For 13 years, Philip Mkhwanazi ferried passengers around his rural village outside St Lucia, earning a measly R35 a fortnight.
But now he is moving tourists around in a boat in South Africa’s first world heritage site, where he also owns a cultural village. He makes R800,000 a year.
Mkhwanazi, an induna (headman) at Khula village, 5km outside St Lucia in northern KwaZulu-Natal, heads one of five majority black-owned licensed tour operations in iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
He operates two commercial boats in the St Lucia estuary, where he takes guests on cruises.
His Veyane Cultural Village, which has 15 traditional huts, offers accommodation and a Zulu experience to local and international tourists through storytelling around a fire, traditional dance and food.
For Mkhwanazi, it’s a welcome change.
“I was tired of driving taxis, especially having to sleep inside while waiting for the next load. Then I decided to work with my uncle at the Dukuduku Forest and that’s when I developed an interest in the environment,” said Mkhwanazi.
A Grade 8 dropout, Mkhwanazi started working as a land-care contractor, clearing alien plants from the park.
He attributes his success to iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis, who taught him and other villagers how communities could live side by side with game reserves.
“Zaloumis took us around the country to see first-hand how communities lived around game parks. When I came back I had a dream to build a cultural village where tourists could learn about Zulu culture,” said Mkhwanazi.
He is one of the beneficiaries of iSimangaliso’s rural enterprise programmes aimed at benefiting people living near the park’s borders.
The park is situated in uMkhanyakude district municipality, the second-poorest region in South Africa.
To date, the programme has trained and mentored 215 entrepreneurs. It supports 110 small businesses.
Grant funding amounting to R7.8-million has been paid out to 106 businesses — which range from cattle farms to caterers, hair salons, tour guides, spaza shops and bakeries.
Since the proclamation in 1999 of iSimangaliso as South Africa’s first world heritage site, local communities have seen real benefits. All privately owned lodges in the park have local community equity and there are nine community-owned and operated companies running tourism activities such as game drives, boat tours and turtle tours.
On average the park provides 11,000 temporary jobs a year and has supported 87 students at university since 2010. The 395 tourism jobs created in 1999 have grown to more than 8,000 and iSimangaliso contributes about 7% of KwaZulu-Natal’s tourism GDP.