The 'black history' of Kruger Park

Jacob Dlamini shines new light on an unexplored stratum in the many-layered history of SA in his social history, shortlisted for the Sunday Times CNA nonfiction prize.

18 July 2021 - 00:00
By Jennifer Platt

Nonfiction Award Criteria

The winner should demonstrate the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; compassion; elegance of writing; and intellectual and moral integrity.

In Safari Nation: A Social History of the Kruger National Park (Jacana Media) Jacob Dlamini examines the history of the world-famous reserve and places black people front and centre in the narrative. By exploring the complex and dynamic ways in which black people of varying backgrounds related to the park, he sheds new light on how and why Africa's national parks - often derided by scholars as colonial impositions - have survived the end of white rule on the continent.

What led you to write on the social history of the Kruger National Park?

I majored in English literature and political science at Wits University and went to Yale University in 2003 intent on pursuing graduate work on the philosophical underpinnings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But when I realised Yale's department of political science would not offer the kind of intellectual support I would need to see my research through, I switched to the friendlier and much more welcoming history department. That is how I became a historian. Having switched disciplines, I then had to change topics and the Kruger National Park, which I had visited once and for the first time in 1998, seemed like a fascinating research topic. I knew from that one visit that I liked the place. I knew also from that first visit that I knew nothing about the history of the place. So began what seems now like a lifelong relationship with the park and its complex history.

What were your sources for the research?

I drew on a range of archives, from SANParks' [South African National Parks] own collections in Pretoria and at Skukuza, the National Archives in Pretoria, the various research archives at universities in South Africa, England and in the US and, most importantly, from oral histories and interviews with communities adjacent to the park. I benefited also from the generosity of colleagues and conservationists of various stripes.

Several of your books have examined history that is not widely known, or swept under the rug of time. What new insights did this book reveal?

Safari Nation reveals what I call the "black history" of the Kruger National Park; it illuminates a complex and rich history of conservation and conservationist thinking by black (meaning African, coloured and Indian) South Africans. This "black history" is not intended to serve as a counterpoint to the park's conventional and, dare I say it, dominant "white history", but as yet another layer in a richly sedimented history of the Kruger and of conservation in South Africa.

In what way do you think the book "illuminates truthfulness"?

Safari Nation illuminates truthfulness by shining a spotlight on the complex history of the park. But the book does more than that. It argues that complexity on its own is not an argument. To say that things are complex is to state the obvious. Things are always complex. That is life. The challenge is to go beyond that complexity to show why it matters. And Safari Nation does this by not only exploring the park's dense "black history" but by showing why it matters.

The most difficult part of writing it?

The most difficult (and therefore the most satisfying) part was finding the evidence for what I call in the book "histories of presence". I knew from stories that people were telling and from the Kruger Park's own records (especially its annual reports) that there was a rich history of black presence in the park. But finding that evidence, putting faces behind the figures mentioned in the annual reports, was hard. But I did it, even if my sample ended up being small. But because my point was to show this history of presence and not to track the volumes of it over time, I believe I succeeded in making my case. The second major difficulty was that, because of the dominance of the so-called hard sciences in Kruger Park research, park officials tend to assume that, like ecologists or zoologists, every researcher interested in the park must have a hypothesis or some such. But I am a historian. I start with questions, hunches, and use those to search for the evidence that might help me answer my questions or follow my hunches. But this never goes in a straight line. Sometimes, questions lead to dead ends; hunches end up being just that, hunches. So to expect researchers (especially historians) to come along with ready-made hypotheses is not helpful.

What impression do you want readers to take away?

I hope readers will be impressed by the complexity of the park's history and that this will make them appreciate the park anew.

What is the modern relevance of Safari Nation? Are there parallels to be drawn with present times?

I can think of a few points here but let me mention just one. Safari Nation exposes the conceptual pitfalls that follow each time we treat black South Africans as nothing more than victims of history. Black people were and are always more than the sum total of their historic circumstances. Saying this does not in any way minimise the depravity of apartheid and of segregation.

Do politicians pay enough attention to history? Should they?

No, they don't. Paying attention to history would mean reading and that is clearly too much effort for them. Of course, they should. History is about the study of change over time; it is the one discipline that helps us understand that change is possible, and that things do not have to remain as they are.

What do you believe are the greatest challenges we are facing now in SA?

Where do I start? The failure of the imagination, the cynical abandonment of hope, an entrenched misogyny and anti-black racism that mean that no lives (not women's as women, not black people as black people, not whites as white, not the LGBTQI as such, certainly not children's as children) are safe. Misogyny and racism dehumanise all, including the misogynists and the racists. Where one is dehumanised, all are dehumanised. That is why our violence is always accompanied by the gratuitous mutilation of the victim's body.


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