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
Apartheid may be over, but the Kruger experience, at least for visitors, remains white, white, white. Joep Stevens, general manager of commercial development and tourism, guessed that as a percentage of the park's overnight visitors, blacks are represented in single digits. I saw no more than a handful of rather uncomfortable-looking black visitors during the two weeks I spent in the park. I asked Cindy Hart, a young Afrikaner intern in Kruger's public relations office, why she thought so few blacks visited Kruger. "The blacks came from the bush," she said. "Why would they want to go back and visit it?"

"Until '94," confided William Mabasa, the park's black public relations director, "there were two groups in the park: masters and servants." Black park workers were housed in cramped, run-down quarters, and the school in the staff village at Skukuza was for whites only, with Afrikaans the language of instruction. Since then the park has aggressively recruited blacks for management positions. David Mabunda, who was appointed park director in 1998—and who once called Kruger "the last paradise of apartheid"—is black, as are two of the seven highest-ranking managers and five of the 22 section rangers. Many whites have quit, and others continue to worry about job security. "My son, who is in university, would love to work here, but there's no place for him at Kruger for at least the next ten years," ranger Gert Erasmus told me. "For myself, I know I won't become a director because I'm white and Afrikaner and we ran the park in the past. That's reality."

Whites who have remained at Kruger know another dictate of the new reality: that cheerful lip service be given to the notion of "improving relations with local communities." For the first time in its history, Kruger needs to prove that it deserves the support of a new society. (It has already received substantial cuts in its government subsidies.) Four million of South Africa's poorest rural blacks live in townships adjoining the park. "In the past, there was a lot of animosity between the park and our neighboring communities," said tourism manager Stevens. "We said, 'Here's the fence line. We're here; you're there.' We're trying to diversify our product for disadvantaged South Africans. People want to drop off their picnic basket, put on the ghetto blaster, stretch out on the lawn, and relax. This doesn't fit into the way it was in the old Kruger. But we have to understand that we are in a new situation. The park can't afford to isolate itself."

Among the new initiatives developed at Kruger is a division called Social Ecology, which manages outreach programs with the bordering townships. On one of my last afternoons at Kruger, I drove around on the other side of the fence with Philemon Ngomane, a rail-thin, world-weary bricklayer and carpenter who had been hired by Social Ecology to train a group of woodcarvers to make and market souvenirs for tourists. It was like entering another country. Instead of thickets of green and red bushes and vast expanses of stunted mapane trees, the earth was a dust bowl, cracked and bare from overgrazing. The sides of the highway were crowded with men herding goats, children pushing wheelbarrows full of water jugs, women haggling at fruit stands. We turned down a rutted lane strewn with trash. Houses were constructed of cinder blocks or scrap wood or dried mud. None had indoor plumbing, Ngomane said, and very few had electricity. We pulled over to talk to a group of residents. Kruger was six miles away.

"No, I've never been to the park," one man said. "None of us have been. I'd like to see the animals, but I can't afford to go." Another man, who identified himself as Lucas, stepped forward and said angrily, "When it rains, sometimes lions come here from the park and kill our cattle, and the park does nothing—and they won't even let us shoot the lion." Elephants, Lucas continued, have also breached the fence and trampled the crops in nearby villages. (News reports credit holes in decrepit stretches of fence for the occasional lion or elephant escape.) "We have no 'relationship' with the park," he said.

Ngomane and I returned to the park, entering through the Paul Kruger Gate, near a garish granite statue of the father of Boer independence. Ngomane's apprentice woodcarvers were whittling away at blocks of jacaranda wood under a canvas tent by the side of the road. Despite the initiative that the park had taken to encourage their work, the woodcarvers had little goodwill toward Kruger. "We remember what the park did to us," Ngomane said, "and we have a hard time getting past our anger." What was he referring to? I asked. "Skukuza," he said.

Skukuza was the name given by Africans to James Stevenson-Hamilton, park warden from 1902 to 1946 and the man responsible for evicting the indigenous people from the territory of the newly established national park. Skukuza translates roughly as "he who scrapes the earth clean." It is not a term of endearment for Africans, though it became the name of the park's headquarters. The park also boasts a Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Library and Centre.

"Skukuza pushed us off our land, and he killed our cattle," Ngomane continued. "Why'd he do that? For an African, our cattle is our bank. If I have ten cattle, I'm rich. He made us poor, and he pushed us outside the park, where we live crowded close to each other. There's a lot of hatred for Skukuza."

I stopped to watch the woodcarvers. One was working on an ostrich; another was scooping out a pair of eyes on a bird. They would blacken them in a fire, shine them with shoe polish, and finish them with a few strokes of paint. A man named Maxon Nyathi had spread his carvings on the ground. I bent down to grab an oddly beautiful bird with flaring orange and blue tail feathers and a red beak. Was this, I wondered, what people who live on the other side of the fence imagine birds to be? I offered to buy one of Nyathi's carvings, a strange mottled creature with a football-shaped body and a beak curved sharply down. Ngomane intervened. "You want that one?" he asked. "It doesn't even look like a bird."