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versión On-line ISSN 2071-0771
versión impresa ISSN 0075-6458

Koedoe vol.53 no.1 Pretoria ene. 2011




Pilanesberg National Park, North West Province, South Africa: Uniting economic development with ecological design - A history, 1960s to 1984



Jane Carruthers

Department of History, University of South Africa, South Africa

Correspondence to




In the late 1970s, a ground-breaking project began in the Pilanesberg district in what is now the North West Province of South Africa to create a wildlife conservation and eco-tourism venture from degraded marginal farmland in an aesthetically attractive extinct volcanic crater. The establishment of this national park was innovative in a number of respects, including a partnership between landscape and ecological designers, local community development and participation, regional tourist satisfaction, trophy hunting, environmental education, ecological restoration, and wildlife conservation and management. This paper briefly explored the park's early history, explaining its landscape, its early peopling and historical land use. The narrative then concentrated on the first five years of the park's existence, from its inception in 1977, under the aegis of Agricor, Bophuthatswana's rural development agency, to 1984, when responsibility for the park was given over to Bophuthatswana National Parks, a parastatal agency, and a new era began.
The article contended that 1984 is an appropriate date on which to conclude the early history of the Pilanesberg National Park (PNP) because it was then that the experimental phase of the park ended: its infrastructure was sufficiently developed to offer a satisfactory visitor experience, the management plan was revised, its bureaucratic structures were consolidated and an attitude survey amongst the local community was undertaken. Embedding the originating period of the PNP in its historical, political and socio-economic context, the paper foregrounded those elements in the park's beginnings that were new in the southern African protected area arena. Thus, elements that relate to socio-politics, landscape and ecological design and restoration, and early relations with neighbouring communities were emphasised. This paper has been written by an historian and is therefore conceptual and historical, conforming in language and structure to the humanities style (environmental history). It relies on published and unpublished literature and oral information and the critical evaluation of these sources.
CONSERVATION IMPLICATIONS: The pioneering example of the PNP as a protected area is relevant to the field of conservation science because, as human population densities increase, as the tourism sector develops, as marginal farmland becomes available for new uses, and as it becomes important to include neighbouring communities in conservation activities, a study of this park's early history and socio-political and economic context may be of assistance in the development of similar projects elsewhere in South Africa and beyond.




Conservation managers and wildlife biologists in southern Africa are familiar with the fact that national parks and other protected areas are often advertised and marketed as 'unspoilt nature', although they are, in fact, manipulated to meet objectives such as tourist satisfaction, carrying capacity, pasture and biodiversity management together with a variety of other key goals that may change over time. It is also true that many protected areas are far from being 'pristine wilderness' unaffected by past human activities, but are the consequence of 'fortress conservation' (Brockington 2002) and the people (or their descendants) who were removed, often forcibly, in the interests of wildlife conservation have grievances that play out in the political arena. Because of the human dimension involved in land use and present management, protected areas are not neutral spaces or landscapes without history; they are definitively shaped by their pasts.

The Pilanesberg National Park (PNP), situated in what is today the North West Province of South Africa, was established in 1977. At the time, the area formed part of the western Transvaal (a province of South Africa until 1994) in an African reserve that was about to transform from an apartheid Bantustan consisting of a number of 'Tswana homelands' into Bophuthatswana, nominally an independent state, an enclave within White South Africa. It is an unusual national park from both points of view mentioned earlier. This particular area did not appear 'natural' at the time of its foundation. It was fully recognised to be property that had been heavily utilised and altered by many groups of people over the preceding centuries. It was deliberately and carefully redesigned as a national park, being restored ecologically from expropriated (as will be explained at a later stage), the African people who returned to live in the Pilanesberg farmland and into which a wide variety of indigenous animals were reintroduced. Once the White farmers had been were not to be forcibly removed as had been the case elsewhere; rather, their consent was sought and they were promised that the establishment of the national park would not be to their detriment but to their economic advantage. Indeed, the very rationale of the PNP was that it was to become an engine of regional economic development.


Pilanesberg landscape and early politics

Some 50 km north of the town of Rustenburg lies the root zone of an extinct volcano - roughly circular, some 572 km2 (c.50 000 ha) in extent and measuring between 23 km and 28 km in diameter. It appears as a complex series of eroded rings of low mountains and hills that rise approximately 300 m - 600 m above the surrounding land. There is one perennial river and a number of freshwater and saline springs; however, the largest permanent body of water is Mankwe Dam (covering an area of approximately 2 km2), which was constructed by White farmers in the late 1950s. The climate is benign; the average rainfall is 600 mm - 700 mm per year, although there are regular droughts (Farrell, Van Riet & Tinley 1978; McCarthy & Rubidge 2005; Mucina & Rutherford 2006). In terms of vegetation, the Pilanesberg is significant because it is a transition zone between the Arid Savanna and the Moist Savanna Biome. Owing to the complex substrate, there is a wide variety of landscapes and habitats for both plants and animals (Farrell et al. 1978; Mucina & Rutherford 2006). This landscape within the crater is aesthetically attractive and was the subject of comment by many 19th century travellers and explorers, amongst them Thomas Baines, who painted the ring of hills in 1869 as he journeyed into what is now Botswana.

