Country report - 3. South Africa

Posted: 10 July 2001

Author: Caroline Wheal

South Africa's new goldmineNelson Mandela may be South Africa's political saviour, but it is tourism that is widely seen as the backbone of the country's financial future and a way to fund social-development programmes. Caroline Wheal reports on projects for sustainable tourism - especially as it affects wildlife and people.

Since the elections of 1994 ended a decades-long struggle for human rights and put South Africa back on the map as a tourist destination, the number of visitors has risen dramatically. In 1996, the South African Tourism Board reported that almost 5 million people visited the country. More than a million of those visitors came from overseas and brought R12.5 billion (US$2.7 billion) in strong foreign currency with them.

According to one survey, scenic beauty and wildlife are among South Africa's biggest draw cards. Together with a stop in Cape Town, the average foreign tourist's two-week trip invariably includes visiting one of the country's state or private game reserves. Although 'ecotourism' has become an elastic term, stretched to describe just about any outdoor experience, paying look at wild animals is a legitimate example. Local ranger with tourist© Caroline Wheal/The Cousteau SocietyThe Kruger National Park, at almost 2 million hectares, is one of the biggest and best-known reserves in the world. It was born in 1897, when President Paul Kruger, concerned about the number of animals being killed made the area between the Sabie and Crocodile rivers into a reserve.

Creating wildlife reserves by fencing animals in and people out may have worked 100 years ago but today's runaway population growth, extreme rural poverty, plus new attitudes in South Africa mean that the 'higher fences, bigger guns' strategy is no longer acceptable or effective. Like many other colonial practices, the old way is doomed, say those involved in conservation.

There's a prickly tree in the bush known as the buffalo thorn, Ziziphus mucronata, that Zulus believe holds sacred power. The tree has two distinct types of thorn: one curved like a talon facing backwards that signifies the past, the other pointing straight ahead to the future. Its message? Let lessons learnt yesterday guide what you do tomorrow.

Game parks today must somehow balance the survival of wildlife and that of the impoverished people around them - people whose traditional hunter-gatherer means of existence was curtailed when white settlers started marking off territory with fences.

"After all, the wildlife was stolen from them in the first place," says Dr John Ledger, director of Endangered Wildlife Trust, South Africa's leading conservation society.

For reserves to last, the people who have been shut out need to see them as a benefit, not as playgrounds for a small group of rich whites from which they are excluded.

"At the end of the day, if Africa's wildlife heritage is seen as useless by the people, there will be no heritage," warns Ledger.

Protecting parks

Perceptions may be hard to change. Before the 1994 elections, some African National Congress politicians questioned the relevance of national parks to the majority of South Africans and suggested abolishing them in favour of "more productive" land use (probably grazing cattle and growing maize). Although President Mandela has so far defended parks for their potential to attract visitors and earn foreign exchange, they will have to earn their keep in the New South Africa, where basics such as clean water, housing, schools and hospitals are vying for limited funds.

"National parks need to become the pride of every South African," says Rams Rammutla, a director of operations for South Africa's National Parks Board (and the first management-level black African in what was until recently an almost all-white, Afrikaans-speaking government agency).

Rammutla has no time for aesthetics when discussing the future of the country's wildlife. Sounding more like an economist than a conservationist, he talks about the need to make animals both relevant and valuable to peripheral communities. A leaping impala is a beautiful sight but it won't contribute to people's survival unless they can eat it - or if tourists are paying to see it and spending money on accommodation, food, transportation and souvenirs at the same time.

"Wildlife is a magnet," says Rammutla. And the spin-offs of its attraction - hotels, curio shops, petrol stations, roads, electricity, telephones and emergency services - will benefit locals for much longer than the meat of an impala. "I'm very positive...once people understand the possibilities, they will voluntarily protect the parks."

Trophy hunting

Michel Girardin, Director of Operations at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, makes no excuses for the often-criticised cost of staying at a private lodge, citing the fact that more people paying less would not generate enough income to maintain the reserve, and that the extra facilities would take a higher toll on the area. "We can't lose sight of the fact that we're running a business," he says. "The only way conservation will survive is by making it profitable."

Ledger agrees. He favours anything that adds value to wildlife - and that includes controversial trophy hunting. Repugnant as the idea may be to those who cannot fathom shooting an animal with anything more than a long lens, some hunters will pay big money to kill an elephant, rhino or buffalo. If the animals are marked for culling (a necessary evil to ensure that parks don't exceed their carrying capacities) and taken during carefully monitored safaris, Ledger believes that hunters have a role to play in the wildlife conservation drama. In the case of Zimbabwe's famous CAMPFIRE programme, rural villages allow hunters to shoot trophy animals on their communal lands to generate money for development projects.

