant challenges with high tensions around contrasting agendas and framings of nature’s value (Kepe et al., 2005). For example, the restructuring of the land and economy remained racialised with white capital remaining untouched with no redistribution of wealth on the GNU constitution (Ashman et al., 2011). Furthermore, historically relocated communities often refused to accept the land restitution opportunity, given stigma, lack of financial opportunity beyond ecotourism, and inappropriate unsustainable livelihood options within the parks (Garland, 2008).

As the project of neoliberalising nature by their instrumental, economic value, is a process conducted by the political and economic elite, the rural poor are further marginalised, with economic valuations not sharing the same epistemology and ontology as the local communities (Büscher, 2008). The creation of 17 national parks in the post-apartheid regime, encloses and captures resources, excluding and appropriating rural livelihoods associated with nature. These parks, in a neoliberal framing, aim to represent the complexity of SA’s biodiversity, a process through which “invaluable and complex ecosystems are reduced to commodities through pricing” (Heynen and Robbins, 2005:2 in Castee 2008b: 140). This results in nature
being fully controlled by the state and the free market, rendering nature and biodiversity vulnerable to the logics of capital (Castree, 2008b). Neoliberalising nature, thus, rationalises biodiversity, questioning the trade-off between nature and development, and the subsequent tension between development and
conservation ideology. Whilst neoliberalism makes conservation compatible with development ideology, it is at the sacrifice of relational and intrinsic value of nature and the local subsistence communities living alongside.

The failing of neoliberalism and the South African crises:

Neoliberalising nature reproduces environmental injustices, critiquing the ANC’s neoliberal hegemonic project to be a “façade” which masks inequalities (Büscher and Dressler, 2012: 369). With the growth of an elite bourgeois society, and the ongoing dispossession of the blacks and middle-lower class, economic and social dispossession of marginalised community’s continues (Ashman et al., 2011). As neoliberalism in this period was strongly idealised as a constructive project there is a notable lack of critique, specifically around how the project fitted with local and national specificity (Holmes and Cavanagh, 2016). Whilst land reclaim and land reform acts aim to reverse spatial segregation in protected fenced reserves, they remain unclear, exacerbating conflict between local communities and conservation with political forces ignorant to the unequal socio-economic and spatio-historical processes ongoing in SA. Additionally, the tension between the two objectives of the actors is worsened by land reform and legal protection remaining biased to western colonial ideology and objectives of external interventions, maintaining the characteristics of colonial fortress conservation from the apartheid era (Kepe et al., 2005).

Poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation are high up on the post-apartheid constitution, yet discussions of access and participation to conservation reserves remain infrequent in conservation and poverty discourse (Crane, 2005; Kepe, 2009). There are two dominant discourses present in current conservation; the hegemonic discourse of specific species survival from internal/external NGOs, government departments and scientific research (influenced by wider global conservation agendas), or the alternative discourse around people-nature relationships expressed by social scientists, human rights and poverty alleviation stakeholders (Büscher and Dietz, 2005). As the former remains dominant, social inclusion and participation remains a lower priority to biodiversity and development foci (Crane, 2006). For example, in 2005 only 12% of black South Africans had visited the KNP (Kepe, 2009: 875). This demonstrates how protected areas are still largely regarded as white only, or a tourist domain, probing the assumption that ecotourism is the leading solution for de-racialising conservation (Crane, 2006). In development discourse, ecotourism aims to include black local communities in protected area schemes, however in practicality the communities lack the capacity to receive maximal benefits, faced with considerable challenges in mobilising investors and attracting tourists, restricted by incompatible worldviews. Furthermore, encouraging black communities to participate in agendas such as ecotourism within these reserves can have unintended consequences on the livelihoods of the local people (Benjaminsen et al., 2008). The power dynamic between white and black communities in ecotourism and conservation areas is critiqued as a form of welfare hand out (Kepe, 2009). This power exchange between white and black communities is a colonial exchange which should be regarded as uncomfortable in future and ongoing conservation development (Büscher and Dietz, 2005).

