Poverty and Racism - Attitudes Towards Animal Rights, Animal Welfare and Environmentalism

 By Karin Saks

To call someone a monkey boy is the worst thing you can say.” As someone who has been accepted into a number of wild baboon troops – and who feels immensely appreciative of this rare privilege - these words hit my confusion barometer. I am, after all, immensely proud to be primate.

A few weeks prior to receiving the email that held these words, I came across the extraordinary story about a young Ugandan boy (now a young man), covered in hair and walking on all fours, who had been found living with a troop of vervet monkeys. Once discovered, the boy had then adopted and rehabilitated by a missionary couple.
At the age of five, the child had run away from home, terrified after witnessing his father kill his mother. He’d then learnt how to survive in the forest by joining a troop of monkeys who came to be his closest allies.

I hoped to share this extraordinary, touching story about love and survival but when I wrote to the young man’s guardians, they refused me permission to use his photo. To be associated with monkeys was considered an enormous insult in Uganda.

Saddened to learn that this experience - which has the capacity to teach us more about cross species relationships and the complex nature of vervet monkeys - was viewed as something to be ashamed of, I pondered on the source of this. The parallels between socially constructed categories such as racism, speciesism and sexism were clearly apparent to me yet the ability to embrace this understanding appeared to come from a place of “privilege”. In South Africa, this generally translates to being in a position where one is not consumed daily by hunger and thoughts about how to feed one's family, whether one's children will survive walking to school, and how to help the family dog's mange problem without the help of a vet. Due to our human limitations, we are only able to contain a certain amount of stress and being privileged allows  us to think about aspects that do not relate to our immediate, short-term survival needs. 

Our human default mode is to understand the world firstly through our own experience. When we “see things as we are and not as they are”, our understanding is not only limited, but acting on that understanding without looking at the perspectives of those we are attempting to communicate with - and influence -  is likely to result in a useless road to nowhere.

This article aims to prioritise  working towards real change regarding the abuse of animals and the planet we share and rely on for survival.

Given that whites in South Africa make up about nine percent of the population, and that only a small percentage of whites in South Africa actively fight against cruelty for animals, and that animal rights/welfare and environmental groups are mostly made up of white people, we can conclude that the future for animals in South Africa – both domestic and wild – is likely to be bleak unless we confront the underlying human politics that plague the fight  for animals as well as the fight to save the planet.

A look into old African environmentalism in order to find some common ground between the animal rights/welfare/environmental groups and traditional groups could be a starting point. The aim of this would be to acknowledge our inter-connection - with each other and the planet which supports us. By working towards this we could extend the African concept of Ubuntu to include all life.
Poverty and Racism - Attitudes Towards Animals and the Environment
Two relevant factors which influence our relationship to animals are poverty and racism.

South Africa’s history of apartheid cannot be separated from the fight for the environment, wildlife, animal rights and animal welfare. With animal welfare and, environmental groups being largely white and whites making up a mere nine percent of the population, a clear look into how racism and poverty affects this is desperately needed in order to encourage the majority of the population to join in fighting for a compassionate, society that challenges sexism, racism, speciesism and embraces the fact that our collective struggle to survive is reliant on a healthy planet.

In South Africa, where racial capitalism caused income and social inequality during apartheid, the problems associated with poverty continue. And attitudes towards the environment and animal issues are one aspect of this. “Poverty is a major cause of social tensions and threatens to divide a nation because of the issue of inequalities, in particular income inequality. This happens when wealth in a country is poorly distributed among its citizens. In other words, when a tiny minority has all the money.” (EFFECTS OF POVERTY)

Comments – especially from those who did not suffer the worst aspects of apartheid -- stating that South Africans need to get over apartheid and move on can be found all over social media sites, yet white racism and its counterpart “reverse racism” remain strongly rooted in the present, fueling the tension. The aftermath of racial capitalism as practiced prior to 1994, with its social and economical inequalities, has followed us into the present day. 

