‘Without white people, the animals will go!’: COVID-19 and the struggle for the future of South African conservation

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This article examines the potential for online activism to contest hegemonic neoliberal conservation models in South Africa, using the Covid-19 crisis as a window onto discursive struggle. National lockdown measures during the pandemic sent the vital tourism sector of an already fragile economy into deep crisis. Neoliberal and militarized conservation models, with their reliance on international travel, are examined as affected by a conjunctural crisis, the meaning of which was contested by a broad range of social actors in traditional and on social media. In 30 online news videos, racial hierarchies of land ownership and conservation labour geographies are reproduced and legitimated, as is a visual vocabulary of conservation as equivalent with guns, boots, and anti-poaching patrols. Here, hope is represented as residing in the increased privatization of public goods, and the extraction of value from these goods in the form of elite, luxury consumption. In a corpus of posts on Twitter corpus, on the other hand, significant counter-hegemonic resistance to established neoliberal conservation models is in evidence. In their replies to white celebrity conservationist Kevin Pietersen, critical South African Twitter users offer a contrasting vision of hope grounded in anti-racist equality, a rejection of any special human-animal relations enjoyed by Europeans, and an articulation of a future with land justice at its centre. The analysis supports the idea that in the “interregnum” between hegemonic social orders, pathways towards transformed futures may be glimpsed as “kernels of truth” in discursive struggles on social media.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)69-86
Number of pages18
JournalEnvironment and Planning E: Nature and Space
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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