The region had been inhabited continuously by Tswanaspeaking people probably for many centuries. At the time of permanent White settlement in the mid-19th century, the Bakgatla baKgafela clan lived in the Pilanesberg area under their chief Pilane (d. 1850), who gave his name to the modern district. According to Makgala (2009) and Mbenga (1996), this community can also be referred to as the 'Kgafela-Kgatla', 'Bakgatla-baga-Kgafela' or 'Bakgatla-ba-ga-Kgafela' - meaning the 'Kgatla people of Kafela' in various forms of the Tswana language. Kgafela was the kgosi (chief) who originally gave his name to the community. The current head of the clan is Kgosi Kgafela II, who resides in Mochudi, Botswana, whilst Kgosi Nyalala Pilane leads the group at Saulspoort.

The Bakgatla was one of the few groups that did not resist the arrival of the Boers but became their allies, assisting them in exploits of war and ivory-hunting. Their association with White settlers and access to firearms enhanced the Bakgatla powerbase and enabled them to increase their cattle herds and vanquish some of their local rivals and enemies. In later decades, however, the Bakgatla lands were commandeered and carved up into settler farms on which the Bakgatla became rent-paying or labour tenants. Many of the community settled at Saulspoort (Breutz 1953; Makgala 2009; Manson & Mbenga 2009; Mbenga 1996, 1997; Mbenga

& Morton 1997; Morton 1992, 1995; Schapera 1953). In 1913, the Natives Land Act (Act No. 27 of 1913; Union of South Africa) confined Black South Africans to very limited areas of the country and, in 1936, the Native Trust and Land Act (Act No. 18 of 1936; Union of South Africa) attempted to provide more land for Africans by designating 'released areas' that were to be purchased by the South African Native Trust and added to the African reserves. The Pilanesberg was one of these released areas and the White-occupied farms were very slowly expropriated until the exercise was complete in the early 1960s. The Bakgatla were thus allowed to return to their ancestral land. In 1961, the growing severity and oppression of apartheid politics affected the Pilanesberg directly when it became a designated 'Tswana homeland'. During the 1970s, these various Tswana homelands were consolidated into a number of islands within White South Africa and became the 'independent nation' of Bophuthatswana in 1977. Regional politics were fraught. Tidimane Pilane, kgosi of the Bakgatla, and Lucas Mangope, head of the Bahurutshe clan, were rivals, Pilane supporting the African National Congress (ANC) and Mangope the apartheid state (Butler, Rotberg & Adams 1977; Jones 1999; Lawrence & Manson 1994).


Origins of the Pilanesberg National Park - The 1960s and 1970s

The principles underlying wildlife and conservation management in southern Africa were changing during the 1960s and 1970s (Carruthers 2007a, 2007b, 2008). In terms of philosophy, the idea of utilising wildlife sustainably by cropping and translocation gained ground in parts of Africa, replacing an older tradition of strict preservation. At the same time, there were technical improvements in the transporting and immobilisation of wild animals that led to the easier movement and sale of wildlife (Dasmann 1959, 1964; Dasmann & Mossman 1960, 1961; Eltringham 1984; Johnson et al. 2008; Mossman & Mossman 1976). In conjunction with Bophuthatswana politics, these developments were relevant to the formation of the PNP. Indeed, the park could not have come into being in a pre-translocation and pre-game sales era.

Apartheid social planning gained momentum during the 1960s and there were government initiatives to make the Bantustans more self-sufficient economically and thus able to sustain a larger number of Black Africans outside of 'White' South Africa, with a view to separating the homelands permanently from the other 'White' parts of the country. In 1969, there was a recommendation from 'apartheid's social engineers' - a 'Potchefstroom-based team of "development experts" commissioned to find ways of enhancing the economic viability of an "independent state"' (Van Onselen 1996:477) - that the crater be made into a recreation resort and nature reserve. However, for reasons that are unclear, nothing came of the idea at the time, but it was raised again in 1973. The following year Mangope established a feasibility study (Brett 1989; Johnson et al. 2008; Magome & Collinson 1998). The matter received a boost when the Southern Sun Hotel Group - which, through managing director Sol Kerzner, had close ties with the Bophuthatswana president and his government - finalised a plan to build a casino and hotel resort in the Pilanesberg (to be named 'Sun City') that would bring revenue into the region. At a time of strict petrol rationing and thus the curtailment of long-distance motor car travelling, it was expected that a game reserve adjacent to the hotel would provide an added attraction for tourists from Johannesburg and Pretoria, who would flock to Sun City for the kinds of entertainment not available in White South Africa, such as multiracial mingling, soft pornography and gambling. Having first considered the location of Mankwe Dam for the hotel, the facility was relocated to its present site and construction began in 1978 (Bureau for Economic Research re Bantu Development [South Africa] 1978; Boonzaaier pers. comm., 01 March 2010).

