Safari Nation, A Social History of the Kruger National Park is a fresh and illuminating look at the Kruger National Park.
Safari Nation, A Social History of the Kruger National Park is a fresh and illuminating look at the Kruger National Park.

Book explores the deep roots of black South Africans’ relationship with Kruger National Park

By Don Makatile Time of article published Jan 24, 2021

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Johannesburg - It is thanks to the pursuit of scholarship that some important subjects like the relationship black people have with the Kruger National Park (KNP) are fleshed out from being just esoteric narratives into mainstream topics of discussion.

Safari Nation, A Social History of the Kruger National Park by Jacob Dlamini, that grew from a dissertation into a book, is one such subject, and the reader will find reason to be chuffed.

“The biggest natural zoo in the world” began its life as the natural habitat and home for both man and beast.

Up until the early 2000s it was still possible to find people sharing tales of their forced removal from the park, people like Samuel Nkayinkayi Mavundla.

Inhabitants of the Sabi Game Reserve, forerunner of the KNP as we know it today, contested for breathing space on this large terrain with the wild. It is interesting to learn how one man, who later came to be known as Skukuza, worked to put a halt to this human habitation of the park.

Black people paid tax for their share of the space with the animals of the Kruger!

What the dissertation-that-became-a-book does here is to look at the respective status of the black man with the park — from the native police, ranger, squatter and labourer to tourist.

It is strange how, when the white man took control of the park, he prioritised the safety and comfort of animals above that of the humans who called this place home.

Whole clans, like the Mnisis, were “defenestrated” — thrown off the park and, typical of the spirit of Sophiatown, some swore to never move. But, alas, the apartheid machinery brooked no dissent and prevailed.

Shabalala, the township, came about after original park residents were kicked to the curb.

The logic behind apartheid thinking has always boggled the mind. In their eternal wisdom, blacks were not “travel conscious” and they boasted “no history of travel”.

You will learn through these meticulously researched pages how black elites like journalist Victor Selope Thema, through their newspaper writing, made representations to the authorities for black folk to be allowed to travel throughout the country in general but, in particular, to the KNP.

Before the editorials of Thema and his ilk, the black political leaders like Sefako Makgatho, Thomas Maphikela and Sol Plaatje had sought — and been granted — audiences with the apartheid authorities to implore the latter to extend the privileges of travel to blacks. “Civilised blacks” had enjoyed some extended “liberties” insofar as enjoying the country’s amenities, closed off to fellow natives, was concerned.

Despite the deep ancestral black African connection to the land that ultimately became the KNP, when it was in full swing to take in tourists, it was not with the black man in mind. He was farther down the pecking order in the thinking of the park authorities. In fact, blacks “could visit the KNP as long as they did not get in the way of the park’s primary target market: whites”.

But blacks would not be deterred — they kept visiting the KNP. Among those visitors were the domestic helpers of white families.

You will roll about in mirth learning that it was a status thing among whites to take their “servants” along on holiday to the Kruger, among other destinations!

The natives were reduced to a spectacle and a freak of nature — they were sights to be beholden by the white visitor in the same way they would take in the fauna and flora.

Apartheid scored an own goal — as it had been able to do with many of its laws — when it set up the Bantustans. Homelands like Venda, Ka-Ngwane and Gazankulu lay cheek by jowl with the KNP and the human traffic from these areas were historically linked to life in the park. Now to deny the “international” guests from the “sovereign” homelands access to the facilities in the Kruger was proving embarrassing.

While they opened access to these blacks from the homelands, the black KNP staff were still put in their place!

The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 was a joke but again, which apartheid law wasnt!

The first thing the Nats did when they came to power in 1948 was to file a complaint with the park authorities regarding the sharing of camps and “even the roads” by the different race groups.

From this complaint flowed the decisions, among others, like to offer accommodation to blacks “but no bedding”.

Safari Nation, A Social History of the Kruger National Park is a fresh and illuminating look at the KNP that could not have come without empirical scholarship.

You will love it.

Safari Nation is published by Jacana and is available at all book stores. Buy it at

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Sunday Independent

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