By Gillian Schutte
In the socio-economic landscape of South Africa, the impact of neoliberal economics is tantamount to a form of “slow genocide” against the dispossessed majority, argues Gillian Schutte. Examining policies such as the deregulation of food prices and the withholding of essential services from communities such as Soweto, Alex and the many other overcrowded concentration-camp like townships and shanty settlements in South Africa, Schutte draws our attention to alarming parallels in the systematic mistreatment witnessed in other parts of the world, such as the Israeli occupation in Palestine. She also questions the performative aspect of South Africa’s selective activism as a form of activism that both pleases and placates liberal logic.
In the backdrop of global injustices, the intensified spotlight on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Gaza, where civilians are subjected to atrocious genocidal acts, demands our immediate attention and unequivocal condemnation. Commending South Africa’s recent initiative to bring the Israel-Palestine conflict to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) reflects a laudable commitment to upholding international law and human rights.
However, while the urgency of addressing the Gaza conflict and genocide rightfully commands our focus, it remains paramount not to lose sight of the enduring impact 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 International Court of Justice, while neglecting pressing concerns within 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 within their nation.
In this light, the South African engagement with the ICJ regarding Gaza could be seen as a form of performative justice, where the focus on international affairs becomes a means to showcase 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 engage in the profound 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 within the country at the same time as standing with Gaza. As we South Africans stand united in the call for a ceasefire and an end to the genocide inflicted upon the Palestinian people, we must also cast a critical gaze upon our own socio-political terrain and slow genociding of the majority African population in this land.
While the term “slow genocide” is not a universally recognised or well-defined concept in academic or legal terms, it is used in this article 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 employ it to emphasise the severe and long-lasting impact of neoliberal principles on the majority – a majority upon which the state unleashes unwarranted violence, many times maiming and killing those who rise for their rights within this neoliberal dispensation.
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 African communities, 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 of minority groups while leaving large segments of the Black African population in dire poverty. Limited access to quality education, healthcare, and job opportunities, coupled with the privatisation of essential services, has further contributed to the marginalisation of Black African communities.
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 agency. 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, impacting 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.
The underlying concern contained within the term slow genocide is the aggressive systematic dismantling of the economic and social fabric of Black African communities in South Africa.
A glaring 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 communities. 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 very lives of the most vulnerable.
UN South Africa reported that in South Africa, a whopping 27% of children are stunted, meaning that these children will likely not reach their full growth and developmental potential because of the irreversible physical and cognitive damage caused by persistent nutritional deprivations.
They further report that South Africa will have 1.7 million stunted children in 2025.
Malnutrition and starvation have been recorded as among the leading causes of death of South African children living below the bread line.
An additional burden on the poor is frequent and methodical cutting off of essential services such as electricity and water to poor communities in the countless townships and squatter settlements in South Africa, which mirrors 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, ultimately the lives of those in marginalised communities.
The neoliberal state’s reliance on draconian police and military force to maintain control over the usurped majority is an unsettling reality that mirrors Israel’s brutality against Palestinians. The tragic massacre at Marikana in 2012 serves as a stark reminder of the extreme measures wielded by the state against those who dare to challenge systemic injustices. The disproportionate and lethal response to the peaceful demands of mine workers revealed the lengths to which the state would go to suppress dissent and uphold established hierarchies.
The Covid lockdown further highlighted the potential misuse of state power, with instances of heavy-handed enforcement disproportionately affecting marginalised communities. The recent Phoenix massacre, arising in the wake of civil unrest, 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 engage with the state’s actions, as unchecked power can lead to dire consequences for the very population it is meant to serve and protect. In the case of South Africa, the government is more concerned with protecting the privileged corporate class from its resource-deprived majority.
While the parallel with the situation in Palestine is unsettling, I argue that 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 communities, 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, contribute to a slow erosion of communities, their cultures, and, most importantly, the lives of the people who call them home. It is slow genocide. The comparison to international injustices serves as a stark reminder that the fight against systemic oppression is not limited to geographic boundaries; it is a universal call for justice, equality, and the recognition of the inherent dignity of all individuals.
Commending South Africa for bringing the matter of genocide to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) represents a crucial step towards addressing the urgent challenges faced by Gaza. By choosing a legal and diplomatic avenue, South Africa showcases a commitment to seeking peaceful resolutions and upholding the principles of justice. It is essential not only for Gaza but also for the majority in South Africa grappling with the effects of a slow genocide perpetuated by a neoliberal system.
As the international community awaits the verdict, hoping that this pursuit of justice will precipitate a ceasefire, we extend this hope that similar justice initiatives will happen in South Africa to alleviate the hardships faced by the South African majority, providing tangible proof that the commitment to justice is genuine and inclusive.
We stand with Palestine!
Stop the Genocide in Gaza!
We stand with the majority in South Africa!
Free all oppressed peoples of the world!