/ 22 January 2024

Unmasking neoliberalism: Slow genocide and South Africa’s performative activism

Palestine Supporters Demonstrate In Front Of The International Court Of Justice In The Hague
Although the urgency of addressing the Gaza conflict rightfully commands our focus, it important not to lose sight of the enduring effect of neoliberal colonialism, the remnants of apartheid, and contemporary socio-political dynamics that contribute to the slow genocide of the black African majority in South Africa. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images)

In the backdrop of global injustices, the spotlight on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the tragedy unfolding in Gaza, where civilians are subjected to genocidal acts, demands our attention and condemnation. Commending South Africa’s recent initiative to bring the Israel-Palestine conflict to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) reflects a commitment to upholding international law and human rights. 

Although the urgency of addressing the Gaza conflict rightfully commands our focus, it important not to lose sight of the enduring effect of neoliberal colonialism, the remnants of apartheid, and contemporary socio-political dynamics that contribute to the slow genocide of the black African majority in South Africa. 

The question arises as to whether the move to address issues in Gaza through the ICJ, while neglecting pressing concerns in South Africa, reflects a form of selective activism. Such actions could serve as a convenient way for liberal institutions or individuals to absolve themselves of guilt on the global stage while sidestepping the urgent need for justice and equality in their own country. 

In this light the South African involvement with the ICJ regarding Gaza could be seen as a form of performative justice, where the focus on international affairs becomes a way to show a commitment to human rights without addressing the root causes of oppression at home. This outsourcing of guilt to international arenas could well be viewed as a superficial attempt to align with global norms while failing to address the internal transformation required for genuine justice. 

It is for this reason that we on the left must advocate for radical introspection to urge South Africa to confront its own historical baggage and work towards dismantling oppressive structures in the country at the same time as standing with Gaza. 

Although the term “slow genocide” is not a universally recognised or well-defined concept in academic or legal terms, it is used here to describe situations where a group of people faces a gradual and systematic destruction of their culture, identity or existence over an extended period. This may involve various forms of discrimination, persecution and violence that, while not leading to immediate mass killings, contribute to the long-term harm and potential extinction of a particular group. This concept can, therefore, be invoked in discussions about human rights violations, cultural assimilation and annihilation, displacement, and other forms of systematic harm that lead to the gradual erasure of a particular community or identity.

At the same time the similarities to the systemic treatment of the black African majority in South Africa and the term “genocide” as a specific legal definition outlined in the United Nations’ Genocide Convention, cannot be overlooked. According to the convention, genocide involves acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Acts constituting genocide include killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, imposing conditions to bring about the group’s physical destruction, and other similar actions.

As a critic of the neoliberal system in South Africa I use the term “slow genocide” to argue that the economic policies adopted in the post-apartheid era have led to a systematic displacement and destruction of the well-being, culture, and identity of millions of black African South Africans.  While the term “genocide” may not directly apply to economic policies, I use it to emphasise the severe and long-lasting effect of neoliberal principles on the majority.

Neoliberal economics, characterised by free-market capitalism, deregulation and austerity measures, has been implemented in South Africa since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. These policies have disproportionately affected the majority of resource-deprived black Africans, thereby exacerbating existing inequalities and perpetuating a cycle of poverty and deprivation. The ongoing erosion of socio-economic rights has led to a brutal form of social and economic marginalisation that jeopardises the future of millions.

Neoliberal policies in South Africa have been responsible for the reinforcing of historical disparities, with the majority of economic benefits accruing to a small elite made up mostly minority groups. Limited access to quality education, healthcare and job opportunities, coupled with the privatisation of essential services, has further contributed to the marginalisation of most black South Africans.

The slow pace of addressing historical land injustices and the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a few have fuelled desperation, depression and discontent among black South Africans dispossessed of land. The failure of the ANC government to implement comprehensive land redistribution measures has perpetuated an economic system that undermines the wellbeing, dignity, livelihoods and autonomy of the majority.

Furthermore, the global economic integration promoted by neoliberal policies has exposed the country to market fluctuations, affecting vulnerable populations disproportionately. The prioritisation of profit over people has contributed to the erosion of social services and safety nets, exacerbating destitution and hindering the development of sustainable communities. 

An example of neoliberal economics contributing to the distress in South Africa is the lack of regulation on food prices. The free-market approach, while paying lip service to promoting efficiency, has led to ever soaring food costs that disproportionately affect low-income people. This results in a scenario where access to nutritious food and adequate calories becomes a luxury for many, perpetuating a cycle of malnutrition, health disparities, and, ultimately, a threat to the lives of the most vulnerable. 

UN South Africa reported that in South Africa, 27% of children are stunted, meaning that these children will probably not reach their full growth and developmental potential because of the irreversible physical and cognitive damage caused by persistent nutritional deprivations. It further reports that South Africa will have 1.7 million stunted children in 2025. Malnutrition and starvation has been recorded as among the leading causes for death of children living below the breadline.  

An additional burden on the poor is  frequent cutting of essential services such as electricity and water to the poor in the countless townships and squatter settlements, mirroring the punitive measures faced by the Palestinian people in their struggle for autonomy. The withholding of basic necessities, whether through deliberate policy or economic neglect, has far-reaching consequences. It not only exacerbates living conditions but also jeopardises the health, well-being and, again, the lives of the marginalised.

The neoliberal state’s reliance on police and military force to maintain control over the usurped majority is an unsettling reality that mirrors Israel’s brutality against Palestinians. The massacre at Marikana in 2012 serves as a stark reminder of the extreme measures wielded by the state against those who challenge systemic injustices. The disproportionate and lethal response to the peaceful demands of mine workers showed the lengths to which the state would go to suppress dissent and uphold established hierarchies. The Covid lockdown also highlighted the potential misuse of state power, with instances of heavy-handed enforcement disproportionately affecting marginalised people. The Phoenix killings, arising in the wake of civil unrest in July 2021, exemplifies the danger of citizens succumbing to potentially genocidal behaviour when fuelled by divisive narratives. 

All of the above underscores the urgent need for citizens to critically assess the actions of the state, because unchecked power can lead to dire consequences for the very population it is meant to serve and protect. South Africa’s government is more concerned with protecting the privileged corporate class from its resource deprived majority.

Although the parallel with the situation in Palestine is unsettling, both scenarios involve the denial of fundamental human rights as a means of exerting control and perpetuating systemic inequalities. The strategic deprivation of resources in both cases underscores the gravity of the term “slow genocide” when applied to the marginalised populations of South Africa.

Drawing attention to the similarities between the treatment of South Africa’s townships and Palestine is not to equate the historical and geopolitical contexts. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the intentional deprivation of essential resources and services, whether in the form of unregulated food prices or the cutting off of utilities, disproportionately affects specific groups, driving them into a state of perpetual vulnerability.

As concerned global citizens, it is our moral duty to question the ethical implications of such policies and advocate for radical change. Neoliberal economics and perpetual colonialism, when left unchecked, contributes to a slow erosion of a group, their cultures and their lives. It is slow genocide. 

Gillian Schutte is a feminist, writer, filmmaker and social justice activist.