St Lucia, Xolobeni and the problem of wilderness

This piece appeared in the Daily Maverick on 1 March 2019. The original article can be viewed here.

A white, middle-class view of wilderness areas is what shaped objections to strip mining in the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park during the apartheid era. A powerful alliance of environmental organisations saw plans to mine in the park banned, but where is the support today for the Xolobeni community who want to stop moves to mine their land?

In 1989, JG Kotze, Minister of Environmental Affairs in FW de Klerk’s apartheid government, announced the creation of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. This park was made up of the St Lucia Game Reserve, land held by the Natal Parks Board, State Forest land and private land. In the same year, Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, applied to strip mine titanium on three pieces of state land that it had leased from the government in 1976, but which now fell within the newly declared Greater St Lucia Wetland Park.

At the time, there was no legislation requiring that an environmental impact assessment be undertaken and the granting of mining rights was largely a formality. However, because of the ecological significance of the area, RBM undertook a brief environmental appraisal between July and September 1989 that concluded that mining should go ahead.

This decision prompted what the late journalist Eddie Kock described as “the most heated environmental controversy ever in South Africa”. As soon as it became apparent that mining was to proceed in the park, the “Campaign to Save St Lucia”, an alliance made up of more than 150 conservation and environmental organisations, was formed to contest the decision. The alliance launched a petition that was signed by 300,000 people. Despite Kotze claiming that the signatories were “fanatics who do not listen to reason”, such was the response that De Klerk’s government decided to undertake a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the proposed mining. At the time this was the most comprehensive EIA ever undertaken in South Africa. Four years later, in December 1993, a supreme court judge, who headed the panel established to assess the EIA, banned the strip mining of titanium within the park. It was concluded that “mining would cause unacceptable damage. The Greater St Lucia area is a very special asset for the nation”.

The decision to ban mining in 1993 but to pursue it relentlessly in Xolobeni in 2019, clearly begs numerous questions but for the purposes of this argument, I will focus on only two. Firstly, which members of the public opposed the mining of St Lucia and why? And secondly, how does this relate to what is happening in Xolobeni now?

The overwhelming public opposition to mining in St Lucia came from white, middle-class South Africans. At the time, conservation and environmental organisations were overwhelmingly white because most black South Africans were preoccupied with the ongoing political transition and their day-to-day survival. While the creation of Earthlife Africa in 1988 signalled the beginning of a new direction, environmental organisations in the late 1980s and early 1990s were overwhelmingly apolitical and unconcerned with wider issues of environmental and social justice. What concerned them was the preservation of wilderness areas or particular species that were under threat. Jacklyn Cock from Wits University describes this as the “authoritarian conservation perspective”.

This perspective prioritised wilderness areas above all else. But what exactly is a wilderness? In his seminal article in 1995 environmental historian William Cronon argued that a wilderness is a landscape that has been socially constructed. It is a landscape that has been artificially demarcated and, more often than not, has had people forcefully removed from it. He argues that the removal of people is crucial to the creation of the myth of “wilderness” as a “virgin landscape”, “uncontaminated” by human presence. Through this process a wilderness becomes a “pure” and “natural” landscape, to be consumed by wealthy citizens as a temporary escape from the “troubles of the world”. This characterisation fits St Lucia perfectly (even today it is described as a “world-class wilderness” on the park’s official website).

Throughout the colonial period people were ejected from the area, and this process was accelerated between 1956 and 1974 by the apartheid government via forced removals. During the same period, St Lucia became a favourite holiday destination for many middle-class white South Africans. During this early struggle over mining in St Lucia, Mike Mabuyakhulu from NUMSA summed up the situation perfectly when he remarked:

“Why all of a sudden is there this activity and protest to save the animals when there was no reaction at the time when people faced removal? Is it because, this time, there is a threat to the survival of a favourite holiday resort for whites?”

It is quite clear that white middle-class South Africans mobilised in their hundreds of thousands in the late 1980s and early 1990s to protect an imaginary “wilderness” that existed largely for their pleasure. This is not to imply that they did not care for the intrinsic value of the wetlands and the species within it but by not opposing the removal of black South Africans from the area their priorities were revealed. What was of most importance to them was the idea of a pristine wilderness that offered them a temporary escape from the tribulations of everyday life.

That a similar mass mobilisation of middle-class sensibilities has not erupted over the proposal to mine in Xolobeni is because the area is not considered, following Cronon’s formulation, a true wilderness. As such, it is not a popular tourist destination for wealthy South Africans looking to escape from the world. It is not considered a wilderness because people live and work there and, therefore, it is not celebrated in the same way as the fantasy of the “virgin landscape”.

Cronon argues that this kind of thinking that privileges some parts of nature over others is deeply problematic in the face of the ongoing climate crisis. The key problem is that it assumes that humans are not part of nature, so wherever humans are, is tainted and not worthy of preserving. But of course, humans are part of nature and have been and are everywhere. For example, the archaeological record shows that people had been living in the St Lucia area for thousands of years before they were forcibly removed.

If we reject the “wilderness” argument and accept the boundless interconnectedness between humans and the non-human world everywhere, then we begin to fully comprehend the great significance of the ongoing struggle of the people of Xolobeni to preserve their interconnectedness to the landscape within which they live.

Their battle to preserve where they live from the predations of mining is everyone’s battle, just as the battle to save the Philippi Horticultural Area is everyone’s battle. Just as every battle over access to, and use of, land and natural resources, no matter where it is, no matter how small it may appear, is everyone’s battle.

We cannot possibly hope to confront the climate crisis by narrowly focusing on the preservation of specific abstracted parts of the landscape or, for that matter, on iconic megafauna like rhinos or elephants. We must recognise the importance and interconnectedness of everything, from the smallest plant on our windowsills, to land that sustains and supports us, to the health of the oceans and the very air we breathe.

Photo of Xolobeni community by GroundUp.

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