‘To know the African wild was to know the African subject’—What training as a field guide taught Jacob Dlamini about culture, nature, power and race

The JRB presents a new essay by Jacob Dlamini. For Dlamini, what began as a research project on the labour history of the Kruger National Park became an examination of how black people deal with being cast as either nature’s denizens, or its enemy.

The Road to the Kruger National Park

On 14 January, 2009, I left Katlehong, my hometown on the highveld, for a wildlife sanctuary on the lowveld, 545 kilometres to the northeast. My destination was the 27,000-hectare Selati Game Reserve, about 43 kilometres west of the Kruger National Park. The six-hour drive to Selati took me through towns too small to bear the weight of the histories that lay over these dorpies like sediments of time. These sediments did not follow the linear division of African history (precolonial, colonial and postcolonial) favoured by many history departments. Their layering was messier; they were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. 

You did not have to look hard to see them. But you had to know to look. Each town, for example, bore at least two names—one European, one African. Among the towns I drove through were Belfast/Emakhazeni, one of the coldest places in South Africa and the site of a British concentration camp during the South African War; Dullstroom/Emnothweni, famous for its trout fishing and home of the highest railway station in South Africa, and Lydenburg/Mashishing, the source of the oldest known African Iron Age artworks from below the equator and the scene of fierce battles between Boer and Pedi in the nineteenth century.

Lydenburg’s most scenic road is named Verraaiersnek—Traitor’s Pass—as testament to the divisions that marked Boer resistance to the British in the South African War. There was Ohrigstad, whose 1845 experiment in Afrikaner republicanism foundered on the shoals of Pedi resistance and pestilential mosquitoes. I also drove past Graskop, Gravelotte, Mica—towns so slight it was hard to believe that they were part of a region that once saw one of the most dramatic gold rushes of the nineteenth century. Or that the lowveld, with its status as the white man’s last frontier in southern Africa, was a source of inspiration for the ‘Lost World’ literary fiction of H Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle.

I had made the descent from the highveld to the lowveld numerous times since commencing graduate work in 2005 on the history of the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s premier wildlife sanctuary. I had visited the Kruger area countless times to consult archival collections, speak to informants both inside and outside the park and, once, to run the storied Kruger National Park half marathon (held inside what used to be its whites-only staff village). But this time I was on a different mission. 

I had signed up for training as a safari field guide and was on my way to Selati to begin my 28-day course. I had begun my research project intent on studying the labour history of the Kruger National Park. I had wanted to examine the ‘off-stage labour’ that, as historian Karl Jacoby reminds us, makes tourism in protected areas possible. I had decided that if I was to write with some authority about the Kruger National Park, I needed to understand its workings. I had to learn how a national park produced value, what kind of value it produced, who did the actual production, how that production was done, how the product was appropriated and consumed, and by whom. In other words, I needed to study the relationship between conservation and capitalism. 

The concept of value seemed to hold much promise for another reason: the Kruger National Park was founded, among other motives, on precisely the grounds that it was worthless—valueless—for anything other than wildlife preservation. As Piet Grobler, the Minister of Lands who ushered in the legislation that created the Kruger National Park in May 1926, told the House of Assembly: its soils were too poor to use for farming, its rivers had too little water, and relatively few Africans lived in the area—meaning that any attempt to turn the area to agriculture would have had to contend with labour shortages. ‘It seems a dispensation of Providence that we have been given that locality to establish a national park in the interests of the preservation of our fauna,’ Grobler told Parliament.

I needed more than divine intervention to make sense of the Kruger and its production, not to mention representation, of value. I needed historical actors through whom I could understand the value of the park and the ways in which that value was produced. I decided, therefore, to pursue my study from the perspective of safari guides as they—and not the cooks, cleaners, clerks, labourers and rangers who in fact perform most of the invisible labour that goes on in protected areas—seemed to represent best what historian William Cronon calls a ‘wilderness ideology that devalues productive labour.’ When tourists reflect on their wilderness experience, rarely do they think of the cleaners. But they do think about their safari guides—except not as workers. So I decided to train as a guide in order to understand what exactly constituted labour for safari guides and what expertise guides possessed. 

