05 October 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Madikwe’s Strange Origins

Madikwe Game Reserve is irrevocably linked in my head to the sweet smell of frangipani and the alarming amounts of heat that can radiate from volcanic rock on a summer night.

Bop Parks, as they were called in the early 1990s, used to regularly invite hordes of journalists down to this game reserve-in-waiting. We’d either fly there in a bilious Dakota from Lanseria or be driven by conservationist party animal Rick Matthews in a Kombi via Koster, Groot Marico and Zeerust.

They’d put us up at this old farmhouse at the foot of a koppie with stunning views of the rocky inselberg outcrops dotting the landscape. But the heat made it impossible to sleep inside during the summer. Craving any little bit of coolth, we’d lie in scattered mounds across the green lawn in the dark, breathing in the scent of the frangipani trees, and listening to countless goggas meeting their end on the flashing electric insect-killer.

Head of Bophuthatswana Parks Board Roger Collinson would spend hours answering disbelieving questions from the journos, including those from the most sceptical of the lot, the Weekly Mail (now Mail & Guardian) and the late lamented Vrye Weekblad.

We were all desperately trying to locate the rat that must be somewhere in this Bantustan set-up, but no one managed to even catch a whiff.

The story started during the 1980s, when about 60 000 hectares of white farmland in the dry old Western Transvaal north of Zeerust were expropriated for inclusion into the Tswana homeland of Bophuthatswana. There were three options open. The land could be allocated to cattle farmers, irrigated crops could be planted, or the land could be turned over to conservation and tourism.

Studies by ecologists, agriculturists and economists concluded that wildlife would be the best option by far, repairing the degraded land and offering many times over the jobs and multiplier benefits that agriculture could.

Madikwe Game Reserve was born in 1991, with hardly a single wild animal left on it save the leopards and jackals the original farmers had been unable to wipe out.

It signalled a huge leap forward in South African conservation. Madikwe was created specifically to benefit the local communities of Supingstad, Lekgophung and Molatedi. It is run by the government (in this case represented by North West Parks & Tourism Board - which used to be Bop Parks). And the private sector profits from it.

Madikwe inspired South African conservation, and what was revolutionary then has since become the model that other provinces are adopting today. Bop Parks employees were snapped up after 1994 and Democracy.

I wrote about it, praised the idea, lost the notebooks, then as the months wore on, more or less forgot about it. The story was done. Years rolled by.

I went back again recently and I felt quite disoriented as we drove up - near to the old farmhouse I’m sure, but everything looked different.

There was a sturdy game fence, a huge gate and a thorough gate guard. Things were well-signposted. Impala browsed through the bush, which looked thick and healthy.

Madikwe had grown up and had become a real game reserve.

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