In order to address the ongoing challenges of biodiversity conservation, a “fundamental transformation” is required to overhaul the limits to achieving sustainable, holistic growth alongside the ANC’s hegemonic project (Cock and Fig, 2000: 32). As discussed previously, systemic and institutional restructuring are occurring, with a focus on partnership with communities and co-management becoming a fundamental part of SANPs future (Garland, 2008). In the KNP, an agreement between the local indigenous Makuleke community with conservationists was struck after two years of negotiations, in the attempt of harmonising the needs of rural people with conservation agendas (Cock and Fig, 2000). This also coincided with a wider attempt to deracialise the distribution of jobs in the reserve, increasing the representation of black South Africans in higher skilled managerial roles, with 50% of directorates now black South Africans (ibid.). The agreement resulted in the reclamation of 22 thousand hectares to the Makuleke community. Whilst it is a significant achievement that locals have been able to reclaim their ancestral land, there remains a reluctance of black middle and lower class to engage in conservation. Power relations will need monitoring, to ease tensions between conservation, human rights and development stakeholders. Making biodiversity conservation more socially, economically and politically justifiable remains a principal challenge which will require institutional capacity, political will, and community cohesion (Cock and Fig, 2000; Kepe, 2009).

“The transformation of the South African National Parks from an institution of colonial to community-based conservation is part of the wider project of transforming South Africa into a just, democratic and non-racial society” (Cock and Fig, 2000: 34)

The dominant discourse of the powerful elite, in combination with the ANC’s hegemonic neoliberal project, masks the underlying oppressive forces behind biodiversity conservation, acting as one of the greatest threats to indigenous communities today (Domínguez and Luoma, 2020). Historical segregation, and the dominance of neoliberal ideologies have considerable implications on individual epistemologies and ontologies, re-determining the “common sense way many of us interpret, live in and understand the world”, becoming ingrained into local subjectivities (Harvey, 2005: 3; Holmes and Cavanagh, 2016). As a result, conservation practices value nature as an economic asset which is prioritised over the lives of the local people, exacerbating the inequalities present between the lower, middle and upper classes and white and black segregation. Attention to race in conservation discourse remains centred in the past, with little concern and awareness of the ongoing entrenched oppressive forces, now silencing a problem that was previously salient in political debate. Neoliberalism in the South African context, is arguably a failed development ideology, contributing to the South African crises (Castree, 2008a; Castree, 2008b.)

In conclusion:

Biodiversity conservation has been exposed as a significant factor for the reproduction and continuation of racial inequality, with dynamic links made evident following the progression of conservation practice alongside political transformation from the apartheid regime to present day. Fortress conservation, curated and policed by the white elite, was born during the apartheid era of spatial and racial policies, forcibly excluding rural black communities from areas of high biodiversity value to be turned into fenced national parks. This resulted in a binary between white, elite, conservationists/landowners and black marginalised livelihoods which became entrenched in individual subjectivities and framings of biodiversity conservation. As a result, values and motivations associated with biodiversity, the practice of conservation and the possible livelihoods associated were disparate between the black and white communities, leading to a highly conflicting, militarised, hierarchical power relation.

The neoliberal development project of the ANC from 1994 provided initial promise for racial segregation within SA, at a time of high salience and political will to reverse the oppressive forces of the previous government ruling. Through a range of land reform and restitution policies, in combination with a surge in community-based conservation strategies such as eco-tourism, accessibility and participation of black communities in national parks and conservation practice improved. However, the restructuring of the ANC soon became hegemony, with neoliberalisation of nature having severe consequences on previously marginalised, impoverished communities. The growth centric ideology favoured the economic value of biodiversity above the livelihoods of the local people, framing nature as a means for economic development. Whilst neoliberalising nature makes it compatible with the nation’s development agenda, it is done so at the sacrifice of relational and intrinsic value of nature and local subsistence communities. This exacerbates environmental injustice, with established efforts at reversing land and racial segregation acting as fruitless solutions incompatible with the ontologies of rural livelihoods.

Following the history of SA alongside the progression of biodiversity conservation in practice and ideology has demonstrated the role of oppressive politics in shaping and driving racial inequality. Given the severe unequal history of fortress conservation, the institutional, cultural, social and economic damage is significant. The neoliberal hegemonic project, following this regime, hid the continuation of racial segregation and impoverishment behind agendas framed as ‘accessible’ and ‘inclusive’ yet in actuality, inequality remained due to ontological tension between the powerful elite and the rural poor. In order to overcome the unequal nature of biodiversity conservation, now entrenched in actor’s subjectivities, a radical transformation is required beyond small scale restructuring policies. Until this is achieved, conservation will remain an elitist racialised project which exacerbates racial inequalities.