I had chosen the Selati Game Reserve because, even though private, it was close to the Kruger National Park and was home to Ecotraining, the ‘pioneer and leader in safari guide and wildlife training in Africa.’ Founded in 1993, Ecotraining is the oldest field guide training organisation in South Africa. It offers both short-term and long-term training programmes for safari guides. 

I kept a diary during my stay in the Ecotraining camp, recording observations, impressions and thoughts. ‘The ethos is military,’ reads my opening diary entry from Wednesday, 14 January, 2009. ‘Ladies first in kitchen; no hat at table; instructors sit at head of table; there are jokes galore about men with long hair camping on same side as women. My suspicion that our instructors are ex-military confirmed during late-night introductions,’ I wrote. Mark Gunn and Garth Edwards, both white men in their fifties, had indeed served in the apartheid military, Gunn in the navy and Edwards in the army. They knew their bushcraft and had war stories to tell—especially Garth, who had fought in the apartheid bush wars in Angola—and tips to share: like how never to look your enemy in the eye when lying in ambush for them. 

They taught us how to conduct game drives and how to handle troublesome tourists; how to drive Land Rovers through gullies, mud and shallow rivers; how to handle firearms; how to identify birds in flight or by their calls (one day we identified twenty different bird calls by just sitting quietly in the camp and listening to the wild); how to track animals using spoor and droppings (easiest with hyenas and their white scat); how to identify grasses and trees, and (my favourite) how to orient yourself in the wild using only what is around you: red-billed buffalo weavers, for example, build their nests on the northwestern side of trees; termite mounds point north; tree growth rings are thicker on the northern side, while moss and lichen prefer the southern side. 

Halfway into the programme, we had examined countless grasses, trees and animal droppings. We had also encountered a baboon spider—which we found using GPS—duikers, giraffes, inyala, kudu, leopard tortoises (the only tortoise in South Africa that can swim), lions, rhinos, snakes, terrapins, waterbuck, and had tracked hyena and followed leopard grunts. Our instructors helped us see all this through practical exams in the wild and regular tests in our bush classroom. 

The use of GPS provides a fascinating window into the actual management of places such as the Selati Game Reserve, which also serves as a hunting reserve. Many of the reserve’s faunal subjects are tagged through GPS in order to make it easier for hunters and tourists to find.

There were nineteen trainees: four white women, three black men and twelve white men. The camp was segregated along gender lines, with the women (routinely called ‘Doll’ or ‘Sweetie’ by our instructors) in tents all on one side, and the men on another—hence the jokes about long-haired men being put in the women’s section. Of the three black men, I was a graduate student, Themba was a Zimbabwean park ranger employed by a private reserve in Namibia, and Abraham was a South African farm hand sent to the camp by his boss, a wealthy white farmer who had decided to switch from agriculture to game farming on one of his farms and needed workers who knew how to handle wildlife. We could not have chosen a better place for what we needed to learn. 

But we learnt more than bushcraft. During our first firearms-handling session, instructor called my childhood deprived when I told him I did not grow up with guns. On the fourth day of our training, I argued with the oldest white student after he made a derogatory comment about ‘drunk Coloureds’. Once, during an evening game drive, we spotted a male lion and one of my classmates, an undergraduate from the historically white Stellenbosch University, asked Gunn if it was true that dark-maned lions were more aggressive than their lighter-maned cousins. During our second firearms-handling session, Gunn thought to remind me that the hunting rifle I had in my arms was not an AK-47, ‘an AK being, in the white popular imagination, a gun of choice for black folks,’ I wrote in my diary later that day. 

