I’ve noted before that I lived and worked in South Africa in 1991.  It didn’t take me long to come to love the land and its people. I’ve returned every year for twenty-five years since, sometimes several times a year.

It was there, a quarter century ago, that I first discovered the magnificent Kruger National Park, where self-drive safaris are the rule (see previous post here).  The internationally-renowned park is a treasure store of African flora and fauna, one of the planet’s most important conservation areas.  I just returned from another visit to Kruger, 12 days and nights.

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The lovely small airport at Skukuza, gateway to the Kruger Park, with regular air service to Johannesburg and other South African cities.

South Africa is going through tough times, with many observers worried about the degradation of infrastructure and services in the country.  I have wondered if the problems might spill into South Africa National Parks, which runs all the country’s parks, including the Kruger. Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe ruined the once-lovely Hwange National Park in that country, and I hoped that wouldn’t be repeated in South Africa.  My impression, based on the nearly two weeks I just spent in Kruger, is that so far that is not the case.

In 1991 Nelson Mandela had not been out of jail a year yet. The white minority government, which was struggling with massive unemployment, turned over power in 1994 to the moderate ANC (African National Congress) majority and the newly elected President Mandela. In May, 1996 the nation adopted a new constitution, just now being celebrated for 20 years in place.

The ANC’s once-brilliant leadership has aged and become staid and inflexible. Smart young political leaders have fewer opportunities for advancement than they once did. South Africa’s economy has stagnated, with endemic problems as deep as those that plagued the old pre-1994 regime.

On my recent visit to the Kruger Park I read South African newspapers every day (I bought them at the Skukuza Camp shop), and I listened to SAFM radio at 105.6 (the news and information arm of the SABC). It feels like things are unraveling in South Africa, thanks in part to the erosion of confidence in the current president, Jacob Zuma. He refuses to abide by the Constitutional Court (like our Supreme Court) ruling that he misused millions in state funds for personal projects and should repay the money.

There are other, more concrete, indicators.

South Africa’s sovereign credit rating is teetering on junk status, and the Rand-US dollar rate recently pierced the psychological 15:1 barrier.

Food prices are rising fast due to both a shattering long drought (SA agricultural production has plummeted) and the higher cost of importing food when paying in a weak currency.

Government has not made sufficient progress on the critical basics of job creation, housing, water, sanitation, electricity, and food.

I heard these facts from a respected SA financial analyst one recent morning on SAFM radio:

  • South Africa’s official reported unemployment rate just announced is 26.7%, more than a two percent rise over the last reported unemployment rate.
  • That’s the official rate reported. The financial analyst reckons that her data indicates that the real rate is well over 50% unemployment, a chilling figure.
  • She further stated that two out of every three young South Africans are unemployed because there are no jobs. She stated the obvious, that this is a devastating indicator.
  • Eskom, the power company, has forecast very little load shedding (power cuts, blackouts) this winter, unlike in recent years, meaning South Africans won’t wake up in the cold and the dark as they have previous winters. But the financial analyst warned that this seemingly good news is only because the important mining sector of the South African economy is so far down that Eskom has lost the mining companies’ normal gigantic power consumption. She said Eskom is just as poorly managed as ever.

On a personal note, I had my rental car washed at the Kruger Park’s Skukuza Camp gas station, and the 25 year old South African man who did the job begged me to adopt him and take him to the USA “so I can get a real job and make some money.” He was very serious, telling me that if I adopted him his father wouldn’t care as long as he sends back money because his dad has been out of work for more than ten years.

It was a distressing moment, and I could only offer advice on where to get a better job. I pointed him to the over-the-top luxury lodges like Londolozi and Mala Mala, which are just a stone’s throw away, because I know they pay well, not to mention the generous tips there.

Speaking of which, I tipped the man who washed my car 150 Rand, which is $10. He did a spectacular job. The man was stunned to receive such an amount.

Seems like a seismic shift may be imminent or already in motion in South Africa. National elections are coming soon, and Zuma may be replaced.

But 12 million voters out of 85 or so million registered voters may be disenfranchised because the voter registration law requires every voter to list his/her address. Twelve million people on the rolls have no address. They live in makeshift homes made from old cardboard boxes and scraps of wood and metal beside roads, under bridges, and so on, places that have no address. Informal settlements in South Africa on vacant land are as common as formal ones. They spring up overnight and last for years. People are born, live, and die there. Not one such settlement has an address. The courts and government are currently struggling with that issue, and people are angry.

