Over the past few days, a “secret meeting” has been underway in Polokwane of the African Wildlife Consultative Forum, consisting of South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), and Safari Club International (SCI), a big United States hunting network. A leaked agenda suggests the conference aims to build a pro-hunting lobby, in the face of increasing pressure on trophy hunting practices in Southern Africa. Whose interests are served in this forum?
Media attention and public outcry, like in cases such as the killing of Cecil the Lion, in Zimbabwe, are a nightmare for the trophy-hunting industry, which claims to contribute to sustainable development and conservation. The dominant narratives in the media are pro-conservation, and rarely analyse trophy-hunting, critically, in the context of power, and of property relations in South Africa. Based on my research with game farm workers in the Eastern Cape, I want to add another story to the debate. It is the story of the politics of land, and belonging in postcolonial Southern Africa, and the ways the wildlife industry violates the rights of black people.
First of all, there is a history of violence that built the wildlife industry to what it is today, namely big bucks for a few owners of land and/or wildlife. In the context of colonialism and imperialism, nature conservation has been a tool to justify, and violently impose forced displacement of Africa’s indigeneous peoples, facilitated through processes of rural enclosures, and privatisation of natural resources.
With the formal creation of South Africa’s wildlife industry during the 19th century, British settlers’ land occupations, and the introduction of private property relations made hunting in the Eastern Cape exclusive to white land owners, and their hunting friends. An emerging rural elite competed with urban and working class whites for hunting permits that were exclusively obtained for sporting purposes. In the process, black people were systematically denied access to land and natural resources; their hunting was either categorised as inferior (“subsistance”) or illegal (“poaching”).
Today in South Africa, privately owned land is increasingly fenced off for the creation of wildlife habitats and spaces to host and accommodate eco-tourism tourists, and trophy hunters like the American dentist who killed Cecil. The experiences of farm workers affected by these private developments are hardly ever mentioned in the either local or international media.
In 2008, Nokie du Toit, a farm worker in the Eastern Cape, was killed by a lion that he was feeding in the “lion den”. What happened to his family? Often housing is tied to labour contracts, and the end of employment means the end of having a home for the whole family. In 2011, Senzo Mkhize, a contract worker on a farm in Free State, was killed by a lion that climbed over the gate of its enclosure, and attacked him while he was fetching water from an outside tap.
The wildlife industry, and industry-funded research, claim that the profits from eco-tourism, meat production and hunting, contribute to rural economic development and job creation for the rural poor. Hunting is said to be the biggest income generator in the Eastern Cape, mostly through tourism revenues from accommodation and hunting permits. Both South Africa’s colonial and postcolonial governments have supported the wildlife industry in two ways. First, they protect property rights, and have entrenched the link between land and wildlife ownership through the Game Theft Act of 1991. Second, land reform and labour law institutions that could potentially transform relations in the countryside, are not enforced or implemented significantly.
For my PhD research, I entered into conversations with farm workers to learn about their experiences with game farming and trophy hunting, and how they are were impacted by this industry. For a year, I lived in the Eastern Cape Karoo to do ethnographic research on private farm conversions to trophy hunting. I learned that there has been no real change in the distribution of wealth between land owners and workers, because of trophy hunting. Rather, farm conversions reconfigure relations in the countryside in a manner that puts into question the potential for transformation of social relations. Farm workers are disproportionally exposed to risks, while living and working with dangerous animals like lions and buffalos. Because they generally do not carry rifles or receive employment benefits, such as medical insurance, they have little means to protect themselves from harm, disability or death. They are often not equipped by farmers with rifles when they are sent out to check fences, or do other work out in the field.
Whereas the farmers residences, and the hunting lodges, where clients stay, are often fenced off, so that the wildlife cannot enter that space, resident workers’ compounds, situated at a distance from those places, are often not. Women collecting wood, workers walking to neighbouring farms to attend church, or children walking to school over the farm, risk encounters with dangerous game, and expressed that they do not like that. This should be understood in the context of the extremely unbalanced power, and property relations in the region, and the tense and violent relational dynamics between workers and farmers (example article on Mpumalanga).
In 2009, farm worker wages were R1,231 rand a month, and since the 2012 uprisings in the Western Cape, farm worker minimum wages have been set to R2,606 rand a month. On the game farms workers sometimes were paid more than minimum wages, but like on other farms, it depended, completely, on the judgement of the farmer whether a worker is “worth” higher wages, bonuses, or other benefits. As a young man who grew up on farms, and occasionally worked as casual labourer on a trophy-hunting farm explained to me, (in 2010) about relations in the commercial farming landscape:
“And the most important thing is at the farms, you work yourself to death… For a little bit money, and after all you get older, or you get injured you been thrown out like an old shoe…That is the main thing that happens in the farm, really.”
Farm workers’ experiences on trophy-hunting farms urge us to interrogate the wildlife industry, in the context of social relations in the countryside, before we accept all sorts of assumed benefits of the industry. We should include ongoing processes of displacement, as black people are gradually displaced from commercial farms, as farms grow bigger and labour demands shrink. Few people find employment as trackers, skinners and domestic workers on game farms. And if they do, the circumstances and conditions of farm work often remain shaped by paternalist, and racist ideologies. These issues raise a series of questions that ought to be addressed.
Who is held accountable for injuries and deaths of farm workers? Do we know how many injuries and killings are caused by wildlife attacks on privately-owned game farms? What about the distribution of risk in the hunting industry? Wildlife in Southern Africa is always part of property and power relations. Inaccessible and exclusive meetings such as the one in Polokwane just show how the people in that meeting are managing to rule the game.DM