After gaining independence, Bophuthatswana established a number of organs of state. One of these was a parastatal development body tasked with promoting rural selfsufficiency. Named the Agricultural Development Corporation (Agricor), this body fell under the Bophuthatswana Department of Agriculture and was to play a decisive role in the establishment of the PNP. Through its managing director, David Beuster, Agricor raised the funds for the game reserve and, despite the fact that many Bakgatla people and livestock lived in and used the crater, and that it contained numerous farm houses, roads, dams and fences, the Pilanesberg was formally proclaimed a nature reserve in 1977. It is worth emphasising that Agricor, a parastatal body specifically responsible for economic and community development in the rural sector, was given the administration of this future national park rather than the Department of Nature Conservation, because it was regarded as a rural improvement project and not a nature conservation exercise.

What was audacious for the period was that Beuster and Mangope employed landscape architects to design this game reserve adjacent to Sun City. The firm that was instructed to act as consultants to draw up a management plan was Farrell and Van Riet, Landscape Architects and Ecological Planners, then a recently established Pretoria-based company, and it was instructed to act as consultants and to draw up a management plan. By the time he established the partnership of Farrell and Van Riet, Willem van Riet was a leader in the field of landscape architecture in South Africa and he was primarily responsible for linking landscape architecture with ecological planning in the country. Van Riet had initially qualified as an architect at the University of Cape Town but thereafter, from 1972 to 1975, he had benefited from studying at the University of Pennsylvania under Ian McHarg, the renowned landscape architect and author of Design with nature (1971), a book that is widely regarded as one of the most influential of the 20th century (Schnadelbach 2001). In his autobiography, McHarg explained that the genesis of Design with nature lay in a meeting between himself, Russell Train, the President of the Conservation Foundation and Ray Dasmann, a noted ecologist and the Foundation's chief scientist. Apparently, Train said, 'Ian, Ray and I have decided that the time has come for a book on ecology and planning' and McHarg agreed to write it (McHarg 1996). Train and Dasmann were correct: the book was perfectly timed and widely used and quoted. In A quest for life (1996), McHarg describes landscape architecture as a discipline very close to nature and its preservation and he was particularly keen to encourage planning that was appropriate to specific environments. McHarg sought out trained architects such as Van Riet for his postgraduate landscape architecture programme, providing not only a stimulating academic environment but substantial financial subsidies (McHarg 1981). In this way, and through Van Riet, ideas around ecologically apt planning and design from the USA made their way into southern Africa.

Sharon Kingsland argues that the science of nature reserve design emerged in tandem with the interdisciplinary field of conservation biology. She explains that the basic rationale for such design is to protect biodiversity, using ideas from island biogeography, prioritising conservation of the indigenous species of plants and animals of the area, and employing operational research and mathematical techniques for linear programming (Kingsland 2002a, 2002b). If this is the norm, then the Pilanesberg was highly unusual because the biodiversity had been totally compromised by farming activities and there were extremely few remaining indigenous plants and animals - certainly large mammals had become locally extinct. The creation of the Pilanesberg involved little conservation biology and focused, at first, entirely on ecological restoration and landscape design. The national park emerged from the collaboration between Van Riet and Ken Tinley, a young ecologist who had also been inspired by McHarg. As a university student, Tinley advocated McHarg's Design with nature to his contemporaries (Huntley 2010). Tinley was one of an emerging new generation of wildlife ecologists in South Africa (many of whom were educated at the University of Natal). In partnership with Van Riet, he worked on a number of nature reserves, particularly in the 'homelands', where there was scope for new ideas because the reserves in these localities were not in the control of the various philosophically and bureaucratically entrenched provincial nature conservation authorities or the National Parks Board. These included locations in Pondoland (including Mkambati), in Maputaland and in the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, as well as private game reserves (Farrell & Van Riet Landscape Architects and Ecological Planners 1975; Tinley 1978; Tinley 2010; Van Riet 2010).

Van Riet and Tinley were employed to design the PNP and they presented their report in 1978. What they suggested was somewhat revolutionary in the context of southern African national park and game reserve planning and it marked a strong contrast to the fortress conservation and wildlife management practices that then held sway. Entitled 'Pilanesberg National Park: Planning and management proposals for Department of Agriculture, Republic of Bophuthatswana' (Farrell et al. 1978), this is an important document and worth summarising in some detail. The report began with what was a provocative premise in an era of fortress conservation: that any conservation measure would ultimately be futile unless wildlife and nature could deliver tangible, visible benefits to humans within a particular socio-economic and geographical milieu. In other words, the survival of wildlife in Africa was dependent on rural African people. Van Riet and Tinley (Farrell et al. 1978) argued that protected areas should not be viewed in isolation, but in their regional ecological and economic contexts as productive primary (ecological services) and secondary (tourism, education and wealth-creation) landscapes. The report paid particular attention to wildlife as a source of protein, as well as of traditional medicine and other natural products that might be sustainably harvested by local people, together with wildlife tourism being a source of employment and income.

These principles were in sharp contrast with those espoused by, for example, the National Parks Board (now SANParks) that were focused on settler values that emphasised White, middle class tourist recreation and created places in which:

lessons in tidiness, adherence to and acceptance of rules and regulations ... [were taught]