The AK taunt came after our instructors told us that, when taking aim with our rifles, we must imagine an elephant in our sights. As I wrote that day, ‘I can’t help but wonder if elephants are all that some of my colleagues see when they hoist and aim their rifles.’ I had reason to wonder because, besides the casual anti-black racism, anti-Semitism and sexism that permeated the camp, I had overheard Gunn say in conversation with (white) Ecotraining officers visiting the camp one day that whites should arm themselves with guns to prevent a cholera epidemic that had broken out in Zimbabwe, 820 kilometres to the north of our camp, from spreading to South Africa. The epidemic had sent Zimbabwean refugees streaming into South Africa.

As I wrote in one diary entry: ‘I have learnt some fascinating stuff here—both about the subject at hand, i.e. conservation, and the right-wingers who people this place. It’s a most fascinating world this—defensive, insular, secluded and paranoid.’ In this small world, anxieties about wildlife and conservation were bound up with anxieties about race. To speak of the one was to speak of the other. But where did that come from? What was the history of such ways of thinking? 

To answer my questions—that is, to render these bounded anxieties historical—I decided to subsume my initial interest in the labour history of the Kruger National Park under a broader concern with the black experience of the park in particular and conservation in general. I worried that labour history might be too narrow a lens through which to examine the historical sources of these racialised anxieties. This was because, throughout the twentieth century, members of the black working class constituted but one of the many black factions that engaged with the park. Besides, a black Kruger Park ranger named Abram had already curbed my enthusiasm for the labour question when, during a walking safari early one morning in the southwestern portion of the park, he had responded to my question about the meaning of his job by telling me in Pedi that he was sick and tired of these ‘bloody animals,’ meaning the wildlife he was charged with protecting. He wanted to work construction in Pretoria. 

That exchange led me to question my own assumptions. Why, despite my interest in the imbrication of conservation with capitalism, had I expected Abram to sound like an African Thoreau? Why had I assumed that being a ranger would be viewed differently from a job in construction or, say, academia? Abram made me realise that I had to ask new questions. To the race question par excellence posed by sociologist WEB Du Bois, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’, I added others: How did blacks in twentieth-century South Africa respond to white anxieties that were as much about the political status of black folks (subjects of native administration) as they were about the fate of the region’s flora and fauna (objects of nature conservation)? How did blacks deal with being cast as nature’s denizens—existing in the mere state of nature—or as nature’s enemy—rapacious poachers who could not look at nature without wanting to consume it? What was the black experience of state-driven attempts to naturalise Africans, depicting them as modernity’s foil? 

But the experience I had in mind was not self-evident. Like the historian Joan Wallach Scott, I did not want to approach my questions in such a way that the ‘evidence of experience then becomes evidence for the fact of difference.’ I did not want to reduce my inquiry into the black experience of the Kruger National Park to questions about racial identity. That racialised ideas seemed central to my own experience of bushcraft and that, at one time or another, colonial and apartheid governments classified the characters whose stories I wanted to tell African, Asiatic, black, Coloured, Indian, native did not mean that mine was a black history of the park or even a black version of South African history. 

I wanted, as Scott writes, ‘to render historical what has hitherto been hidden from history.’ I wanted to place on the historical record stories that had existed in the archives, if at all, as fragments, marginalia and hints of a history yet to be written. But writing that history meant understanding that the very categories—African, Coloured, Indian, poacher, woman—key to recovering the hidden histories of the park were not natural but themselves products of history. As Scott puts it, ‘It is not individuals who have experience, but subjects who are constituted through experience.’ My interest was not in Africans, Asiatics, Coloureds and whites as such, but in subjects constituted as such through experience in a particular social and political context.

I had come to the bush to learn to read the wilderness precisely because, even though considered a black African, I had no intuitive understanding of the African wild. The wilderness held no ‘ontological familiarity’ for me, to use Prof Njabulo Ndebele’s phrase. I had to be schooled in its mysteries. I had to gain the professional experience necessary to understand it. But I also needed to appreciate that, as Scott puts it, experience is ‘not the origin of our explanation, but that which we want to explain.’ Rather than assume, as some scholars had done, the existence of an ‘African attitude’ to conservation founded on an undifferentiated black experience of marginalisation by the Kruger National Park, or take it for granted, as many scholars did, that the park was off limits to blacks under colonial and apartheid rule, I wanted to understand the wild in order to grasp how different categories of black people engaged with the wild and with the park in twentieth-century South Africa.

