The Kruger National Park belongs to all South Africans, but possibly not for very much longer. At least 25 percent of the park is under land claim, and rumours put the figure much higher than that. What will it mean for one of South Africa’s  most beloved wildernesses when the ownership of these areas is restored to their former inhabitants? By Alison Westwood

Although South Africa has a proud history of conservation, the creation of most of our national and provincial parks has a shameful side. Communities who lived in conservation areas were declared squatters on white land and moved to land scheduled for black occupation. The removal of these communities helped to create ethnic homelands and reinforced the policy of separate development.

Such are the shaky foundations of the Kruger National Park. Now the edifice is starting to crumble. In 2005, the Mail & Guardian reported that 25 percent of the park was under land claim. Last year, it was widely reported that this figure could be as high as 50 percent – an area of about one million hectares. Along with these reports came speculation that the land claims could mean the end of the Kruger Park – or at least the end of the park as we know it.

The figure of 50 percent seems absurdly high. Wanda Mkutshulwa, SANParks spokesperson, said she thought it was a gross exaggeration. However, she also admitted that SANParks can only speculate about the extent of the claims until the Land Claims Commission verifies them.

Trevor Silubane, spokesperson for the Mpumalanga Land Claims Commission, confirmed that all of the 25 land claims in the Mpumalanga section of the park have been verified as legitimate.

They cover an area of 200 000 hectares and include Pretoriuskop, Numbi, Lower Sabie and Gondongwana in the Malelane area and include both the upper and lower escarpment. He told Getaway that his office has entered into negotiations with SANParks “with an intention of giving title deeds to the claimants without physical occupation of the land. We are also facilitating the co-management of the park between the current land owners and claimants.”

There are 10 further claims in the Limpopo section of the park, including the 179 069#ha Ba-Phalaborwa claim close to the Phalaborwa gate and the Makahane-Marithenga claim, which covers 89 773#ha in the Punda Maria region. So the original estimate of 25 percent of the park (roughly half a million hectares) certainly seems realistic, even conservative.

Brett Hilton Barber, author of several guide books to the Kruger Park, summed up what many feel about the Kruger Park and South Africa’s other national parks:  “These bastions of wildlife are economically, psychologically and spiritually important to the nation and should not be tampered with.” The idea of deproclaiming huge swathes of it probably horrifies everyone who loves the Kruger National Park.

Pessimists might point to the fate of the former Vaalbos National Park. In 2006, SANParks relocated the entire park because of successful land claim appeals made by Sydney on Vaal claimants for a large part of the old park. But, while title deeds may be handed over to the Kruger Park claimants, there doesn’t seem to be any question of the new owners physically occupying the land.

Both optimists and pessimists have pointed to the Makuleke region, 25 000 hectares in the Pafuri area of the Limpopo Province and an area considered the crown jewel of the Kruger National Park. In 1998, the Makuleke were one of the first tribes to get land back in a protected area. Theirs was also the first land claim to be settled in the Kruger Park. The case was seen as one that could make or break conservation in post-apartheid South Africa, and many people thought it was the beginning of the end. A senior conservation official was quoted in 1997 saying, “If the Makuleke claim is upheld in respect of land within the Kruger Park, all conservation areas will be under threat. Conservation status will not be worth the paper it is written on.”

Optimists see the Makuleke as a success story. According to Mkutshulwa, “as part of the settlement agreement, it was decided that this land would be used for conservation purposes in perpetuity and they have signed a contractual agreement with the Kruger National Park.” The land was reproclaimed as a contractual park and the Makuleke gained full rights to commercialise their land in the park. They entered into partnerships with Wilderness Safaris and The Outpost to build game lodges and camps in accordance with park policies. “Instead of poaching on that land for subsistence, our young people are now protecting the wildlife with their own lives,” says Livingstone Maluleke.

On the other hand, because the Makuleke is now divided into private concessions, visitors to the area who aren’t staying at one of the luxury lodges have to stick to the tar road that runs straight through it. So while conservation, community and private enterprise may be winning, ordinary visitors have been all but shut out.

According to the Mail & Guardian, SANParks are not in favour of any more public-private profit-sharing arrangements like the Makuleke contract. “Because the Kruger is one of two profitable national parks, there are fears such arrangements might eventually bankrupt SANParks,”  they reported. Mkutshulwa says that SANParks are looking into several options that will ensure that “both conservation and land claimants should not lose”. However, she could not say what these options are or give any details.

The Mpumalanga Land Claims Commission has made it clear that deproclamation and co-management contracts are their favoured option, also saying that “although the land will be restored in title, there is a need to look at compensation since the claimants would not physically settle in the park.”

Several conservationists, notably Frank Raimondo of the Peace Parks Foundation, have said that financial compensation is the only option and that the deproclamation of the park and the introduction of management contracts will lead to its balkanization. Conservationists believe that the park’s status must remain intact for it to survive. They may be right, but this is unlikely to be the option chosen, especially since it fails to take into account the symbolic importance of land restitution.

While the interests of conservation and claimants will surely be given plenty of consideration, it seems possible that the interests of the rest of the nation will be neglected. It is now up to the ministers of Land Affairs and Environmental Affairs and Tourism to issue a statement about their intentions – something they had not yet done at the time of going to press. The future of the Kruger National Park is being decided behind closed doors and it’s hard for ordinary South Africans to believe it will be rosy.

First published in the January 2008 issue of Getaway Magazine.

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