Madiba’s dream for nature

With Mandela Day just around the corner, Londolozi’s Bronwyn Varty shared some reflections on Madiba’s dream for nature; “a place where people can become the best versions of themselves.”

“During my long walk to freedom, I had the rare privilege to visit Londolozi. There I saw people of all races living in harmony amidst the beauty that mother nature offers. There I saw a living lion in the wild. Londolozi represents a model of the dream I cherish for the future of nature preservation”. Nelson Mandela

These words are eloquently brought to life at Londolozi, the private game reserve in Mpumalanga that Nelson Mandela visited soon after his release from prison. Here, Nelson Mandela woke each morning to a dawn chorus of bushveld birds, explored a world where human interference is minimal and perhaps, reflected on the life lessons innate to South Africa’s wildest places…He also grew to love and appreciate not only what nature represented; but its actual value to South Africa and its people.

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“He recognised nature as a wonderful teacher,” says Bronwyn Varty, whose family’s long association with Nelson Mandela has created a store of deeply private memories, too treasured to share. “What I can say, is that he realized how everything was interconnected and how people, land and animals needed to work together in order to make South Africa a great country.”

While the Varty family, custodians of Londolozi since 1926, were creating a conservation model that would restore the land and make a safe haven for animals to live in peace with people, so that both could thrive, Nelson Mandela was at the centre of negotiations to hold South Africa’s nascent democracy together. “Here, he recognized that people of all colours and communities were working together to conserve and restore the land and its animals. And this is what impressed him, this dream for nature,” suggests Bronwyn.

That this dream had many things in common with his dream for the country as a whole became clearer over the years as he taught the nation, and the world, about how to live and work together. Some of his values inform Freedom’s Way, an installation at Londolozi by artist Simon Max Bannister.

As much as his time in the bush was an escape from the pressures of his life, his fingers never left the pulse of the nation. While he wandered the gardens of Londolozi, “in a beat-up boxer t-shirt, old tracksuit pants and scuffed slippers,” he was on the first plane out at the first signs of unrest anywhere, showing his unwavering support for peace in South Africa.

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He got to witness many amazing sightings at Londolozi. “His time here gave him insights into the importance of nature and what this means for our country and its economy,” suggests Bronwyn.

He realised that by looking after South Africa’s animals and land, the country would attract people to experience this incredible heritage of rich stories and wildlife, to bring in much needed tourism revenue and create opportunities, social upliftment and jobs for the people of South Africa.

It is nice to think that Nelson Mandela’s occasional breaks to the bush (both at Londolozi and other reserves) helped inform his approach to issues of conservation in South Africa in later years. Post 1994, environmental rights were enshrined in section 24 of the Constitution and South Africa went on to ratify several international conventions relating to the environment. His legacy lives on in a number of conservation-related initiatives and legislation.

Today, the vision of Londolozi is to “create a space and a place where people can become the best versions of themselves … and to become a voice for right relations between people, the earth , and its wild inhabitants”.

“Now, more than ever, it is our intention to honour that vision and ensure that the benefits, which a successful Londolozi brings, are spread as widely as is possible to all members of our extended Londolozi family and their dependents,” says Bronwyn. “We do this in honour of the Madiba legacy.”

You can read about some of Londolozi’s work with their community here.

Taking the dream forward

As Madiba said in a speech in 1991 (and repeated many times afterwards), “it is important for conservation and rural development to be combined. Nature conservationists must take into account the needs of people around the reserves. They need to encourage education programmes about protecting wildlife and always act in co-operation with the local communities.”

During the course of my work writing about travel, conservation and development, I see this need articulated in various ways. I also see nature reserves, NGOs and individuals trying to address it; from SANParks’ programmes promoting access and benefit sharing, socio-economic development and improved living conditions for local communities adjacent to national parks, to WESSA’s eco-schools and the efforts of citizen scientists, conservationists and ordinary people.

The way forward is fraught with complexity. There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we think and talk about conservation. There are tensions, contradictions and competing interests around land-use and protected area management and it’s going to be difficult to resolve them. As much as some reserves are getting it right, so many more have a long way to go…

But this Mandela Day, I choose to focus on the dream.

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