Bull elephants and impalas at a watering holeĀ© Martin Harvey/WWFRammutla calls communication "the lubricating oil of the system." But there are hurdles to clear before even that can be established. There's a deep-rooted distrust of white men and their "deals," built up over 400 years of oppression. Local communities were often forced off ancestral lands and then barred from access to the resources inside when the fences went up.

But there have been some breakthroughs.

The relationship between managers of the Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape and residents of the neighbouring Nomatamsamqa township has improved dramatically through formal committee meetings. Poaching, illegal wood-gathering, fence-pole theft and open hostility towards park rangers have been replaced by agreements that allow the community to benefit from the annual kudu culling, use discarded building materials and plan a craft market at Addo's main entrance.

Thanks to community forums, relations are also less strained between the Kruger National Park and its surrounding villages. With help from two development corporations, local entrepreneurs are providing the park with brooms, linen and staff uniforms. A group of local taxi drivers has been trained as tour guides and will be able to compete for business at the park's camps. A plant that processes culled animals employs locals. There's a children's environmental education programme in the works, and two art associations have been set up to sell locally made curios in and around the park.

Profit sharing

It isn't only national parks, with their accountability to the public, that are changing.

Conservation Corporation Africa (CCA), a company that runs 22 private game lodges in Africa, was founded in 1990 "to promote viable ecotourism opportunities across Africa." These opportunities include adult literacy programmes, setting up rural investment funds that give bursaries for tertiary education, and buying products for the lodges from locals who have been helped to set up in business.

Bongani Mountain Lodge in the Mthethomusha Game Reserve (next to the Kruger) is a model blend of conservation, tourism and community involvement. The lodge is managed by CCA but the land belongs to the Mpakeni tribe, whose chief was primarily responsible for setting up the reserve. The tribe used the land for farming and grazing until 1985, when lack of water and poor grass led them to consider setting the area aside for conservation. Fences were built and game reintroduced the following year. Bongani opened in 1990.

In this instance, tangible benefits for the Mpakeni include profit-sharing; receiving half of the meat from the annual culling; and access to thatching grass, firewood and plants for traditional medicine. Many of the staff have been drawn from the local community, and local labour is used as needed for bush clearing and road maintenance.

Other projects include hydroponic vegetable gardens to provide the lodge with produce, setting up a permanent fruit and curio stall near the park's entrance, and after-dinner performances by a local theatre group.

Opening ears

Witas Mathe comes from a small village near the Kruger National Park called Kildare. In 1987, he started working as a waiter at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, one of the luxury game lodges in the area. Today, Mathe is Sabi Sabi's community development officer, the liaison between the lodge and its two closest villages, Huntinton and Justicia. With a combined population of about 25,000, they are typical of the poor rural communities that exist throughout Africa. In need of basics such as potable water, decent housing and a reliable food source, the outlook for most of their inhabitants is grim. Yet on the other side of an electrified fence lies a bounty of resources: meat, fuelwood and space.

For the past couple of years, Mathe has concentrated on a project called "Teach the Teachers of the World," in which local teachers from 90 area schools are brought to the reserve and educated about the benefits of conserving wildlife through ecotourism. So far about 200 teachers have participated in the programme and returned to their classrooms to pass on what they've learnt.

"They can see how operations work and so can understand better," says Mathe.

Mathe says he's noticed a difference in perceptions already.

"People are opening their ears now. They're more aware of the employment possibilities of game reserves."

This awareness has been vividly illustrated recently by what has been called the 'border war' as residents of the town of Bushbuckridge in the Northern Province demanded to be incorporated into Mpumalanga province, land of the Kruger National Park and most of the country's game reserves. Why? The major reason is a desire for a slice of Mpumalanga's tourism pie and all that goes along with it: better roads, services and more chance of getting work (the Kruger alone employs about 4,000 people). Tyre barricades, rocks and petrol bombs were part of the protest, which wrought chaos for tourism in and around the Kruger.

Standard dilemma

But despite its potential, Mpumalanga is not a bottomless pot of gold. More visitors must eventually lead to the standard ecotourism dilemma: How many is too many? When will the number of tourists ruin the very attraction they came to see in the first place?

Africa already has the spectre of Kenya, generally agreed as being overexploited and notorious for surrounding a lion sighting with 20 vehicles. Botswana, with considerable foresight, decided on a 'high-cost, low-volume' approach by raising park entry fees for non-residents, thereby putting off some visitors but maintaining revenue. Which route will South Africa take? The Kruger National Park, which receives about 5,000 visitors a day and is almost fully booked year-round, is considering making some roads into one-way loops and using electric vehicles.

No matter how successful, ecotourism will never be a cure for rural poverty; and no matter how good their intentions, game lodges will never be able to give everyone living on their borders a job. But the prospects for wildlife and people are still much brighter with reserves than without.

Caroline Wheal is a freelance journalist based in South Africa and a former staff writer with the Cousteau Society.