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