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Table Mountain National Park — escaped genies and the desperately ill cash cow

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Nicky Schmidt is the founder and chair of Parkscape, a voluntary NPO focused on community, safety, environment and urban greenspace in the wildland-urban interfaces of Table Mountain National Park.

Adopting an approach that is embracing and mindful of the diverse realities of our unique urban park is critical if Table Mountain National Park is to survive, revive the desperately ill cash cow, and thrive.

Crime spikes in Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) always result in public outcries and long hard looks at how the park is managed.

With the attack on international ultra-athlete Tom Evans on 17 November, three muggings on the RMB UTCT trail race on 25 November, and an ongoing and unprecedented spate of muggings (over 65) in the City Bowl area of the park over the past three months (another six reported on Sunday 26 November), stakeholders and authorities are once again scrambling for solutions, in a situation that seems out of control.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Environment minister Creecy urged to hand over ‘broken’ Table Mountain National Park to City of Cape Town

There is the usual outcry here, and much of it, rightly, goes around the ongoing concern about how much money the park makes, and the lack of sufficient reinvestment into the park (mindful that the top-earning parks do — and need to — subsidise the smaller national parks).

But, as I have said in Daily Maverick before, it is one thing milking the cash cow but quite another thing killing it.

The problem with an under-resourced park — and too few boots on the ground — is that unfortunate precedents are set and management failures go well beyond not managing crime.

Safety and visitor behaviour

For example, there are currently calls to ensure safety on the monthly full moon hikes up Lion’s Head and on sunset and sunrise tours — all of which have become huge tourist attractions and revenue generators that boost park and City of Cape Town coffers. This, while the park manager politely requests that users avoid the park after sunset and before sunrise in the interests of safety. But this raises a key question: how did we get into this particular situation?

TMNP, like all national parks, is “closed” between sunset and sunrise. (A quick search of “TMNP hours” reverts with 08.30am – 6pm.) But this clearly no longer applies. When I recently posed the question of park hours regarding the full moon hike on one of the bigger stakeholder Facebook pages, the admin — a stakeholder well-versed in the workings of the park – responded, “we are past that for this hike. Hundreds of people do the full moon hike… They can be stopped at the trailhead, or a measure of safety can be put in place. People are going to do it anyway.”

Another stakeholder responded “the new user groups/stakeholders/mountain people don’t obey park rules these days. TMNP closed between sunset and sunrise.”

This kind of situation is, unfortunately, true of many user activities in the park that have gone unregulated for several years. Just as people go up Lion’s Head at full moon and locals and tourists are taken on sunset and sunrise hikes, people run, cycle and hike after dark.

Some people stay overnight — or permanently — in the park, they make fires in undesignated areas (witness the weekend’s Peck’s Valley fire) and litter has become a major problem. Proteas are picked for sale, fynbos is harvested, bark is stripped from indigenous forest and snares are set — and that’s before considering the impacts of marine poaching.

Drones are flown and loud music is played. Users go off trail, recreate without the relevant activity permits and/or ignoring user codes of conduct — often without realising it. The list goes on. People do these things — some are minor infractions, some far more serious — and get away with it, frequently to the detriment of the environment, because they have been enabled by SANParks. 

SANParks rules and law enforcement

Park management has increasingly not upheld its own regulations and undertakings — even when repeatedly asked to do so directly and via social media. Equally, it has failed to provide effective user communication and awareness, and it has failed to honour agreements inherent in the founding principles of the park.

In doing so SANParks has let many genies escape from their bottles, and in many instances, such as the full moon and sunset/sunrise hikes, there is no going back.

SANParks TMNP management cannot hide, as it has done, behind Table Mountain National Park being an open access park in a challenging urban environment, and put the blame on “difficult” users prone to backchatting or simply ignoring rangers; it has to acknowledge its own lack of enforcement of the park’s regulations over the years — likely caused by lack of resourcing (but likely also caused by sheer frustration with the public), which should include the kind of ranger and staff training that would enable staff to engage politely and constructively with user “attitude”. 

Additionally, it needs to change its management approach from one which appears to be willing to tackle trivial issues while remaining helpless in the face of massive ones.

Adding to the complexities at this juncture is the park’s increased reliance on volunteer activity, including significant funding raised by volunteer groups (which gives those groups, by default, certain leverage), so now we face the even bigger challenge of how to manage our urban national park when people have been left to do pretty much what they want.

To resolve this, the thinking from both SANParks — and stakeholders/users — is going to have to be different, inclusive, lateral and creative.

In an increasingly lawless and self-interested society where “anything goes”, adopting an approach that is embracing and mindful of the diverse realities of our unique urban park is critical if Table Mountain National Park is to survive, revive the desperately ill cash cow, and thrive.

And going backwards towards strong-arm law enforcement on lesser infractions while ignoring egregious breaches, is not an option once so many precedents have been set, unless SANParks wants even more negative publicity and outcry from its very diverse and vocal Cape Town public — as it recently saw when an artist was fined R2,500 for painting a picture in the park without a (free) permit. (The artist, as an aside, had attempted to get a permit the previous day).