In 1991 when I first came to South Africa, it wasn’t clear which black political party would win the support of the people. Extremist groups like the Pan Africanist Congress had worrisome slogans (the PAC’s was “One settler, one bullet”). The moderate ANC has ruled since, but without making discernible progress towards satisfying basic needs.

Since nobody’s lot has improved much, radical views are being heard again.  How, then, are these unsettling dynamics impacting the Kruger National Park?  So far, anyway, not much at all.

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The Kruger’s Rhino Protection Unit at work near Pretoriuskop Camp.

In twelve days I drove 1,823 miles in the Kruger—about 150 miles a day, all at 20-30 MPH—and visited more than a dozen public areas (camps, staffed picnic spots, etc.). Naturally many small, and some big, changes have occurred since 1991, such as the privatization of the Kruger’s quaint but antiquated food services 3 years ago. By and large, however, the park infrastructure remains in good shape.

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One of my Kruger accommodations, this one at Satara Camp; all were in excellent condition.

Camp housing continues to be well-maintained to the 1991 standard of excellence that is my mental benchmark. Kitchen utensils, dishes, and fridges have been kept up well, as have linens and towels. Rondavels are cleaned and scrubbed daily by the large camp housekeeping staffs, just like always.

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My accommodation’s kitchen/dining area at Satara Camp.

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Entrance to Kruger’s Lower Sabie camp showing good condition of roads and infrastructure.

Tarred and unpaved roads were looking bad a few years ago after record floods. Ditto for the major bridges over the Sabie, Olifants, Letaba, and Shingwedzi Rivers. The causeways over the Olifants and Shingwedzi Rivers, washed out by the floods, had never been replaced. Now repairs have been made, and even the most distant dirt roads are in great shape. All are easily passable by ordinary two-wheel drive cars, including through deep cuts in the many ravines that collect water after rains. There, massive new concrete fords are in place.

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The well-stocked Skukuza Camp store, the biggest in the Kruger Park.

The grocery stores are well-stocked, though inventory varies wildly by camp, just as it has always been so. One never knows what brand of beer may be available, but always at least some are. Same with all other foodstuffs. Only Coca-Cola products are ubiquitous in every camp store. Maybe Coke should take over the stocking of everything.

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The biltong (jerky) rack in the Pretoriuskop  Camp store evidences an dizzying array of product.

Filling stations at every camp always have gas and diesel, and they are staffed well, so there is no wait (no self-pumping of fuel in South Africa). Women generally run the stations, and they gladly clean front and rear windshields while the tank is filling. (I always tip them 10% over the fuel charge.)

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Satara Camp restaurant.

I’ve already mentioned the changes to Kruger restaurants and snack bars. They may lack the traditional food choices that I prefer over the pizza and Mexican entrees now found on camp restaurant menus, but there’s always plenty to eat on hand and lots of staff even for the busiest dining hour.

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Warthog skull mounts, complete with fearsome tusks, for sale at the Skukuza Camp store.

The swimming pools are being kept up well and appear to be clean. Certainly the water is clear and loaded with Chlorine. It’s fun to sit by the camp pool sipping a cold beverage and watch a herd of Impala graze just outside the fence a few feet away.

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I bought this Zulu-made basket at a Kruger camp store.

Best of all, the SANParks website works well and is easy to use. I used to have to call South Africa National Parks head office in Pretoria to book the Kruger. Later, SANParks farmed out some of that to private firms, and I developed a relationship with one based at Skukuza that was owned by a former Kruger Ranger’s family.

But now the SANParks website is so good that I can do everything I want and need myself without help, including the annual renewal of my Wild Card (covers daily conservation fees and entry fees to every South Africa National Park).

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Kudu bull near Kruger’s Skukuza Camp with magnificent spiral horns. The Kudu is the symbol of SANParks (South Africa National Parks).

Lastly, the rolling blackouts, which have become routine throughout the country, rarely impact the Kruger National Park. Even when the power went down at the Skukuza Airport on the day I arrived, for instance, the park itself, just 5 kilometers away, was not affected. I am told the government knows how important the Kruger is as an international symbol of South Africa and doesn’t want bad press from unhappy foreign tourists.

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African Wild Dogs cavort near Tshokwane in the Kruger.

For the moment, then, it seems as if the Kruger is safe from the general decline in the rest of the country’s quality of life. Which is good for the park and us tourists, but given the big problems facing South Africa, it means visitors increasingly live in a bubble when inside the park.

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The east end of a westbound Elephant in the Kruger National Park.

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