If you grew up, like me, in South Africa in the turbulent 1980s, your distrust and suspicion of white people tended to take off especially in places where for many years dark people had been excluded on the basis of their race.
I’m talking about a place like the Kruger National Park where, until the end of legislative apartheid in 1994, only blacks were allowed to work as laborers who looked after the needs of whites, who were indifferent to their exclusion.
When I first started visiting the Kruger in the late 1990s, often as a solo traveler in search of the unknown, I often felt like I was like one of the attractions in a park, given the looks I got from white folks.
In public facilities such as restaurants and restrooms, some white people were nervously clutching their bags and cameras at the sight of this lone black traveler.
Even some of the people in my circle, both black men and women, could not understand why a young man from Ikasi was so fond of wildlife.
“So you spend money to travel so far to see a lion?” some may ask. It became somewhat of an annoying joke. But even the black staff at Kruger didn’t seem to know how to deal with one of their own, who was there not as a fellow park employee but as a tourist.
It was very disheartening to note how many years of racial exclusion had taken its toll on the psyche of the black workers there.
The upshot was that, sometime in 2003, I wrote a column in the now defunct today A newspaper deplores this type of behavior by employees who seemed displeased with the service of a black colleague.
Fortunately, the stylus proved to be more powerful. The South African National Parks (SANParks) took an interest in my clip and asked for my views on what to do. I suggested, for a start, that her staff attend a workshop to learn to accept us as tourists and treat us as equals (some still need advanced workshops on this, unfortunately). He also needed to expose more black journalists to game parks and the accompanying lifestyle so that their readers would also begin to embrace wildlife tourism as a pastime for all, not just for a privileged few whites.
On my solo eight-hour drive north in the park from Skukuza to Phalaborwa recently, a distance of about 212 kilometers, I met perhaps only one car carrying five black tourists.
Research shows that the racial exclusion of black people from conservation and wildlife settings was not just a South African practice. write to Voice of America In March 2021, Marissa Melton reflects on the legacy of racial exclusion in national parks in the United States.
Many experts believe that African Americans do not take full advantage of the country’s national parks due to a history of racial segregation. Milton writes: During the first few decades of the National Parks’ existence, African Americans were not sure they would be welcomed into the parks.
Read more at The Daily Maverick: The UK government wants to tell Africans what to do with our wildlife – this is colonialism all over again
What fuels this atmosphere of exclusion, she added, is that “early advertisements for the parks were aimed at white audiences. Images from that time only show white visitors.”
SANParks has since introduced some measures and packages targeting black people and these seem to have been having some effect. The organization revealed that during the 2020/21 financial year, black South Africans made up 30% of domestic visitors to the Kruger National Park. Since blacks make up the vast majority in South Africa, this number is problematic.
Lions across Eastern Europe
On my solo eight-hour drive north in the park from Skukuza to Phalaborwa recently, a distance of about 212 kilometers, I met perhaps only one car carrying five black tourists. With that said, I’ve met other black people. But they were employees, delivery service suppliers, and guards.
Perhaps this is why a white motorist traveling in the opposite direction towards Letaba called me to a stop after I had just turned left on the H9 from Skukuza towards Phalaborwa Gate in the late afternoon.
The man traveling in an SUV with what I assumed were his family greeted me politely in a heavy Eastern European accent after I pulled over and peered through a window. “Looking for ze animalz?” he asked in what appeared to be merciful.
“Yes,” I replied excitedly. “Okay. Go straight, on the ze road, you see a lot of ze animals, hyenas, lions, zey sleeping on the ze road.”
What? black on the road? I couldn’t believe my luck. I thanked him and moved on. I was on the road about eight hours, having left Skukuza, 160 kilometers to the south, at about 7 am.
Read more at The Daily Maverick: On patrol with Black Mamba, the all-female anti-poaching unit in the greater Kruger area
About half an hour from Chukwane I saw a few cars parked on a dirt road off the Skukuza – Letaba road. Out of curiosity, I turned off the main road and pulled up next to a vehicle. I surveyed the bush and at 150 metres, I saw the belly of a bright, fawning lion, lying in the dirt soaking up the sun. amazing!
Returning to H9 after meeting the polite gentleman with a heavy Eastern European accent, I drove about 20 minutes from where I met him. A gloom began to set in, as I wondered if the man was pulling me fast, or if he was bored and just wanted to talk to a black man by claiming that lions and hyenas were lying in the road.
But suddenly I noticed something moving on the left shoulder of the road. A mother hyena was lazily enjoying the late afternoon sun with her litter. Another was lying on his stomach on the other side of the road. And it was clear that they were not going anywhere despite the continuous shutter from the camera.
But as time goes by, I decide to continue the journey until I reach the gate before closing time. And as the guy in the SUV told me earlier, the female lion was lying on the tar. A male lion lay in the grass a few feet away from the lioness, who was lying on her side with no regard for the world.
Later that evening, as I was processing photos from meeting the lion, I thought of the white man with a heavy Eastern European accent. I wondered why he would ask if I was looking for animals? Are you perhaps, like me, also wondering where all the black tourists were?
Hopefully, in the near future, the majority of local visitors will be black South Africans helping to undo the ugly legacy of racial exclusion. After all, these gardens belong to everyone, including darkie bros, sistas, gogos, mkhulus, and bambinos. It is, after all, our heritage. Senior Media/DM
Lucas Ledawaba is the editor and founder of Mukurukuru Media.
This story first appeared in Our Weekly 168 newspaper, which is available nationwide for R29.