This and other focused policing efforts on activities deemed minor transgressions, especially while crime runs out of control and infrastructure and heritage crumble, does not sit well, and risks creating greater further divides between SANParks and the public it serves.

Solutions are going to have to be found that include users’ thinking and are based on education and awareness geared to user self-interest, so that the park’s diverse users and stakeholders come to appreciate that certain regulations and caring for the park is in their own best interests and to their benefit, and not merely because an authority says so.

And, of course, to achieve this, reinvestment from the park’s own revenue and other funding is going to have to be ploughed into any effective and sustainable solution.

SANParks is going to entice the genies back into their bottles by taking the kind of people-centric, socially aware approach to which SANParks’ TMNP management has historically been so averse. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Peter Slingsby says:

    The Peck’s Valley fire was [reputedly] started by a church group that routinely spends all night on the mountain, making fires for warmth, causing a large amount of littering and using the veld for necessary toilet activity. There does not seem to be any SanParks policy towards nor any regulation of these groups, whose numbers seem to be increasing rapidly.

  • Rob Fisher says:

    So sick of seeing their fat and lazy butts in the fancy 4 wheel drives.
    When I see them out there doing their job on the ground and on foot, I will have some respect.
    I personally know people mugged and killed on the mountain. No TMNP 4*4 in sight.

  • Paul Zille says:

    A precondition for this change is that SANParks change the criteria for employing people at the TMNP to ensure the appointment of people who have the well-being of the park and its users at heart, rather than getting a job with benefits, beyond which everything else is an inconvenience or an imposition.

  • Esther Steyn says:

    Since the pandemic, one can only buy Activity Permits (needed if you want to take your dog with you on a hike) at the Tokai office, in the hours Mondays to Fridays 08:00 to 12:30 and 13:00 to 15:45. It cannot be done online, or anywhere else, and therefore it is pretty much impossible for any working person based in say the City Bowl to buy a permit, even if they would gladly do so. A good start would be to make it easier for people to buy permits, increasing that revenue source.

  • Richard Cowling says:

    Back in the heady days of the late 1990s, I was a member of a Committee that oversaw the transfer of all state land in the now TMNP to SANParks. The then Director of nature conservation in the Cape Provincial Administration was dead against this, arguing forcefully for Western Cape (now Cape Nature) stewardship. He certainly foresaw something which I and others missed at that time.

  • Rob Glenister says:

    In my humble opinion, the root of the problem lies with SANParks. They are an incompetent, self-serving body that has a history of chasing money rather than anything else. Having been a Noordhoek resident for 30 years, (since emigrated to the Garden Route) I had numerous run-ins with them over ludicrous dog-walking permits and other issues. If you walked your dog from Kommetjie – no problem – but try that from the Hoek and a bunch of arrogant officials descended on you, demanding a R200 pa permit. If your wife wanted to walk the same dogs, she had to have a separate permit. While this was happening, muggings, including (I’m told) a fatality, happened 500 metres up the beach. Across the bay, at Cape Point, they wanted to issue a rule that you had to have a permit to take photographs. I asked whether they intended to confiscate cell phones from everyone without a permit, but that was ignored.

    This is the mentality of the custodians of our natural reserves. Until we sort out SANParks, starting at the top, the problem will continue.

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    There is minimum overheads required to pay the managers and upkeep of infrastructure; thereafter every additional rand allocated will increase boots on the ground. In simple terms, a doubling of TMNP’s budget will see the ability to increase operational capacity by more than 100% in every aspect, which is urgently required. It is outrageous to consider that the ranger compliment halved in recent years, and the out of control crime and poaching is a symptom thereof.

  • Tim Price says:

    It is a dismal situation made all the worse by TMNP’s illogical and downright foolish rules and enforcement thereof. The small dam on the way to Rhodes Memorial being a case in point. Its been a swimming spot for students and hikers for decades but after a drowning, TMNP started fining people for being there. The fine is a summons with a court date and anyone wishing to dispose of the fine had to approach the senior prosecutor at the Wynberg Court to rescind it. This was done on a regular basis as the State had no appetite to enforce these draconian and bizarre rules. The dam is now enclosed by multiple rolls of razor wire, a danger to passing cyclists/hikers on the nearby trail and an absolute eyesore in a national park.

    The comment re activity permits is valid – the lack of other permit sales outlets is disappointing as is the lack of an online way to purchase them . The rules around when and for what the different level permits can be used are confusing and bizarre. If you want to access Cape point for nothing, pack your bike on the back of your car and enter on your activity permit. Then again, speak to a different official and you’ll get another version.

  • Tim Gaunt says:

    It is not true that the park is only open from 08:30-18:00 or that a “quick search” will yield that result. In fact, different parts of the park (where paid entry is required) open and close at different times (from each other, and at different times of the year). As far as I can tell from various websites and from notice boards at the majority of access points, hiking at night is allowed although wild camping and sleeping on the mountain are not (along with other obviously illegal activities such as littering and making fires).

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