In my ongoing Quest For Hope I have spent the past month driving over 5000 kilometers around much of South Africa, the country of my birth and a place that I love very much. As I write I’m in northern Namibia headed for Etosha but I offer the following observations about South Africa. (Photo above: This may well be one of my all time favorite lion photos. Taken in Northern Namibia on the road to Etosha).
By anybody’s measure it is one of the most beautiful countries in the world with a geographic diversity that matches the United States, and that’s saying something. Added to that is the appeal of its people, a multi- national, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-tribal blend that is colorful, artistic, unique, and very definitely South African. And then of course there’s the wildlife. Where else in the world can you sit at a watering hole in the middle of the bush and watch hundreds of elephants cavorting in the mud? Or be woken to the sounds of lions roaring in the night? Or of hippos bellowing their love songs at a remote bend in a river? The answer quite simply is nowhere but Africa and anyone who tells you differently simply hasn’t been there.
But with this unique and wonderful heritage comes a special responsibility and in that regard I fear that South Africa is failing miserably. The national euphoria that accompanied the end of the apartheid era has long since gone leaving behind the reality that for the vast majority of its people, life is a long hard grind. Millions – no one knows for sure quite how many – live so far below the poverty line that any talk of the gains they have made now that everyone has the right to vote, are quite simply laughable. Or would be if it wasn’t so tragic. Squatter settlements ring virtually every city and town of any size with no running water, no sanitation, no legal electricity (there must be more illegal hookups in SA than in any other country on the planet), and no hope that they’ll ever get to enjoy anything that is even marginally better.
Their governments, both national and local, have failed them and show no signs of doing any better in the future. Many of their mandates and proclamations make no sense at all and reek of bribery and corruption at the very highest level, to wit the recent 180 degree turnabout they made with regards legalizing the sale of rhino horns, a move which every major conservation group in the world has condemned as the death knell of the species. The only time they even acknowledge their electorate is at election time when they promise them the world and then leave them to wallow in the dirt and the sewage once they’re voted back into office. Everyone, both rich and poor, appear increasingly desensitized to the poverty and pollution that is drowning this gorgeous country. No one seems to have a viable solution and as thousands of rural Africans continue to flood into the cities in search of illusionary work and a better life, the problems worsen by the day. Take a drive from the very affluent Somerset West to Cape Town and you’ll pass an uninterrupted mass of squatter hovels which is impossible not to notice unless you’re wearing blinders. Or drive through the Motherwell township of Port Elizabeth – or better yet don’t – and you’ll quickly realize that its the equal of New York’s Harlem or Los Angeles’ Watts back when they were the worst of the worst.
Talk to these people about wildlife conservation and they’ll look at you as if you’re from Mars. It’s an elitist subject reserved for those with the time and the means to enjoy wildlife viewing as it should be done, at a leisurely and relaxed pace. They have neither the means, the time or the inclination to give wildlife a second thought. Amazingly there are those wonderful exceptions who serve willingly on the front lines in the fight against poachers, bribery and corruption, risking life and limb to do so with no chance of ever making a fraction of the money the poachers flash about like drug lords – which they all too often are as well.
South Africa has a major social problem and until they recognize how badly they are doing, and how much they need to revamp the whole system, then the country’s magnificent wildlife will play second fiddle while the politicians, and poachers and drug lords burn the country to the ground. Is there reason to hope? Can this all be reversed before its too late? Yes – I have to believe that it can. I’ve spent countless hours discussing these very issues with several of the country’s top conservationists and security experts and they all say it can be done. And if they’re convinced then I am too. South Africa needs our tourist dollars and our investments and we must condition this support upon their improved performance. Simply handing them money, as we have done to the tune of billions of dollars over the years, has done nothing to improve the lot of the common man or the critically threatened wildlife. We would be well advised to follow the old adage “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
When I complete this phase of the Quest I’ll be happy to share my thoughts at greater length, either with you individually or to your groups and clubs and organizations. For the sake of Africa’s wildlife this is a fight we must win. Thank you for your continued support. Onwards!