MUKURUKURU MEDIA

Rural community threatens to shut down Kruger Park’s Punda Maria gate

By Benson Ntlemo for Mukurukuru Media 25 November 2020

The Matiyani community near the Kruger National Park has threatened to shut down the road leading to the park if management doesn't accede to demands to hire locals. (Photo supplied)

Demand for jobs in a village ravaged by poverty and unemployment leads to blockade of tourist route.

Benson Ntlemo for Mukurukuru Media

Chaotic scenes played out on the road leading to the Punda Maria gate of the Kruger National Park early this week when scores of Matiyani residents littered the R524 with rocks, logs and other objects. 

The protest action comes on the eve of the holiday season and at a time when tourism is battling to emerge from the devastation caused by the long months of the lockdown.

“We demand 70% of Matiyani community to be employed when there is [a] post in [the] Kruger National Park,” the Matiyani Concerned Group said in a memorandum. They accuse the park’s management of nepotism and corruption when it comes to the allocation of jobs and have warned of further action if this is not addressed.

“If our demands are not addressed accordingly, we will be left without any option but to make Punda Maria Gate not easily accessible, as we will be fighting for our rights,” the group said.

The protest follows a series of meetings between the community’s representatives and management of SA National Parks (SanParks). In a memorandum dated 9 October, the Matiyani Concerned Group called on SanParks to “stop nepotism, [and] employ whoever meets the requirements for the particular vacancy”.

“For the past years, the Kruger National Park has been hiring workers into its different departments. This practice was having a lot of loopholes as those who have been in charge were not following proper procedures. This included, among others, nepotism and bribery,” the group said.

Matiyani is ravaged by high unemployment and low economic activity. SanParks is one of a few entities providing employment opportunities in the area. 

Most residents survive on subsistence and small-scale commercial agriculture. The nearest commercial centres are Giyani, 80km away and Thohoyandou about 65km away. Residents have also raised the contentious issue of livestock killed by wild animals that escape from the park in the ongoing human-wildlife conflict that affects many communities living near national parks, especially in Africa.

A 2019 study by Dr Limpho Lekaota and Rofhiwa S Khashane of the Vaal University of Technology found that there is minimal involvement in the protected area, in terms of employment, by the management of the Kruger National Park.

“Kruger National Park must pay people who lost their livestock because of Kruger’s wild dogs. [It] must also provide employment for people who have lost their breadwinners because of wild dogs. Our people are losing their source of living, because most are depending on their livestock for living, [and] Kruger National Park’s fence is not securely intact,” the Matiyani Concerned Group said. 

Residents cited cases in which a family lost 29 head of cattle to predators, a woman who was trampled to death by an elephant and another who was killed by a leopard while herding cattle on the outskirts of the village near the park’s fence.

In its People and Conservation document, SanParks acknowledges that damage caused by animals and its impact on community areas “is an area which has constantly soured relationships between communities and protected areas”. It says the issue of compensation has not been clearly articulated in policies and the role of national, provincial and municipal parks in the event that an animal escapes the park is fuzzy. 

“This is an area that has received little attention from researchers, yet is critical in facilitating better relations with communities.” 

The secretary of the Matiyani Concerned Group, Jeffrey Khosa, said that for a long time the community had raised issues with the park, but they were not taken seriously.

“Before we embarked on the protest we had sent a memorandum of our grievance, but the park just sent a confirmation of receipt and did not want to discuss with the communities issues which involve the communities, and this has angered the community,” he said.

The head of public relations and communications at Kruger National Park, William Mabasa, said they are still in discussion with the Matiyani community regarding their demands. 

According to the 2011 Census by Statistics SA, the village of Ka-Matiani (Matiyani) had 809 households and a dependency ratio of 84.1%. 

In a heated meeting held at Punda Maria Gate EE Centre attended by SanParks officials, the Mhinga Community Association, Collins Chabane Local Municipality and the Matiyani Concerned Group, community members vowed to make the park inaccessible to visitors if their demands were not met. They criticised SanParks and the SAPS for using rubber bullets on people who were protesting peacefully.

“We did not stop the protest because of rubber bullets, but wanted to give negotiations a chance and if you do not meet our demands we are going to shut down the park,” said one of the residents at the meeting. 

Several people were allegedly injured after police opened fire with rubber bullets and four others were arrested, but later released without being charged. An employee at the park, Benjamin Hlungwani, was injured on an arm after he was shot with rubber bullets during the protest while on his way to work.

Community members alleged the park advertised posts but did not stick to requirements in the adverts. 

“In one instance, the post required somebody from Matiyani, but the one employed was not known to local people and when local structures demanded the person to be fired for having lied under oath, the person was transferred to another area with the post, depriving the local people of jobs,” reads the memorandum.

It said people in communities neighbouring the park should be prioritised when it came to jobs.

“We are at the receiving end of dangerous animals who kill people and livestock, but when it comes to jobs, relatives and girlfriends of bosses at the park are employed.” 

A 2019 study by Dr Limpho Lekaota and Rofhiwa S Khashane of the Vaal University of Technology found that there is minimal involvement in the protected area, in terms of employment, by the management of the Kruger National Park.

The study, conducted in the communities of Ka-Matiyani and Ka-Mhinga, also found that the community has limited roles in the operation of tourism in the Kruger National Park. 

“The study concludes that it is generally accepted that local communities should be given the chance to practise their due role in tourism, most likely through community participation.” DM/MC

Mukurukuru Media

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