SA community makes history by saving its hunting culture

Emmanuel Koro:Journalist

SOUTH Africa’s Makuya hunting communities that occupy the most resource-rich 13 808-hectare area in the Northwest corner of Kruger National Park, has saved its hunting culture after winning a long, inspirational and hard-fought court battle against a Limpopo provincial government department.

The court case victory has brought hope for the Makuya community to continue with its centuries-old hunting culture without unwarranted interference in the future.

Makuya’s hunting culture was shockingly threatened in October 2019, when the Limpopo Province’s Department of Economic Development Environment and Tourism (LDEDET) cancelled its hunting licence, without giving reasons.

In sharp and very unfair contrast, hunting was allowed to continue in some white private hunting areas around Kruger National Park until March 31, 2020.

“This is racial discrimination at its best during the so-called sixth democratic South African administration,” Esther Netshivhongweni, advisor for the Makuya Traditional Council, said. “It is a very difficult job to be in sustainable use sector in South Africa, especially when you are a woman in a white-dominated sector, and at times you are dumped by your own government that is supposed to be your main supporter.”

When the LDEDET cancelled Makuya’s hunting licence in October 2019, it stunned the hunting communities. Why would a democratically elected government dump its own people? Literally, squeeze out of Makuya community the hope of breaking into the mainstream hunting industry and grow its wildlife economy.

The LDEDET licence cancellation also caused unwarranted job losses that the government ironically seeks to end. By implication, this unfortunate development frustrated the community’s efforts to escape from poverty that again the government seeks to alleviate. As if this was not enough, it further destroyed and went against the conservation and development efforts that even the South African government’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries had started promoting in Makuya hunting communities, through a R15 million rand (US$902 738) conservation grant.

Elsewhere, the local and international hunting organisations and hunters were shocked by the unexplained and premature cancellation of the Makuya hunting licence and concluded that it potentially demarketed and damaged South Africa’s hunting industry.

“Stopping Makuya community hunting business abruptly with no reason by the LDEDET frustrated 21 American trophy hunters who had booked hunts with Makuya, Mutele and Mphaphuli Communities,” Netshivhongweni said. “During the process, the community lost hunting income. International clients were devastated after booking their flights and accommodation to come to Makuya to hunt. A Makuya professional hunter, together with Makuya community lost incomes.

A hunting tracker and resident of Makuya, Ronald Mudau said that it was frustrating to see our professional hunter getting arrested when he was found still operating after the Makuya hunting licence had been illegally cancelled.

“It became more devastating when Ms Netshivhongweni informed us as hunting employees that we were going to stop our hunting operations and that meant loss of jobs and income for us and our families. Hunting is the only industry that helps many people in our community to put bread on the table,” Mudau said.

The Makuya community is the only South African community that has a rich hunting culture that spreads from pre-colonial times to the present day when it is now involved with commercial and viable international hunting business and has for years continued to protect this business against state capture at the provincial level. They market their own hunts worldwide and most of their clients are from the United States.

Ironically, the Limpopo provincial government’s LDEDET department almost destroyed Makuya’s profitable hunting culture when it unjustifiably cancelled the community’s hunting licence.

Such a shocking, inexplicable and heavy-handed government treatment would have scared and silenced many African rural communities. Not so for the Southern African region’s most promising hunting community that has already broken into the mainstream international hunting industry.

Leading the fight to save the Makuya hunting culture is someone whom all rural communities in Africa should like to know and draw community conservation and development inspiration from. Known as the only black woman who is meaningfully involved in the hunting industry in South Africa if not the whole of Southern Africa, Netshivhongweni, challenged the sudden cancellation of Makuya hunting licence in court in 2019.

About a year later the court has handed them a sweet victory that not only saved their hunting culture, but jobs as well. Makuya community are now in the process of following legal process for LDEDET to compensate the Makuya community for an undisclosed amount of money for loss of hunting business to the community caused by the illegal cancellation of its hunting licence.

“For me it is an absolute disgrace that communities need to take to court, the government departments that are employed to help them concerning permits,” South Africa-based wildlife producer, hunter and strong supporter of community empowerment, Barry York, said.

“It has become absolutely clear that the so-called conservation departments in South Africa pay little more than lip service with regards to true empowerment and transformation of the wildlife economy.”

Meanwhile, the Makuya court case victory that saved its viable hunting culture might go down in history as an experience on which greater community resilience will be built against all forms of injustice.

The victory, happy mood and a sense of self-determination that has gripped the Makuya community is unstoppable. Perhaps it is one of the best from-doom-to-glee developments that Makuya residents have collectively experienced this century.

“I am excited about the breakthrough that saved the Makuya hunting culture and business to continue,” Netshivhongweni said, who fearlessly and fiercely took on the LDEDET in a court battle that even threatened Makuya Community with bankruptcy, if they lost the case.

“We now want to let the hunting industry worldwide know that Makuya is back in hunting business with a big bang. We will start focusing on community jobs, marketing, developing and conserving Makuya Nature Reserve.”

Meanwhile, Chief (Thovhele) Vho-Makuya said he was very happy that Makuya had bravely opened a historic and successful court case against those who wanted to “steal its hunting culture that dates back centuries and is set to survive centuries to come”.

“Beyond winning the hunting licence battle, we are also closer to winning another fight to have full title over Makuya Park which would allow us to grow the Makuya wildlife economy and throw poverty and joblessness in the dustbin of history in this wildlife-rich area,” Chief Vho-Makuya said.

“Under the business leadership and advice of the highly experienced Esther Netshivhongweni, we have an ‘iron woman’ who is about to make us reap the fruits of being owners of Makuya Park and all its resources, including wildlife.”

Some of the socio-economic benefits that hunting had brought to Makuya community before the cancellation of its hunting licence, include employment creation and building village halls where important community meetings are held. Hunting revenue also funded a chicken layers project that cost half-a-million rands.

The community also benefited from the construction and operation of a community abattoir where hunted game is skinned and meat gets distributed to the community and purchase of a Toyota Legend double cab for attending meetings (administrative work).

Therefore, the cancellation of the hunting licence had suddenly stopped the running and growth of a whole new, promising and inspirational hunting industry that had exploded in rural Limpopo province. Fortunately, the Makuya court victory against their hunting licence cancellation means that hunting is back and will soon support their future conservation and development projects.

There is no doubt that the Makuya community still needs Netshivhongweni’s visionary leadership in order to achieve greater hunting business success in the future.

Netshivhongweni turned around a community-owned park called Makuya Park to a commercially viable hunting business. She initiated a fully community managed park with eight hunting committees from three community traditional councils, namely Mutele, Mphaphuli and Makuya Traditional Councils.

Some of her community responsibilities include advising communities in managing profitable communal nature reserves in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Free State Eastern Cape and Limpopo.

Her goals are to market the Makuya Nature Reserve Park and make it a national and internationally recognised community conservation area, which will become a conservation role model for African communities.

Netshivhongweni started her career in 1990 as a teacher and later occupied senior positions, including that of CEO in the corporate world.

Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning journalist who has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa for the past 27 years.