Mandela’s frontiers

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In Ai-Ais National Park the 90km Fish River canyon cuts through a landscape over one and a half billion years old. Picture: Scott Ramsay

Cape Town - In southern Namibia the stars always shine brightly. But on the moonless night of Nelson Mandela’s death, the stars were so numerous that they seemed to jostle for position, squeezing into every patch of available darkness.

I was in the Ai-Ais National Park, where the 90km Fish River canyon cuts through a landscape more than 1.5 billion years old.

Up to 500 metres deep and 27km wide, the canyon is considered the second-biggest in the world.

It’s a place that takes your breath away. Not only because of the extreme temperatures, but because the scale of the scenery is humbling.

Surrounding the canyon are desert plains, dotted here and there with quiver trees, a few gemsbok, springbok and Hartmann’s mountain zebra.

Notable too are the plutons, collections of massive granite boulders piled on top of each other. In the north near the town of Aus is the lodge of Klein Aus Vista, itself surrounded by some of these huge rocks.

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St Lucia (now renamed iSimangaliso Wetland Park) remains inviolate and provides natural resources for the surrounding Thongan communities. Picture: Scott Ramsay


After dinner at the lodge’s restaurant, I walked back to my chalet, then stopped in my tracks and stared upwards, hypnotised by the stars. The nearby howl of a black-backed jackal startled me from my reverie and I went to bed.

The next morning I heard Mandela had died at about 8.50pm, about the same time as I was looking up at the heavens.

As a young boy Madiba used to herd cattle in the grasslands of the Eastern Cape. According to his autobiography, Mandela would also look up at the stars, and wonder what caused them to shine.

Perhaps his immersion in nature as a child gave him a sense of wonder and respect for the Earth, but what is true is that as an adult Madiba was a conservationist and lover of the land.

“I believe that South Africa is the most beautiful place on earth,” Mandela once wrote.

“Admittedly, I am biased but when you combine the natural beauty of sunny South Africa with the friendliness and cultural diversity of our people, and the fact that the region is a haven for Africa’s most splendid wildlife, then I think that we have been blessed with a truly wonderful land.”

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iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu Natal protects more than 3 400 animal species, the most of almost any conservation area in Africa. Picture: Scott Ramsay


Madiba was one of the three founding patrons of the Peace Parks Foundation, which has worked to establish transfrontier parks in Africa. These cross-border protected areas conserve habitats according to ecological boundaries, not random colonial demarcations.

The Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is one of them, and I had just spent two weeks photographing the 6 000km² protected area. It is one of the more successful cross-boundary parks, partly owned by the resident Nama people and increasingly popular among adventure tourists.

Mining does occur on the South African side in the Richtersveld National Park itself, but the licences were awarded before the proclamation of the park.

Nevertheless, much of this desert mountain habitat is now protected, a World Heritage Site with charismatic people and impressive biodiversity. Conservation efforts have saved most of this arid wilderness from mining.

Back in 1994, however, there was no compromise on the opposite side of the country on the subtropical KwaZulu-Natal coast.

The apartheid government issued leases to allow prospecting at St Lucia, one of the oldest game reserves in Africa. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the international mining company Rio Tinto wanted to dredge titanium from 17km of forested coastal dunes on the Eastern Shores, the very heart of this protected area.

A public furore ensued, but despite the uproar, Rio Tinto and the government were unmoved. The battle continued until 1994, when a public petition to ban mining was started by, among others, conservationist Ian Player.

And who should be the first signatory of the anti-mining petition? The story is told in Graham Linscott’s biography of Ian Player, Into the River of Life: “When Nelson Mandela put his name to it (the petition), this was game, set and match. The pro-mining lobby collapsed like a pricked balloon.”

Player tells how he was invited to lunch at the home of sugar magnate Chris Saunders. Also there was Harry Oppenheimer.

After lunch Oppenheimer put his hearing aid into his ear, leaned over and asked: “Who is going to win this battle?”

Ian replied: “We’re going to win, Mr Oppenheimer.”

Oppenheimer raised his eyebrows: “What makes you so sure you’re going to win against Rio Tinto, the biggest mining company in the world?”

Ian pulled out a copy of the first page of the petition and asked Oppenheimer to look at the top signature. It was Mandela’s.

Oppenheimer smiled and put his hearing aid back in his pocket: “Yes, you’re going to win.”

Today, thanks partly to Mandela, St Lucia (now renamed iSimangaliso Wetland Park) protects more than 3 400 species, the most of almost any conservation area in Africa, and provides tourism jobs and natural resources for the surrounding Thongan communities. Like the Richtersveld, it is also a World Heritage Site.

Across southern Africa, from west to east, Madiba had given his voice to conservation, so it seemed appropriate that when he died the government issued a statement, comparing him with Africa’s biggest tree.

“The large African baobab, who loved Africa as much as he loved South Africa, has fallen. Its trunk and seeds will nourish the earth for decades to come.”

As a conservationist Mandela probably would have enjoyed the comparison. A baobab can live for more than a thousand years, providing sustenance and shelter to hundreds of animal species, while generations of humans have sought refuge from the African sun within its broad embrace. - Cape Times

For the Ai-Ais National Park, see For Klein Aus Vista see For iSimangaliso Wetland Park, visit

l Photojournalist Scott Ramsay focuses on protected areas around southern Africa. Visit the website

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