Conserving Inequality : Subjugating black labour and hoarding property in South Africa’s private nature reserves

Thakholi, Lerato


Globally, private conservation is increasingly posited as one of the key solutions to curb biodiversity loss. In South Africa, where wildlife can be privately owned, the wildlife economy including private conservation has been endorsed by the state as a solution to unemployment, loss of biodiversity and rural development. However, private conservation has a long history that intertwines capital, labour and property. These interlinkages have evolved with the development of new types of private conservation initiatives such as wildlife residential estates. Furthermore, these initiatives are an amalgamation of value laden decisions which lead to the preservation of some life forms while disallowing the advancement of others.

Calls to increase private sector involvement in conservation come after a wake of research that has conceptualised conservation as a mode of production in South Africa and globally. The thesis aims to contribute to this by investigating the link between private conservation, property and labour in the context of capitalist production of space.

With this aim, the thesis addresses three gaps in political ecology and geography literatures. The first gap pertains to how historical evictions manifest in contemporary conservation spaces. The second gap is the lack of systematic critical analysis of labour in the wildlife economy. The third has to do with what conservations interventions in some life forms can tell us about the biopolitics of neoliberal conservation. To fill these gaps, I asked the question: How have the interrelations between private conservation, property and labour jointly produced space in the Lowveld, South Africa and how does this impact on the possibilities for spatial justice?  

To ground this discussion, the thesis draws mainly from Marxist geographers’ conceptualization of space. The reason for this is simple and guides the theoretical contribution of all chapters, namely that “capital and the capitalist state play a leading role in producing the spaces and places that ground capitalist activity” (Harvey, 2014: 145). Consequently, because conservation is also a mode of production, it too will produce spaces that are integral for its reproduction.

The analysis is based on 16 months of ethnographic research between 2016-2019 in the Lowveld, South Africa. This region was chosen because it has the highest concentration of private nature reserves juxtaposed against an area with high unemployment rates, poor infrastructure and an inconsistent supply of water. The spatial ordering of this region is critical to this analysis. The fieldwork was divided into three phases; the exploratory phase, long fieldwork and the reconnaissance. During the latter two, I lived in Hoedspruit, a small town surrounded by private nature reserves. I employed a mixed-methods approach including; participant observation, semi-structured interviews, archival research and life histories.

Chapter 3 is the first of the four empirical chapters to explore how the interrelations between the private wildlife economy, property and labour in the Lowveld, South Africa, jointly produce space. It dissects the history of the Lowveld as presented on private nature reserves websites. This version of history is characterised by the empty lands narratives and white male pioneers who transformed ‘virgin’ lands into bustling economies. Using life histories and archival material I show that these men did not arrive in empty lands, instead, Mapulana had settled in this area for over 40 years. Furthermore, that these conservation heroes, in collaboration with the apartheid state were central in subjugating Mapulana and alienating their labour. The chapter argues that this white belonging that erases historical black presence is a mechanism of primitive accumulation because it maintains the continued separation of Mapulana from their land.

Chapter 4 analysis two conservation initiatives: share blocks in private nature reserves and residential wildlife estate as spatial fixes. It illustrates that a rapidly growing alliance between private conservation and property developers actively conserve inequality by maintaining and even extending spatial injustice in the region. It highlights three connotations of fix that are at play within these conservation spaces. The first refers to a ‘quick fix’, that is these initiatives purport to ‘fix’ nature by evoking a historically pristine wilderness that ought to be recreated or protected. The second connotation of fixed refers to pinning down to a location and immobilising conservation in place. This is exemplified by overlapping, judicial arrangements between state and private reserves which secure conservation land use in perpetuity. The last connotation of fixed refers to social relations, that is, conservation aims to secure the necessary conditions for capital accumulation including the fixing of black bodies as ‘just’ labour.

Chapter 5 explores conservation labour in private nature reserves in the Lowveld. First, I outline a history characterised by primitive accumulation which separated Mapulana from their means of subsistence and forced them into waged labour. Following this historical analysis, I discuss the work of conservation labourers in private nature reserves and their social reproduction in villages. I suggest that private conservation leeches off the reproductive work occurring in homes and villages. The chapter conceptualises conservation labour geographies as a way of unpacking questions of labour when the conservation mode of production creates geographical differentiation and expands across landscapes and intensifies production in space.

Chapter 6 compared the ways in which private conservation intervenes (or not) in rhino and conservation labours lives. It uses a biopolitical framework to show that interventions against rhino poaching might undermine the survival of rhino while simultaneously bolstering the private wildlife economy. It juxtaposes this against the way conservation labour has been governed during the responses to rhino poaching. Ultimately, I argue that value judgements to not intervene in the lives of labour exposes the hierarchy of life inherent in conservation. This hierarchy is informed by market principles because, though rhinos are fiercely protected, the interventions discussed give precedence to capital accumulation over the intrinsic value of rhino themselves. Similarly, the interventions in labourers lives create a workforce that can render just enough labour to keep the wildlife economy functioning while simultaneously disallowing life in the former homelands.

The thesis concludes that the production of private conservation spaces not only conserves socio-economic and racial inequality but actively and consistently reproduces it.