A number of scientific ideas on evolution emerged during the 18th century that resulted  in perpetuating racist stereotypes - apes were associated in the European imagination with indigenous people and, indeed, people of African descent. “While most evolutionists believed that all human races descended from the same stock, they also noted that migration, and natural and sexual selection had created human varieties that – in their eyes – appeared superior to Africans or Aborigines.” James Bradley 

By making it seem as if people of a non-European origin were more like apes than humans, these different theories were used to justify plantation slavery in the Americas and colonialism through the rest of the world.
Religious ideas impacted on this as well; while many believed in the unity of the human species, some thought that God had created separate human species. White Europeans were described as closest to the angels, while black Africans and Aborigines were closest to the apes.

Various scientific and religious theories worked together to reinforce the European right to control large areas of the world.

Summoning up an association with monkeys taps into the reminder that has led to indigenous dispossession and the other consequences  of colonialism. When indigenous people were labelled as being closer to animals, it inevitably created a need to distance oneself from animals, hence contributing towards negative attitudes towards animal welfare.

One event which exacerbated the polarization of different groups in South Africa stands out as one we could learn from. In an annual ritual known as Ukushima, young Zulus chase a bull around a kraal, corner the bull and then suffocate the bull to death. In 2010, one of South Africa’s prominent Animal Rights groups, took the matter to court with the goal of getting this practice banned, arguing that traditions need to evolve with the times and that cultural tradition should not be used as an excuse for cruelty. That this tradition is inhumane and unacceptable cannot be argued. However, horrific cruelty can be found in various practices - mostly hidden from us - in abattoirs, medical research laboratories and factory farms. Focusing on this event led to the president’s spokesman claiming that animal right groups were acting out of a desire to impose their civilisation and that this was “racism cloaked as a defence of animal rights” He went on to say:”The disrespect and contempt for African culture and traditions demonstrated by the debate demonstrates the utter hypocrisy of those who have anointed themselves voices of reason. This is reminiscent of the arrival of the European settlers on our shores who declared that our people were barbaric heathens who needed to be civilised.”

The animal rights group denied any racist intention. The focus of their actions was based solely on preventing further cruelty.

The case was interpreted as being disrespectful to the rights bearers as it undermined the dignity of a people once oppressed under apartheid and historically patronised by colonialists.

Whether one sides with the Animal Rights Group or the President’s sentiments, what matters most to those of us who work to help animals is the fact that these actions  backfired on any initiative that seeks to counter animal abuse. 

This approach not only does not work to achieve any progress for the plight of animals, it has further polarised people in South Africa resulting in perpetuating the perception that animal rights and welfare as well as environmentalism is specifically a “white” issue.

 President Zuma sparked further debate in 2012 when he stated that; “Spending money on buying a dog, taking it to the vet and for walks belonged to white culture and was not the African way” He went on to describe people who loved dogs as......“having a lack of humanity”.
While many animal loving black South Africans certainly exist, in spite of massive poverty, the stereotypes persist.

The Khoisan co-existed harmoniously with Baboons

An approach that is more mindful of traditional cultures may help to heal the rift. There are plenty of examples illustrating a respect for the environment before the white man arrived in the Cape in 1652, established farms and then conducted an unprecedented slaughter on our wildlife (For more info - Human/Wildlife Conflict). Before this, the respectful Khoisan had co-existed peacefully with wild animals. 

Credo Mutwa is an extraordinary South African character; he is a traditional healer, psychic 
and talented storyteller. His knowledge of old Africa which has been progressively lost throughout past decades remains a crucial key to understanding our true relationship to nature and other animals. In his book, Isilwane the Animal, he describes how African people did not see us humans as separate from nature in the past: we understood that we are not above animals, trees, fishes and birds but equal to them. Read more about Old African Environmentalism here: Old Africa and the Environment

Comparing Racism and Speciesism – Human Slavery and Animal Slavery: Paul York.