Guest Column

Re-emergence of the noble savage? Colonialist myths abound in N2 Wild Coast Toll Road debate

2016-10-18 08:06

Craig McLachlan

Various debates surrounding the development of the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road have emerged in the past few months. In particular, focus has fallen on the impact that the road will have on Wild Coast communities and ecosystems.

Although environmental impact assessments conducted along the proposed route have been approved and upheld on appeal, rumblings from select NGOs and environmental groups continue to try draw attention to the overstated negative side effects that such a development may have for the people and environment of Mpondoland.

While such environmental and cultural concerns have some validity all the concerns and proposals put forward during the EIA process were studied comprehensively and all of the identified potential negative social and environmental effects have already or will be either minimised or mitigated though measures such as the careful route location, strict environmental oversight, carefully controlled land use planning and a major environmental off-set programme.

The fact that the entire EIA and its numerous studies conducted by independent experts is largely ignored by the environmental lobby is disturbing in itself. However recent new arguments related to the conservation of Amapondo cultural heritage, and the preservation of ‘traditional ways of life’ give rise for further serious concern as they seem to hark back to romanticised ideals of indigenous life and the largely discredited colonialist conceptions of the ‘noble savage.’

Popularised during the time of Europe’s expansion into Africa and the Americas, the concept of the noble savage supports stereotypical portrayals of indigenous people as existing in an ‘authentic’ state of primitivism in which they are ‘one’ with nature. Although widely critiqued, this idea was soon adopted by conservationists who started promoting an adapted version of the idea, namely, the ‘ecologically noble savage,’ which idealised indigenous and native peoples as natural conservationists living in harmony with nature.

This projection of Western-born conceptions of ‘conservationists’ onto the identities of indigenous communities was largely constructed as a means to represent an alignment between the interests of conservation and environmental groups and indigenous people.

However, since the main concerns of conservationists are not always with people, but rather the ecosystems and environment in which they live, such alignments, more often than not, are fraught with cross-cultural misinterpretations which lead to disconnects between desired intents.

To this end, while parallels can undoubtedly be found between the demands of indigenous communities and conservation NGOs, a reliance on different variations of the stereotype of the noble or ecologically noble savage to solidify such connections not only acts to negate the complexities of indigenous cultures, but also threatens the ultimate realisation of their social, developmental and economic needs.

With regard to the abovementioned Wild Coast environmental debates, not only are allusions to this colonialist idea in 2016 offensive to the people of Mpondoland – the ongoing projection of such identities onto Amapondo communities means that they risk being frozen in the past with little opportunity to contribute to South African history. This is because, such imposed identities can lead to what Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe calls “repressive authenticity,” a state in which previously colonised people continue to view themselves and act according to colonialist styled stereotypes.

In this regard, it is important to point out the danger that the perpetuation of colonial and post-colonial histories of the myth of the ‘noble savage,’ albeit indirect, can have on the further alienation of already marginalised communities indigenous to Mpondoland and the greater Transkei area.

The anti N2 Wild Coast lobby also claim to speak on behalf of the affected communities in the AmaPondo Nation and particularly for those within the Amadiba tribal authority area. These claims again show a disturbing colonial era mind-set by self-proclaiming authority on behalf of marginalised communities without a mandate to do so.

In the Mdatya, Xolobeni and Baleni villages in the Amadiba tribal authority area communities have begged SANRAL not to listen to outside voices that they insist have no authority and no mandate to speak on their behalf. In our wide reaching and ongoing local stakeholder engagements over the past year SANRAL has found overwhelming support for the road from all local stakeholders. These communities, business associations, local leadership and government entities all recognise that real and sustainable development, particularly in eco-tourism and agriculture, will only be realisable in the foreseeable future if the N2 Wild Coast road is built.

Support for the project amongst the local population has also been verified independently with a 2015 HSRC survey finding 98.8% of surveyed residents in Pondoland in support of the project. The survey also confirmed the existing widespread poverty and lack of economic opportunity across the entire Pondoland region.

In short, the continued opposition to the project and in particular the use of arguments focused largely on the preservation of traditional ways of life and heritage by the environmental lobby opposing the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road, not only promote the romanticisation of indigenous life, but also take away from the harsh realities experienced by some of the poorest communities in South Africa, communities who will stand to benefit considerably from increased development in Mpondoland, as a result of a life-giving road and economic artery.

- Craig McLachlan is SANRAL project manager for the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road project.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.



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