“Don’t be alarmed,” Captain Flippie Vermeulen’s voice crackled over the intercom, “but things are going to get a bit bumpy for a while.” He wasn’t joking—the next moment, our plane started lurching and plunging in a way that made Coney Island’s famous “Cyclone” rollercoaster seem like a kindergarten ride.
Notwithstanding the captain’s calm, most of us felt distinctly uneasy as our plane rocked, rattled, and rolled through the air. Across the aisle, the hulking form of ANC stalwart, Ngconde Balfour, sat tight-fisted. His usually jovial countenance had turned sickly gray. “I hate flying’’ he muttered through clenched teeth.
This was way back in October 1994, and we were on a flight from Johannesburg to Skukuza, the Kruger National Park’s capital. Nothing exceptional in that except we were in a Douglas DC-4. The four-engine DC-4s came into service during WWII and became one of the military and civilian workhorses of the skies for decades to come. By the mid-1990s, only a few remained in service worldwide, and this one had recently been lovingly overhauled as part of a small, vintage fleet available for charter by enthusiasts with a bent for aviation history.
Captain Vermeulen and his plane had been commandeered to ferry a few dignitaries and journalists to join a meeting of the IUCN Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas hosted by the then South African Parks Board. (Only in 1998 did the organization finally shed its apartheid mantle to become South African National Parks, or SANParks, it’s now commonly-used moniker.)
Any flight into the Mpumalanga Lowveld can be bumpy because of natural turbulence over the Eastern Escarpment, which drops dramatically from about 7,700 feet to a mere 922 feet above sea level at Skukuza. We had the added misfortune of running into one of the frequent, often-violent thunderstorms that lurk menacingly over the mountains, signaling a welcome end of a long, dry winter. In thick cloud, we bounced our way down into Skukuza, the weather clearing enough at the last minute for Captain Vermeulen to plant us firmly on the tarmac. A spontaneous cheer went up, and even the reliably ebullient Ngconde began to recover his equilibrium.
Dr. Robbie Robinson, a marine scientist by training, was the CEO of South Africa’s parks at this exciting time in South Africa’s transition years. His job was to start dragging the organization from its entrenched, deeply conservative position into the new order. No easy task, for it had been run almost exclusively by white, Afrikaans-speaking men who supported the ethnonationalist purview that had prevailed since 1898 when a “Government Wildlife Park” was proclaimed in the southern Lowveld. Later, it became better known as the Sabie Game Reserve. The Singwitsi Reserve in the north came into being in 1903, and then, in 1926, the two areas and some other farms were finally brought together as the Kruger National Park. As Jane Carruthers states in her excellent “de-mything” of the political and social history of the park: “Thus … when the Kruger National Park was established in 1926 it was not a sudden event, but the culmination of many movements containing many strands of protectionist thought.”
Carruthers’ book has recently been joined by Jacob Dlamini’s equally important Safari Nation, which I am currently devouring. I strongly recommend these two volumes as essential reading for anyone wanting to peer behind the curtain of the popular accounts that tend to lionize a few white men while mostly portraying black people, patronizingly, either as loyal game guards or poachers. Make no mistake, however, Kruger National Park is a conservation achievement that stands with the best in the world. It is one of the prime reasons, until the global interruption of Covid-19, that a million local and overseas visitors flock to South Africa’s Lowveld every year.
In 1990, Dr. Robinson was an excellent choice to head the organization. He was a tall, imposing figure, shy and quietly spoken, with a ready, almost boyish grin that masked a very determined personality. He started to make the first critical black appointments in the organization, which undoubtedly rattled a few cages at the parks board’s headquarters in Pretoria. In 1997 Robinson was succeeded by the equally able Mavuso Msimang, also a warm, friendly man who sported a fist of iron under his velvet glove.
But I digress. The meeting at Skuzuza was a thrilling event. For the first time, South Africa was being accepted into Africa’s fold and taking its place in the world. The evening developed into a party of note, and I was transported by the energy of the occasion. The late Ray Phiri and his magical band, Stimela, were in top form as scientists, bureaucrats, journalists, and other guests swirled around the restaurant in a kaleidoscope of brightly colored traditional attire. Skukuza’s khaki-clad staff stood around, stiff and awkward, with mouths agape—they had never seen such a thing and probably haven’t since.
Then, a stern-faced uniformed official grabbed a microphone, and grimly ordered that, “This party must stop now.” He literally pulled the plug, and the music died. It was 9 o’clock, and a Swedish couple had complained that the revelry was disturbing their quiet enjoyment of the bush at night. They had a point, I suppose, but it destroyed the mood, and we all staggered off to bed like chastened children. “Some things don’t change,” I grumbled into the night.
And they haven’t, really. Yes, much has moved on, and for the better. Much-needed-transformation has happened among the management ranks, and I honestly feel that Kruger has become friendlier and less regimented—a place where tourists are welcomed rather than tolerated. And, much to the chagrin of the “old guard”—officials and visitors alike—the sky hasn’t fallen on our heads. Kruger remains a global conservation icon and a destination of note. Probably more so than at any stage during apartheid times—this notwithstanding Covid-19 and the ravages of rhino-poaching.
What does remain is the reality that Kruger is largely estranged from most of its neighbors. This great 7,523 square-mile conservation island has Mozambique to the east and Zimbabwe to the north—both poor, corrupt, and dysfunctional. And on the South African side, things aren’t much better. Sure, Kruger’s western border is buffered by private reserves aimed at wealthy overseas visitors, as well as some large farms, almost all white-owned. But beyond lies an endless sprawl of abject rural poverty, people as physically and emotionally distanced from Kruger as they have been throughout its 85-year existence.
When James Stevenson-Hamilton came to the Sabie Game Reserve as warden in 1902, it was a place of people as well as wildlife. As Dlamini writes, “he found between two and three thousand African men women and children living there.” Also present was a military regiment, veterans of the South African War that had ended a few months before. And there were Boers (Afrikaans farmers). All of them hunted. Stevenson-Hamilton cleared them out in quick order, keeping only a few (whites) as rangers, and a handful of “native police,” and African “game watchers.” The white component would have been understandably resentful at being given their marching orders, but they were at least part of the ruling elite. However, black people were summarily pushed out from a place they had lived in for centuries, and by laws they had had no part in negotiating. For them, there was little by way of compensation, and their deliberate exclusion by decree continued for decades. In 1969, for example, the Makuleke people were forcibly removed from their land, which was then incorporated into Kruger.
Land restorations since 1994 have redressed some of the injustices of the past, but wounds run deep. The inequities of the past have been rightly laid firmly at the door of the previous regime. But we are more than a quarter of a century on from those times, and Kruger’s future will be tenuous at best if the present situation is not adequately addressed.
The responsibility for this lies partly in the hands of SANParks management and the private reserves, who must work much harder at being good neighbors. But the government at large must come to the party and quickly. Over more than two decades, corruption and its companion evil, ineptitude, have resulted in a noose of dysfunctional municipalities and government institutions around the neck of Kruger. These have to deliver the basics upon which just societies are built—education, medical care, food and water security, and opportunity. If they don’t, the noose will tighten, eventually squeezing the life out of a place that should be forever cherished globally.