Travel through any of the small towns close to the Kruger National Park and the influence of tourism is visible everywhere. Advertising boards abound promoting safari companies, game lodges, minibus shuttle companies and many others directly linked to wildlife tourism.
Independent thatchers and carpenters carrying hopeful signs asking for work at lodges and people selling curios can be seen on many main streets. A high proportion of economic activity is aimed at tourism but now there are no tourists, not even local tourists, and a wave of despair has spread throughout these towns and surrounding areas, as it has nationwide.
Most people here are aghast at the government’s tardiness in even making an attempt to reopen tourism. Many say they have no idea what government is thinking and have not been given the slightest suggestion as to when they may try and start making a living again.
The government’s communication on the issue has been, at best, poor, and at worst has played in active role in deepening despair amongst most involved in the tourism industry.
One Monday recently Lindiwe Mabuza was sitting under a marula tree outside her modest house close to the KNP, chatting over the fence with her neighbour Bridget Nxumalo about the calamities that had befallen their lives since March.
“You know, if things carry on like this the only food we are going to have left to eat are the fruits that will come from this very tree in the summer,” Mabuza said, shaking her head in sadness and pointing at the tree above her. “Without tourism we have no jobs and will have no way to feed ourselves properly.”
Mabuza, a married mother of three, has worked at the same small safari lodge on the borders of the KNP for 13 years but the owners closed their operation in June because of the collapse of tourism.
Her friend, Nxumalo, also works at a lodge but is in a far better position financially because she has been receiving full pay since March but is no less worried.
“If they close it will be very bad because my husband works there too,” Nxumalo said during this interview with a reporter, who at the insistence of both women, stood in the street. (“It is the lockdown rule!” she laughed, but apologised for the inconvenience.)
Both women typify the dire circumstances faced by many people, particularly in rural areas dependent on wildlife tourism for their jobs. According to the Bushbuckridge Municipality, this area has a population of more than 550 000 and had an unemployment rate of 46% in 2015.
Many experts in the tourism industry feel that the government is dragging its feet in opening tourism, or at very least making an effort to allow domestic tourism.
According to the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, domestic leisure tourism spending comprises 41% of tourism spending. The council states that “leisure travel for overnight stays is one of the safest activities that a person can undertake, and one of the safest operations for employees, particularly with the comprehensive protocols applied”.
Jann Kingsley, a Director of Seolo Africa and Rhino Walking Safaris, a private concession in the KNP, agrees. “We sell the idea of open spaces, clean air and nature. We are fully compliant with all the stringent health protocols drawn up by tourism industry bodies.
“These protocols are amongst the best in the world and are being used as a benchmark by people in the industry elsewhere,” Kingsley said. “Every day without trade threatens the long value chain linked to tourism: jobs; the money our staff members spend at local shops and use to pay school fees; the staff-bus owner whose business we helped set up and many other income streams that help support the fabric of society here.”
“To answer the government concerns as to whether we at Seolo can open our accommodation, and to borrow from former US President Barack Obama, the answer is ‘Yes we can’, and so can many others.”
Back under the marula tree both Nxumalo and Mabuza also expressed puzzlement about the government’s seeming unwillingness to open any form of tourism.
“What more can we all do? We want to work, we don’t want to become beggars in food queues,” Mabuza says. “I really don’t want to have to live from this UmGanu (the Zulu name for the marula).”