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When Nature is Valued over Human Life

Established in 1927, the South African Railway (SAR) Publicity and Travel Department took up the project of selling South Africa as a place teeming with “unique flora, unsurpassed sunshine, exotic animals, and picturesque native life.” With a transnational ambition, South Africa’s tourist authorities—less than two decades before the founding of the apartheid state—sought to promote travel to a white South African population that did not yet know itself or its country. They also advertised the country to the rest of the “civilized” world, as a “zoological wonder.” Yet the promised wonders, for the railway company and its publicity department, included Black Africans.

Despite Black Africans making up the largest share of 20th-century train passengers, colonial South Africa (in the form of the SAR officials) insisted they did not belong there. Instead, their more suitable place was in the natural landscapes, viewed from the trains’ windows. The presence of Black people on the lands represented, for the SAR, the timeless epoch “before the white man came.” According to the National Parks Board’s 1938 visitor guide, such images represented an “unspoilt Africa.” Through government propaganda that promoted rich landscapes and newly created nature preserves, white South Africans articulated a story regarding their own past, present, and future as a race. Unfortunately, this pursuit came at Black South Africans’ expense.

In the minds of those who cultivated this story, Black people could only fit in as fading exotic spectacles of the past, or laboring subjects of an uncertain future. But as Jacob S. T. Dlamini’s Safari Nation: A Social History of Kruger National Park shows us, neither past nor future caricature captures the rich, nuanced, and sometimes surprising histories of South Africans’ life and struggle under colonial and apartheid rule.

Safari Nation offers a “black history” of South Africa’s most famous game reserve. In digging through the archives, Dlamini shows not only the complexity of Black life within and around the Kruger National Park (KNP), but also how authorities used race to determine “who could enter nature and on what terms.” Minority white rule was naturalized, while Blacks were cast as “nature’s denizens—there to be seen and to labor, but not to count as citizens.” In arguments such as this, Dlamini gestures toward the history of race and power at the root of conservation movements not only in South Africa, but around the world.

“Nature,” and efforts to protect it, have never been neutral. The term and the ensuing activity have always held ideological and political meaning, creating a means through which humans craft a polity, mythology, and history—not only of themselves, but also of those outside their imagined communities. In the past century, race has played a central role in this storytelling, whether during the Third Reich, when the Nazi elite embraced the conservationism of landscaper Alwin Seifert,1 or in colonial East Africa, where hunter-preservationists were notorious for their belligerent treatment of Africans. Rather than representing a lesser-than-human status, animals and nature have been repeatedly elevated above human life through the concept of race.

Read entire article at Public Books