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White bastion becoming people's park

Kruger National Park, celebrating its centenary, is the newest vehicle for dramatic change in post-apartheid South Africa.

Under its first black warden, the park's days as a bastion of white male conservationists and rich white tourists are numbered.

"Kruger cannot be seen outside the context of the rest of the country," said David Mabunda, a former schoolteacher and land manager who was appointed four months ago to turn the 19,000-square-mile park _ one of Africa's first game reserves _ into a park for all South Africans, black and white.

"It belongs to the nation, as opposed to what apartheid made it to be, the preserve of rich whites. Now it is the people's park," said Mabunda.

In the administrative, scientific and research branches of the park, Mabunda has started to change the complexion of the staff. Senior white men have been offered early-retirement packages to make way for blacks and women.

"It was seen as the last paradise of apartheid," said Mabunda, an activist in the anti-apartheid struggle, "the last reserve where people could still practice inequality in terms of white masters and black subordinates."

Each department has produced an affirmative-action target. "I have made it clear this is the road to go down," he said. "Take it _ or leave it. I will not tolerate a lily-white department. If a person doesn't have experience, let's give him it."

In the park, little seems to have changed. The camps are filled with white tourists. Blacks clean the rooms and cottages, serve the meals, fill the cars with gasoline. During a three-day visit, only two black families were seen among the hundreds of whites, many of them foreigners.

To increase the nearby communities' stake in the park, Mabunda has initiated five forums to teach them the value of conservation and eco-tourism while learning from them their traditional methods of living alongside the animals.

"It's a question of making them understand when they see a gazelle, it's not meat on four legs, but a very important link in nature that must be preserved," he said.

Conservationists who claim that their efforts created the park are missing the point, Mabunda said. "Long before colonial and apartheid conservationists decided to fence off this place and drive people out, the indigenous communities lived in harmony with the animals. We also should learn from these communities."

The absence of black tourists, he suggested, is a legacy of apartheid. They were banned from the park until the 1980s and discouraged from staying overnight as recently as 1993.

Now, black schoolchildren participate in the imbewu (seed) program, which introduces them to the wonders of the wild during free visits to the park. Local communities also are offered low entrance fees during off-peak periods.

"The management of the previous leadership didn't have enough legitimacy to go into the communities and say, "Come, we have a special offer for you.' The people wouldn't trust them because these were the people who drove them out of the park," said Mabunda. "They still think they are not allowed to come into the park."

So how to attract more blacks?

"That is the $60,000 question," said Jacklyn Cock, a professor at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University and a member of the National Parks Board. "We have to overturn our whole history, where for most blacks dispossession (of land) was the other side of conservation. We are trying to change the culture of the park so it is no longer an Afrikaner playground."

There is even talk of changing the park's name from a tribute to its colonial-age founder, President Paul Kruger, to something more African. But for political and commercial reasons _ the park's centenary this year, the anniversary of the Boer War next year and the fact that Kruger is an internationally recognized tourist destination _ renaming the park is not a priority.

The future can perhaps best be seen in the newly opened Southern African Wildlife College, 12 miles outside the park. Here the first class of conservation managers isstudying for September graduation. Only one of the 28 students is white.

The rest, like Muzi Nzuza, are black. Two are female. They come to the internationally financed college not just from South Africa, but from Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho and Zambia.

All have experience in conservation or park services, but under apartheid, the 10 South African blacks had no chance of rising above the rank of field ranger. They weren't given the necessary training to become managers, said Nzuza, a wilderness ranger at Mfolozi game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. "Under the old system I wasn't able to have exposure to what wildlife management is," he said.

Nzuza, 38, a ranger for 12 years, has left behind his wife, Fikile, 36, and their five children to study financial, administrative, ecological and people management for seven months.

"We discussed it and came to the conclusion I really needed this type of training," he said. "Although it would be a difficult time for us as a family, there would be some benefit from it. There has been a change (in the country) now. That is why I am so willing."

Back at Skukuza, the administrative center of Kruger National Park, Mabunda outlines his vision for the park to become self-sustaining. The park already earns 80 percent of its annual operating budget, but Mabunda fears the 20 percent government subsidy will disappear as priority is given to the country's housing, education and health needs.

His ideas include increased commercialization of park services and creating trails for four-by-four vehicles and mountain bikes.

Mabunda also would like to compete for the rich tourists who pay up to $400 a day each for three meals, two game drives and a bed at the luxurious private lodges on the edges of Kruger. Lodging for a couple in the park's own no-frills camps costs about $50 a night, with meals from $10 and game drives about $12.

"Whatever we do, it will be in tandem with the spirit and atmosphere of our core business _ nature conservation," Mabunda said. "We won't turn ourselves into some kind of Disneyland. I can assure you of that. Kruger will be a park."

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