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Perhaps we forget. And if we do, then let us remember. Certainly the more I thought about it, the more meaningful this saying appeared.
Apart from South Africa it revealed itself throughout England, Wales and the US in the form of the World Wilderness Congresses. It was intimately acquainted with saving our white rhinos from extinction back in the early 1960s. The creation of South Africa’s first wilderness areas was essentially theirs, too. And how helpful he was in establishing such an acclaimed wilderness trail operation in KZN, The Wilderness Leadership School. Finally, it was out of respect for him that the Magqubu Ntombela Foundation was formed.
And as I drove up to Dr Ian Player’s farmhouse in Karkloof, I wondered about his union with this legendary Zulu game ranger Magqubu Ntombela; after all, this union occurred – and flourished – during the heart of apartheid, too.
Even Nelson Mandela spoke of this friendship as “remarkable… their pioneering commitment not only to each other but also to the conservation of wilderness… a shining example of the spirit of the people of this country”.
Yes, I have learnt all this. And so again it resurfaced, this time in a glorious memorial service at Emachibini in Zululand this month where about 3 000 people attended the unveiling of a giant plinth in celebration of Ntombela. It was graced by our King, KZN’s premier and Dr Ian Player, whom we had flown up for the event.
Sometimes you can’t tell people’s health. Player, by his own admission, is almost crippled, his mobility dependent on a walking stick. He needs to be helped out of his chair and his eyesight is fading. He sighed, saying he was carrying the scars of World War II – and too many rhino incidents.
I had come to talk to him about this friendship. I wondered if he had the energy to dredge up some of those stories so vividly described in his many books.
We sat in the mid-morning winter sun outside his old, red-brick Natal farmhouse.
Whatever his physical frailties, his mind was a reservoir of a time gone by. Even in these autumn years of his life he was energised, clasping his walking stick in his right hand, tapping it gently on the floor as his life with Magqubu stirred within him.
“How proud I was when Magqubu walked up the stairs to the podium in 1977 to talk at the first World Wilderness Congress. It was the first time in the history of South African conservation that a black game scout had spoken to an international audience.”
I encouraged him to remember more.
Tap, tap, tap.
“And then trying to hold back my tears when at the fourth one, in Denver in the USA in 1986, he took some beautiful Zulu beadwork, a necklace and a bangle and presented them to the then-prime minister of Norway, Mrs Harlem Bruntland. And, he didn’t just give them to her. Oh, no, not our Magqubu. He insisted on placing the necklace around her neck and the bangle on her wrist.”
Magqubu, who had come from being a herd boy, an insizwe in the Ongeni region of Zululand, who spoke no English, was a game ranger from the ethlathini (bush), and was now wrapping jewellery around prime ministers. I was amused – and intrigued too.
Player has a keen ear for humour and a deep, expressive laugh. “Oh boy, he wasn’t intimidated in the slightest. Before this congress we had argued about him insisting on taking his ibhodwe (three-legged pot) with him overseas. He wasn’t going anywhere without it. And when mealie meal wasn’t on the menu, he asked some Red Indians if they could get him some. They did, too, somewhere in New Mexico.”
When the tapping of the stick started again, I waited as he gathered more thoughts.
“He might have been a man of the wild and yet he was highly intelligent. And not shy, either. You would have thought he would be excited about being asked to accompany me overseas to this congress.
“I suspect he was, but after a few minutes he asked if we could stop over in England. He wanted to go where the men lived who had fought against his father at the great battle of Isandlwana in 1879.
“His father fought with the Zulu army in the Ngobamakhosi regiment under Mnyamana Buthelezi and killed four redcoats with his spear. And so it was arranged that he would meet the Royal Regiment in Wales. And also have lunch at the regimental headquarters at Brecon.
“He was asked to say grace at lunch and fortunately he kept this to five minutes. [Magqubu was known to make grace a half-hour event]. And then he took beadwork from a pocket of his blazer, each being a reminder of that war fought in Zululand between two brave foes; a snuff box for the men who died, a bangle for the married women who mourned their men and a beaded switch for the girlfriends and fiancées of the men who had died.”
It was clear that Magqubu changed Player’s life. They spent nearly 40 years together. He attributes leaving formal conservation to him.
“It was he that revealed how if I listened [lalela] and showed the necessary respect [hlonipha] for the natural world I would understand how we as humans are all a part of it. If we destroy or abuse it, we do the same to ourselves… his message was universal.”
He described his uncanny ability to decipher spoor and track animals.
“A smudge on a piece of grass was often enough. Like an animal himself, he circled the area, looking, crouching, examining imprints from all angles, instantly memorising and recording the spaces between running and walking. With his Zulu-style bent forefinger he would lead us time and again where few would have known.”
Player asked me if I knew that Magqubu’s grandfather had been one of King Shaka’s indunas.
“He had great pride in his Zulu culture, about Zulu kings and how they conserved wild animals; Senzangakhona; Shaka; Dingane; Mpande; Cetshwayo; Dinizulu. People were never allowed to kill as they pleased. There were only seasons when game could be killed.”
And his instincts, too.
“Leading a trail of six people, he heard monkeys chattering and stopped us. He looked at the group up in the trees and drew me close: ‘See how they look somewhere else.’ A few hundred metres on we stumbled on a whole pride of lions lying across the trail path. His knowledge of the bush was extraordinary.”
His stick started tapping again and he looked down: “He was a very special man. No one who came into contact with Magqubu left unaffected. I do hope, Dr Mkhize, you can help impart his love and understanding of nature on to others.”
Like Magqubu did to you, so, too, my friend did you inspire me. What legacies they both are.
* Mkhize is the chief executive of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife