Each year hundreds of thousands of middle- and upper-middle-class South Africans and foreign tourists enjoy the opportunity to visit the country’s spacious and beautiful game parks and reserves. Most famous of these is the Kruger National Park, which covers a vast tract on the country’s east side, bordering Mozambique. Here tourists can enjoy world-class amenities while looking for the “big five” (elephants, rhinos, buffalo, lions, and leopards) and other wildlife managed by renowned conservationists.
This seemingly untouched natural world belies a more complicated past. In the 1970s the apartheid regime erected an electric fence on that border to prevent infiltration of guerrilla fighters; it was later an obstacle for undocumented immigrants. Though the fence has since fallen into disrepair, the government is now discussing reestablishing a ninety-mile section to combat poaching.
As Shirley Brooks argues in this selection, the tourism industry and Hollywood imagery lead visitors to see these spaces as somehow outside of historical time, rather than being part of a country with a long, complex, and conflicted past. Rural Africans who live near the parks, by contrast, bring their own understandings of these spaces as important sites of precolonial events and, more recently, as zones from which they have been forcibly excluded. Brooks’s discussion can be generalized, but it draws particularly on the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, established in 1895, making it Africa’s oldest game reserve.
Like other “natural spaces,” the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi game reserve is often presented as being outside of time. Indeed, one could argue that the reserve is nestled in layers of timelessness, rather like the Russian doll that is opened to reveal yet another figurine inside each wooden shell.
First, Africa as a continent is commonly presented, in a reprisal of a familiar colonial trope, as a place without a history (other than perhaps that conferred upon it by the imperial encounter). Words that recur frequently in the ecotourism and safari marketing literature on East Africa—and creasingly in South Africa—are “primeval” or “primordial.” Wild animals are essential to this presentation of Africa. . . .
This make-believe world of Disney Africa has featured in numerous films, the most recent of which is a Hollywood production recently released on circuit of Kuki Gallman’s book I Dreamed of Africa (1992). The film stars the American actress Kim Basinger. While the book is set in Kenya, the movie was actually shot in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi reserve. For purposes of the film, the park was recreated as the heterotopic space of the African game reserve. It was made to stand in for a generic East African savannah landscape, while providing a more accessible and possibly less costly venue for filming.
In the case of the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi park, the marketing of the game reserve must be located within the overall marketing strategy of the KwaZulu-Natal region. Significantly, the recently launched KwaZulu-Natal tourism marketing initiative is called “Timeless Afrika”—the “k” presumably being used in preference to a “c “ in Africa, in order to further exoticise the destination. The theme of timelessness, or being outside of time, has now been adopted as the official marketing strategy for KwaZulu-Natal.
A second element in the creation of a space outside of time, supplementary to “timeless Africa,” is “timeless Zululand.” This is a well-worn notion that long predates the launching of any marketing initiatives for the KwaZulu-Natal region as a whole. It is present, for example, in popular writing on the history of the Anglo-Zulu war. The message that Zululand was a space “outside of time” prior to the British invasion of 1879 may be conveyed quite subtly, as for example in the captions accompanying old photographs.
In addition to wild animals, “timeless Zululand” is predicated on the persistence of an unchanging Zulu culture. At the tourist attraction of Shakaland, for example, one can expect, according to the tourist brochure, to “experience the essence of Africa, pulsating tribal rhythms, assegaai [spear] wielding warriors and the mysterious rituals of the Sangoma [diviner] interpreting messages from the Spirits.”
Another brochure, produced by the Uthungulu and Zululand Regional Councils, combines a romanticised imperial history, a static and somehow magical Zulu culture, together with the spaces of conservation and nature:
This land has witnessed one of the greatest challenges to the supremacy of the once mighty British Empire during the tragic but heroic days of the Anglo-Zulu War. It is also steeped in the fascinating culture of the people who call it home. Rich in symbolism and tradition, here the heartbeat of Africa throbs with an almost mystic vitality. Zululand is also home to an astonishing variety of wild game. The many game reserves, parks and farms in the region are dedicated to the conservation and heritage of wildlife preservation.
Thirdly, the Umfolozi-Hluhluwe game reserve itself is often experienced as a space outside of time. The reserve is approached by most tourists as a place of pristine nature or wilderness in which one is effectively removed from history and society. This is particularly striking in the Wilderness Area of Umfolozi, a large section of the park (25,000 hectares) in which no development is allowed and to which the only access is on foot. The Wilderness Area was set aside in the 1950s on the initiative of former game ranger and well-known conservationist, Ian Player.
Player is a sophisticated writer whose constructions of Zululand and the game reserves are far more complex than the one-dimensional tourist marketing images discussed above. The Zululand reserves are intricately linked to Player’s own personal history and he has written frankly about the politics of land dispossession involved in their maintenance. Nonetheless, Player has contributed both through his books and through the creation of the Wilderness Leadership School, to the linking of the Umfolozi reserve, in particular, with representations of a primeval Zululand wilderness.
Player’s writing is infused with nostalgia. In an interview broadcast on South African public radio, Player’s latest book, Zululand Wilderness, Shadow and Soul (1997), was described by the interviewer, John Richards, as follows: “It’s an account of a remarkable inner journey, a pilgrimage, a friendship, against the background of the animals, the birds, the insects, the ancient wilderness of Africa.” The friendship to which Richards was referring is Player’s relationship with a Zulu man, Magqubu Ntombela, who worked all his life as a game guard in the Zululand game reserves.[As Player remarked]: Well, I think it was an archetypal home for mankind. I mean, early man had been there, and the bushmen had been there. There are still remnants of bushman paintings. And one—when you walk on that landscape, you know that you are walking inside a very ancient part of yourself. But you need midwives—you need midwives to enable you to understand it. And that’s where old Magqubu was so wonderful.
Player’s [characterization] reveals his understanding of a sacred space of nature, outside the normal rules of time and social history. This space must be interpreted to outsiders by people who are “close to nature”—a construction of “the native” that Jane Jacobs has usefully discussed with respect to ecotourist presentations of the Aboriginal presence in Australia. What is being invoked here is, in Jacobs’ words, a “general and variably expressed modern desire to (re)turn to Nature by way of indigenous cultures, to see indigenous peoples as the First Conservationists.”
Thus the transformation during his lifetime of the Zulu game guard, Magqubu Ntombela, into an ecological guru, the man whose sacred task it was to interpret the timeless wilderness of the Umfolozi game reserve for spiritually impoverished westerners, is part of a much wider—indeed global—process. The sacred space of the wilderness can be understood fully only by the native; but others, if they have the patience, may access it through his agency.
The notion that the Umfolozi-Hluhluwe game reserve falls outside of time, is not the only possible reconstruction of its past. Another and equally fascinating representation, one which emphasises a glorious history rather than the primeval or timeless character of the reserve, is woven around the nineteenth-century history of the area and in particular around the early nineteenth-century Zulu king Shaka.
Shaka remains a figure of fascination for western tourists and is still significant in the contemporary politics of the region. . . . The mythic status of Shaka and associated celebration of Zulu masculinity are central to the construction of a romanticised history of the Zululand game reserves. This history emphasises the stereotypically masculine activities of fighting and hunting. In particular, it claims the space of the reserves (especially the Umfolozi game reserve) in two ways. Umfolozi, according to popular histories of the reserve, was the site of past Zulu victories in battle, and it was also the royal hunting ground of King Shaka. These constructions resonate powerfully with a number of constituencies: not only tourists, but also local Zulu men, some of whom have served as game guards in the reserves, and white game rangers. . . .
For the tourist constituency, the comfortably remote history of an African monarchy, long since rendered unthreatening by the (now forgotten) violence of colonialism and capitalist transition, has irresistible romantic appeal. Game or nature reserves are the perfect places in which to digest this romantic past: the glories of Zulu history are much more easily imagined and assimilated by tourists in landscapes from which actual Zulu people have been removed, than they would be in the poverty-stricken tribal areas surrounding the reserves. Connections to the old Zulu monarch add mystique. . . .
In contrast to this rather superficial exposure, local Zulu men, operating within an oral history-telling tradition, also see the stories of past battles and hunts as important reminders of a glorious and now unattainable past. It is important to stress, therefore, that the stories do not constitute an entirely “invented tradition,” manufactured for the benefit of tourists (although this history is no doubt an embroidered one made up of stories that have now attained the status of legends in the region). The point is that local Zulu men have played a formative role in shaping the tourist narrative of the game reserves, and this history is important because it celebrates, for them, the pre-conquest past and their lost independence.
For white men too, this history has a deep resonance. Many of the men who, like Ian Player, spent their formative years as game rangers in the Umfolozi game reserve in particular, became deeply fascinated by the Zulu history taught to them by game guards like Magqubu Ntombela, Player’s mentor. Magqubu’s connections with the Zulu royal house uniquely qualified him to act as Player’s guide to the sacred space of reserve. Player explains: “Maklwana Ntombela was Magqubu’s father. He was son of Nkovana, son of Bidankomo, son of Ngogo, who was an induna [advisor] of King Senzangakhona, an early Zulu king. Then he served Shaka and could imitate the way Shaka spoke. He passed this on to Magqubu. Magqubu would spend hours telling me his lineage and that of Zulu kings, his indunas and their praise names. Shaka was a hero of Magqubu’s, and we were to walk for over thirty years together in Shaka’s footsteps across the Zululand hills.”
The construction of white and black masculinities in the reserves is an important theme that deserves more attention than can be given here. The young white rangers who sat, metaphorically, at the feet of the older Zulu game guards and listened to stories about battles, or about hunting, responded positively to the tales of young Zulu warriors proving their masculinity. Their books are full of admiration for the physical strength and prowess of Zulu men. Versions like Player’s have grown out of the interaction, over many years, between black men and white men in place, and it would be difficult to decide for whom, the white men or the black, the past is recreated with greater nostalgia.
In these presentations of the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi reserve, other, less palatable histories are suppressed. These include, for example, large-scale slaughter of animals by the authorities during the anti-nagana [trypanomiasis] campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s; the removal of communities from the Corridor area between the two reserves, also in the 1940s; and a bitter history of conflict over land, particularly in the western section of the Umfolozi game reserve. The nostalgic journey tourists are asked to take when visiting the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi park is to the world of a century and a half ago. This is easy in a space where history has apparently been frozen, where nothing seems to have changed.
But preservationist discourses of nature are continually disrupted by those who remain outside them. In the twentieth-century history of the reserves these constituencies have included local African people, white farmers and developers. In the post-apartheid climate, where land reform has gained new priority, some game reserves in the province are subject to land claims. These spaces are under threat and the nostalgic presentation of a pristine space of nature and / or romantic history is being challenged.
Yet the power of international ecotourism and conservation discourse—linked, of course, to a commoditised nature—remains immense. The “Kingdom of the Zulu” is being marketed under the rubric of “Timeless Afrika.”
The Hluhluwe-Umfolozi game reserve, with its luxury camp Hilltop, is a conservation and tourism showpiece for the province and it seems unlikely that this major game reserve will be used for any form of land restitution or redistribution. Given this context, ways must be found to offer tourists and others more complex and inclusive interpretations of the history and landscape of the game reserves.
“The Myth of Timeless Africa in the Game Parks” by Shirley Brooks. Excerpted from The South Africa Reader: History, Culture, Politics edited by Clifton Crais and Thomas V. McClendon. Copyright Duke University Press, 2013.