Jane Carruthers, for example, in The Kruger National Park: A Social and Political History (1995), writes: ‘There is considerable substance to the African attitude [my emphasis] that game reserves and wildlife protectionist legislation have from the start been detrimental to African interests.’ As I discovered, there were indeed African attitudes, but they varied according to class and circumstance.

Ecotraining was affiliated with the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA), an independent body responsible for the accreditation of field guides. The association uses the instructors in the academies offering field guide training to assess students. Assessors do not pass or fail trainees at the end of their training. They declare them Competent or Not yet competent. Gunn, our navy veteran, was the camp assessor at Selati and it fell to him to declare me at the end of my training ‘Not yet competent’ to become a field guide. A small-minded man who had a hard time masking his racism (not to mention his disdain for Afrikaners or jealousy over Edwards’s more storied military career), Gunn had tried hard to come across as impartial and professional during my final assessment. ‘To be fair to him,’ I wrote in my diary, ‘I did not know my birds, did not care for geology and was iffy on trees.’ 

It took me another four weeks and a second try at a different place, the Southern African Wildlife College, for me finally to pass my assessment and to be declared a Competent field guide. The college, established in 1996 on the western edge of the Kruger National Park by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, was better attuned to the times. (It had one of the first black female guides and instructors in southern Africa.) But it, too, was haunted by race. There were two groups during my training at the college, one (all black) from Botswana; another (all white, except for me) from South Africa. The Botswana trainees hung out together; ditto the white South Africans. 

Among the trainees from Botswana was a student whom our white instructor was convinced was a ‘bushman’. This meant, for the instructor, that our fellow trainee was a naturally gifted tracker. Except, our colleague could not track his way out of a termite mound. He simply could not read animal tracks beyond the obvious. You could see the instructor’s frustration rising each time our fellow trainee missed tracks, misidentified spoor and generally performed miserably in his practical exams. Convinced that all bushmen were born trackers, our instructor could not deal with a so-called bushman who lacked the bushman’s supposedly natural competence to read the wild.

It did not come as a surprise when, at the end of our four-week course, the instructor declared our colleague Not yet competent. The instructor did not need to say this but it was clear that, in his eyes, our colleague had failed not only to become a competent guide but to display an intuitive understanding of the wild. He had failed to live up to the foundational beliefs of a discourse of naturalisation that saw Africans as being connected organically—atavistically even—to nature. The discourse rested on a nature–culture divide and sought to present some humans as being more natural than cultural.[1]

The instructor did not put his expectations in quite these terms. He saw his expectations, rather, as nothing more than an acknowledgement of our colleague’s innate talent. But that acknowledgement, too, rested on the same discourse of naturalisation that made it sound as if it was only natural to expect that bushmen should know how to track. That the instructor never extended the same expectation to me or to my fellow dark-skinned trainees (even though we were also African) was because he saw us as too contaminated by the ways of the African city to have any instinctual connection to the wild. We had lost something. It did not matter to the instructor that the Botswana trainees (including the so-called bushman) all came from Maun, Botswana’s fifth-largest city. Our colleague was still a bushman and, as such, must be a born tracker and a naturally gifted hunter. 

Whereas I, urban-born and urban-raised, had to be taught to understand the wild, my colleague from Botswana was expected to know it like the back of his hand. He was a bushman and that, our instructor seemed to think, gave him all the natural advantages needed to become a tracker. Our instructor was of course not alone in his thinking. As anthropologist Robert Gordon argues in Picturing Bushmen: The Denver African Expedition of 1925 (1997), there is a long tradition in western-inspired thought of picturing bushmen as modern representatives of primordial forms of human life, here to remind us of a time when we, too, were once closer to nature.

