Sunday, November 10, 2013

The complex politics of game parks

An uncomfortable footnote to our trip to a game park in South Africa in July: We went to Kruger, but not quite Kruger; instead we stayed at a private lodge on land near Kruger. The owners of a large area had taken down the fence between their land and Kruger proper, so that there no longer is a boundary for the animals, and the land is now a game reserve, with various lodges located there and offering game drives to fascinated visitors such as us. It felt a bit self-indulgent, though the folks at our lodge operated a pretty intense schedule of game rides, so we certainly didn't feel we were just taking it easy -- and it was a great way to see the animals.

Now I read, in Midlands (2002), a remarkable book by the South African journalist Jonny Steinberg that investigates the tangled story behind a white farmer's murder in another part of South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal, the following (at page 226):
[I]t took until the early 1990s for farmers to realise that beauty meant money -- lots of it. The zebra and the buck are already there. The unspeakable beauty needs no maintenance. Erect a tall fence around the wild, uncultivated land you have never used, sprinkle the valley with simple wooden cabins, lay down some dirt roads, and you have a game lodge. There is an American niche market for this sort of tourism; seduce it and you can charge in dollars.
That would be us. And that would be fine, except that the land Steinberg is talking about wasn't unused (226-27):
The whites have never used all their land. They fence off fields for their cattle, they plant vegetables in the narrow, fertile strips on the river bank. But the wild bush land has always been used by the blacks, to hunt, for its firewood and its water. It is one of the corners of the countryside the peasants have refused to give up. So for the whites to fence in the whole countryside, to claim the zebra and buck that have always roamed there -- that is no small thing.
I don't know whether the private game reserve we visited was the result of a similar act of dispossession -- whether, as my wife guessed, the white owners fenced the land and the former black users became the game drive guides. If that is what happened, it's probably not a compelling reason not to go to the private game lodges. After all, the immense, public Kruger National Park is presumably the result of similar and likely harsher dispossession that simply took place longer ago. It's also possible that the new economic relations, with the many paying jobs the game lodges create, are more just than the old ones built around tenant farming. Still, I do feel more inclined to try the public park and public facilities the next time we have a chance. Certainly this back story is a reminder -- and in a sense this is the fundamental point that Steinberg's book makes -- that in South Africa (and of course really in the United States, and probably everywhere) there is scarcely any step you can take that doesn't stir the memories and the lasting impacts of injustice.

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