Aliber, A. (2003) Chronic poverty in South Africa: incidence, causes and policies. World Development, 31, 473–490.

Ashman, S., Fine, B. and Newman, S. (2011) The crisis in South Africa: Neoliberalism, financialization and uneven and combined development. Socialist Register, 47.

Benjaminsen, T.A., Kepe, T. and Bråthen, S. (2008) Between global interests and local needs: Conservation and land reform in Namaqualand, South Africa. Africa, pp.223-244.

Büscher, B. (2008) Conservation, neoliberalism, and social science: a critical reflection on the SCB 2007 annual meeting in South Africa. Conservation Biology, 22(2), pp.229-231.

Büscher, B. (2016) Reassessing Fortress Conservation? New Media and the Politics of Distinction in Kruger National Park, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106:1, 114-129, DOI:10.1080/00045608.2015.1095061

Büscher, B. and Dietz, T. (2005) Conjunctions of governance: the state and the conservation-development nexus in Southern Africa. Journal of Transdisciplinary Environmental Studies, 4(2), pp.1-15.

Büscher, B. and Dressler, W. (2012) Commodity conservation: the restructuring of community conservation in South Africa and the Philippines. Geoforum, 43(3), pp.367-376.

Carruthers, J. (1995) The Kruger National Park: a social and political history. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

Castree, N. (2008a) Neoliberalising nature: processes, effects, and evaluations. Environment and planning A, 40(1), pp.153-173.

Castree, N. (2008b) Neoliberalising nature: the logics of deregulation and reregulation. Environment and planning A, 40(1), pp.131-152.

Clark, N. and Worger, W. (2013) South Africa: The rise and fall of apartheid. Routledge.

Cock, J. and Fig, D. (2000) From colonial to community based conservation: Environmental justice and the national parks of South Africa, Society in Transition, 31:1, 22-35, DOI:10.1080/21528586.2000.10419008

Crane, W. (2006) Biodiversity conservation and land rights in South Africa: Whither the farm dwellers? Geoforum, 37(6), pp.1035-1045.

Domínguez, L. and Luoma, C. (2020) Decolonising conservation policy: How colonial land and conservation ideologies persist and perpetuate indigenous injustices at the expense of the environment. Land, 9(3), p.65.

Fabricius, C. and de Wet, C. (2002) The influence of forced removals and land restitution on conservation in South Africa. Conservation and mobile indigenous peoples: displacement, forced settlement, and sustainable development, 10, p.142.

Garland, E. (2008) The elephant in the room: confronting the colonial character of wildlife conservation in Africa. African Studies Review, pp.51-74.

Hart, G.P. (2014) Rethinking the South African crisis: Nationalism, populism, hegemony (Vol. 20). University of Georgia Press.

Harvey, D. (1996) Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Oxford: Blackwall.

Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Heynen, N. and Robbins, P. (2005) The neoliberalization of nature: governance, privatization, enclosure and valuation. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 16(1), pp.1-4

Holmes, G. and Cavanagh, C.J. (2016) A review of the social impacts of neoliberal conservation: Formations, inequalities, contestations. Geoforum, 75, pp.199-209.

Kepe, T., Saruchera, M. and Whande, W. (2004) Poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation: a South African perspective. Oryx, 38(2), pp.143-145.

Kepe, T., Wynberg, R. and Ellis, W. (2005) Land reform and biodiversity conservation in South Africa: complementary or in conflict?. The International Journal of Biodiversity Science and Management, 1(1), pp.3-16.

Kepe, T. (2009) Shaped by race: Why “race” still matters in the challenges facing biodiversity conservation in Africa. Local Environment, 14(9), pp.871-878.

McCarthy, J. and Prudham, S. (2004) Neoliberal nature and the nature of neoliberalism. Geoforum, 35(3), pp.275-283.

Posel, D. and Rogan, M. (2019) Inequality, social comparisons and income aspirations: Evidence from a highly unequal country. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 20(1), pp.94-111.

Williams, P. and Taylor, I. (2000) Neoliberalism and the political economy of the ‘new’ South Africa. New political economy, 5(1), pp.21-40.

Wynberg, R. (2002) A decade of biodiversity conservation and use in South Africa: tracking progress from the Rio Earth Summit to the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. South African Journal of Science, 98(5), pp.233-243.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: