Empathetic social history of our most famous national park


Review: Archie Henderson

Safari Nation, by Jacob Dlamini (Jacana) 

The Kruger, Dlamini reminds us in this social history of the national park, is as much about people as it is about animals. 

Ever since Paul Kruger had the idea of preserving wildlife in the Sabi River area to the official establishment of the park in 1926, people and animals were in conflict over who should be given preference. The animals won.

This was not such a bad thing, but the conflict has never been properly settled. A shadowy land claim deal of R1billion some years ago for the MalaMala area, adjacent to Kruger, is testimony to this continuing conflict. So is the rampant poaching, especially from the Mozambique side, that has never been resolved.

The park’s first warden, James Stevenson-Hamilton, who is credited with establishing the Kruger National Park in its present form, had no qualms about forcing people off land where they had lived for hundreds of years so that the wild animals could thrive in that space. Not for nothing did the people he moved give him the nickname Skukuza, which means “destroyer”.

In 1935, Bantu World, a black elite newspaper, gave its opinion on the forced removals: “The preservation of animals … is a noble thing, but nobler still is the preservation of human life, be it white or black.”

This part of the park’s history has often been suppressed, especially in the early days when South African Railways, then in charge of promoting tourism, was trying to sell the country to foreign visitors. According to Dlamini, “The country had to know itself first as a nation before it could project itself as a tourist destination. But the country never did settle these questions, meaning that it sold itself to the world without resolving its basic political contradictions.”

Dlamini approaches Kruger with his usual intellectual rigour and sympathetic dispassion. He revealed that quality early in a journalism career with the Sunday Times. As a young reporter, he did not settle for the mere murder of Winnie Mandela’s driver. He followed the story and arrived at the office on the following Tuesday having found and interviewed the driver’s family. His Terrorist Album, a book on state killings during apartheid, was the result of following up evidence given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Safari Nation is less grisly and is the result of a PhD thesis completed some years ago when Dlamini enlisted in a Kruger Park game-ranger’s course to better understand the issues he would write about. 

Kruger’s history is filled ambivalence, irony and contradictions. He not only sorts it all out, but debunks some myths. One of the myths, espoused by some of the country’s leading academics, was that black people were not allowed into the park during segregation and apartheid. This might have been underpinned by JG Strijdom’s objection to black people using the same roads as whites in Kruger. At the time the second apartheid prime minister was minister of lands in DF Malan’s National Party cabinet.

A poignant part of the book is how black people dealt with visits to Kruger and how officials in the park had to reconcile the National Parks Act of 1926 with apartheid legislation. The latter usually won. An Indian doctor could attend an international medical conference in the park because he was light-skinned but not his darker-skinned wife. When the Department of Indian Affairs complained about the poor condition of “Bantu toilets” in Skukuza (at the time the only place where black tourists could stay, albeit in a segregated compound), authorities cut a hole in the fence surrounding the white toilets and turned a blind eye.

By 1974, the National Parks Board resolved that only the more benign National Parks Act of 1926, and not apartheid legislation, could apply in Kruger. But it was only in 1980 that elements of petty apartheid began to disappear.

Kruger is now firmly established as one of the world’s most iconic wildlife sanctuaries, but Dlamini’s history shows that we can never take this for granted.  It will need constant protection. “The black actors who thought seriously about the KNP did not oppose conservation in principle,” he writes. “They opposed injustice.”

One thought on “Empathetic social history of our most famous national park

  1. David Bristow

    This “new” perspective on the Kruger is a much needed one, However, one has to question either the author’s or the reviewer’s “usual intellectual rigour”: Kruger was a very vocal opponent of the Sabi “wild kraal” to the end; Stevenson-Hamilton was the third warden, the first two lasting not very long at all; “skukuza” was said at the time, by people who were there and spoke the local lingo fluently, to mean something more akin to “the broom” – as in sweeps clean (although on this last point I cannot claim authority).
    On the other hand the whole MalaMala deal could do with airing. I wonder if the author knows the whole story, driven by the greed of the Varty brothers Daivd and John, and how they were hoist by their own petard?


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