To read the instructor’s actions simply as a crude instance of racial stereotyping is to miss the point. For behind his assumptions lay notions of expertise with a long and complicated history. After all, our instructor was the expert here, with the power to decide whether any of us were Competent or not. His knowledge about the bush rested on an implied perspicacity about Africans and their place in the world. Behind that perspicacity was one essential idea: That to know the African wild was to know the African subject. The instructor was displaying what sociologist George Steinmetz calls ‘ethnographic acuity’. This is a form of knowledge intrinsic to racially-defined social relations, whereby those in power had ‘to know’ their natives in order to develop effective forms of rule. Ethnographic acuity, which I also take to mean ‘native intelligence’ of a sort, was thus the common currency among colonisers and conservationists. When the British appointed James Stevenson-Hamilton warden of the Sabi Game Reserve (forerunner of the Kruger Park) in July 1902, one of the qualities that recommended him (a Scottish aristocrat who had never set foot in the lowveld) was that he understood the ‘treatment and control of natives’. When Jan Smuts plugged Stevenson-Hamilton’s book, The Lowveld: Its Wildlife and its People (1929), he, too, remarked on the Scotsman’s bureaucratic dexterity in ‘administering its natives and … caring for its wild life.’ Smuts and other colonial officials understood that official concern with nature conservation was at the same time concern with ‘native administration’, meaning the political control of Africans. 

It is that dual concern and, most importantly, black responses to it that drew me to the history of the Kruger National Park. Except, I saw the park as more than a victimiser and saw black people occupying many positions besides that of victim. But I also wanted to write about what the bush taught me about the persistence of certain ideas about culture, nature, power and race, and about the impress of history on the present. There was perhaps no greater illustration of that impress, of the ways in which history makes the present tense, than the fact that when I drove to the lowveld that January 2009, half of the Kruger National Park was under land claim. Making use of the Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994, about 26 communities claimed the entire southern portion of the park, up to the Olifants River.

The act, the first major legislation that Nelson Mandela signed into law upon becoming president in 1994, sought to overcome South Africa’s original political sin—land dispossession—by restoring rights in land to communities and individuals who had lost such rights as a result of discriminatory legislation, starting with the Natives Land Act of 1913. In the case of the Kruger National Park, colonial and apartheid governments had taken the land under claim from various communities over the course of the twentieth century. In fact, the park had already settled one such case, the Makuleke claim, following a ruling by the Land Claims Court in 1998. The Makuleke, expelled in 1969 from their ancestral lands in the northern section of the park, used Mandela’s law successfully to secure the return of their land. However, instead of returning to the land, which accounts for 75 per cent of the park’s biodiversity, the Makuleke agreed to lease it to the park in return for joint control, a share of the tourism proceeds and for development aid. 

But such arrangements could only work, or so park officials reasoned, if limited to individual claims—not involving thousands of households claiming half the park. So, in one of his first acts as president, Jacob Zuma’s government decided in April 2009 ‘not to restore the park to the claimant communities because it is both a national asset and an international icon’. Rather than return the land to the claimants, the state forced them to accept monetary compensation. 

Through a bureaucratic sleight of hand, the state shielded the park from the claims of history by labelling it an asset and an icon. But the claims of justice demand more than a change in name and status, and conservation deserves better than the racism of Ecotraining and the associated apartheid-era throwbacks of this world.

  • Jacob Dlamini is a writer, historian and journalist, and the author of the critically acclaimed Native Nostalgia (Jacana, 2009) and Askari (Jacana, 2014), which won the Alan Paton Award.


1. A number of scholars have written powerfully and with great insight about this discourse. See, for example, William Cronon’s essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’, cited above. For a more recent and very sophisticated treatment of the topic, see my colleague Emmanuel Kreike’s excellent book Environmental Infrastructure in African History (2013). See, especially, Chapter 1, ‘The Ends of Nature and Culture’. Kreike offers a way out of the nature-culture dichotomy by arguing that we see humans as ‘architects of Nature’, as opposed to nature’s rulers/victims or destroyers/champions.

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