Professor David Bilchitz
Pretoria: I’m pleased to return to South Africa where I have been invited back to speak about the threat posed by industrial agriculture at the 14th AMT South African Agricultural Outlook Conference. The invitation arose from my earlier tour of the country where we launched Farmageddon in South Africa.
It was then that I had the great pleasure of meeting Professor David Bilchitz, director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional Human Rights and International Law. He and I spoke together at the historic Constitutional Court auditorium in Johannesburg. I am so pleased therefore to have had the opportunity to catch up with David again and am thrilled to share our conversation with you.
Philip: Is industrial animal agriculture growing in South Africa?
David: Historically African communities were small scale and free range in the truest sense of the word. The animals usually lived decent lives in a natural environment with the humans who raised them. With South Africa’s urbanisation and an increasing demand for food, we have also seen a growing demand for meat, eggs and dairy products. Despite many people remaining poor in South Africa, there is an increasing demand for meat, which has led to the push towards more intensive farming methods for animals. Increasingly small scale farms are giving way to warehouses of broiler and battery chickens.
CIWF-SA has been campaigning strongly to improve the plight of pigs which are still subject to the physical and mental torture of sow stalls. Largely there is limited awareness on the part of the public of the significant shift that has occurred gradually over time from small-scale farming towards the factory farming of animals.
Philip: What are problems that factory farming will lead to in South Africa?
David: Factory farming is neither good for humans, animals or the environment. On the human front, South Africa needs the growth of small scale farming which can help improve the livelihoods of rural South Africans. Small scale farms can also provide the opportunity for better welfare, environmental and labour standards for those working on these farms. The monopolistic concentration in large factory farms is in fact detrimental to economic development for the large number of people living in rural poverty. Factory farming also fails to transform the economy so as to provide greater ownership to larger numbers of previously disadvantaged South Africans. Small-scale farming would thus contribute to the much-needed land-reform process in South Africa.
Factory farming is devastating for animal welfare. It treats animals ‘like units in an industrial process,’ said the famous South African author J M Coetzee. It has no regard for their intrinsic value and does not respect their basic rights to bodily integrity and to live in an environment in which they can flourish. Arguably this runs counter to the essence of the new constitutional framework which requires a concern for those who are weakest and most vulnerable. And, finally, it is devastating for the environment through a range of effects it causes. These include massive pollution which often companies involved in this sector are not required to remedy; and also the large increase in greenhouse gases which contributes to the rapid advance of climate change. Producing meat is also inefficient and prevents the better utilisation of the environment to provide more vegetarian food to address the needs of the hungry and starving in our world.
Philip: You have an outstanding track record in representing many different disadvantaged groups of people and you’ve also been involved in many causes to help animals including the campaign to prevent the culling of elephants. Do you see similarities in the cases relating to humans and animals?
Prof David Bilchitz and I in April at the launch of Farmageddon in South Africa
David: The struggle for human and animal rights are not separate and distinct. They have the same philosophical basis and in fact an exclusive focus on either humans or animals is inconsistent with the notion of equality and dignity which underlie this discourse.
A focus on humans alone falls foul of a kind of categorical reasoning that was characteristic of apartheid and systems of gender and sexual orientation oppression. Privileging the human over all other animals for no other reason than their species is just as arbitrary as privileging white people over black people or men over women (for no other reason than their race or gender).
Rights must be the preserve of all who have the abilities to experience and achieve purposes within the world. Most animals have some of these capacities and therefore must be accorded the respectful treatment that is due to them. This means a major shift in the current exploitative approach towards animals and, in the immediate future, requires a rooting out of the worst forms of abuse that most people do not support.
We also know that the abuse of animals is strongly connected to the abuse of human beings, particularly women and children. A violent society like South Africa needs to recognise the power that stimulating a compassionate approach to animals can have in promoting a kinder and more caring ethos in the society. We must expand the circle of compassion to include nonhuman animals and in so doing we will advance the great ideals of the liberation struggle in South Africa and the constitution.
David Bilchitz is Professor at the University of Johannesburg and Director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law. He has also campaigned for shelters for the homeless, has taught literacy and numeracy skills to street children, and has been involved in the campaign to prevent the culling of elephants.