Eyes on the Veld

Deep in South Africa's interior sprawls Kruger National Park, the crown jewel of game preserves with 2,500 lions, 2,750 rhinos, 8,500 elephants, 30,000 zebras, 100,000 impalas...and 650 miles of boundary wire keeping animals in and poachers out. Welcome to the postmodern Eden, where everyone behaves—or else.

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
After two weeks inside the fence at Kruger, I went home to New York. I found myself drawn to the Bronx Zoo, where I strolled through the African section of the park. I saw a lion lapsed in the shade and a cheetah circling again and again on its few hundred feet of dirt path. I watched large families of Hasidic Jews, dressed in heavy black clothing, watching giraffes, and picnic-basket-bearing Latinos watching zebras. I passed people speaking Russian and Chinese, and I passed many blacks, far from Africa, who'd come to see the African animals. It was as if we shared the belief that a few hours of looking at beasts might make us each a little less beastly ourselves. In Kruger, the experience of wildlife had offered me no such consolation.

When the zoo closed we all headed to the subway and decamped to our various neighborhoods, where in all likelihood we lived surrounded by others with the same skin color as our own. On the long ride home I considered how rare it is that I venture into a black area in my own city—as rare, I suspect, as a white South African visiting a black township. And I thought how white the faces tend to be in our own national parks—often located on land from which our own indigenous people had long ago been removed. And before the subway went underground, I gazed out the window at all the fences in the tenements and schools and rubble-strewn vacant lots.

The best game drive I took in Kruger was with Ronnie Lubisi, a 29-year-old Swazi I'd befriended. He worked as a security guard at the Skukuza rest camp and lived just outside the park. When his eight-day tour of duty was over I offered him a ride home. He wanted to drive my rental car, and Avis be damned, I agreed. Ronnie had never driven a car before. We rolled down the windows, and he proceeded to troll through Kruger in a wonderfully jerky zigzag. Each time he craned his neck to look at an animal, the car swerved. He was having a great time. He opened a can of beer and gained speed. The patrolman manning a radar gun glanced at us querulously as we drove past. "I love the animals," Ronnie said. "One day I will bring my wife and son here to see the animals."

Ronnie wanted to surprise his wife by returning home behind the wheel of a car, and as we pulled up she seemed afraid at first, and then incredulous. Ronnie's house was a two-room wooden shack on a squatter's dirt plot in Mantangaleni, which had recently been renamed Mandela Village, less than a hundred yards from Kruger's fence. He had plans to build himself a bigger house; bricks that he had formed by hand were piled in a corner of the yard. When his wife told him that one of their hens had been stolen while he was off working in Kruger, Ronnie became glum. "Poached!" he shouted. "Very poor people living here," he added, gesturing toward the neighboring shacks. We sat on a tiny square of lawn that Ronnie had planted in front of his house, a patch of dust-fringed green as neatly trimmed as any lawn in a Kruger rest camp. "I cut it with scissors," he said. "I've got no machine."

We sat and drank beer and talked about animals and about apartheid and about Ronnie's hopes for the future. His wife was seven months pregnant. She stood a few feet away from us, barefoot and shy. I asked her name.

"Mercy," she said.

"In English," asked Ronnie, "what is the meaning of 'Mercy'?"

I thought about it for a minute. I could see a line of cars, Mercedes and BMWs and Toyotas, rushing to reach Kruger before the curfew. I had to get back there, too. "Mercy," I said, "is a combination of love and forgiveness. If someone has harmed you, and you forgive him, that's mercy."

Ronnie paused. He stared at me hard. "Yes, I understand."

Contributing editor Mark Levine teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.