BETWEEN PORT ELIZABETH AND ALEXANDRIA Dec 4th
Thursday, i.e. two days ago, was one of the more interesting days I have had since I have been away. I went as an observer to the meeting of INDALO, the central organisation for all the game reserves in this part of South Africa.
The discussions covered a range of items, some of wider interest, most not. I learnt much. Rhino poaching is flourishing, with over 300 poached this year in South Africa. I knew it was on the rise but I had no idea it was on this sort of scale. Poachers are highly organised. They fly a helicopter in by night, use night-sights to take the rhino out, cut the horn off and fly off again, all in 20 minutes. The problem has got much worse, so the exclusively white game reserve owners told me, since the law allowing those whose property was being trespassed to shoot first and ask questions later was rescinded in 1995 ( i.e. when the government changed ). There are highly organised gangs operating, usually with bribed accomplices on the inside.
I also learnt that all the game reserves are going through the mill at the moment. Demand is right down and cash flow is a real issue. Most have been going 10-12 years. They took a while to get going, but boomed in 2007-8. Owners then borrowed to expand but have been clattered by recession. What I see at Hopewell is not just a local problem, obviously.
As ever, the most enlightening element was to talk to the 20 or so people there. There were some fascinating old established Eastern Cape families. Clearly if your surname is Gush or Howarth or Fowlds or Hart, you own part of what was once a vast tract of land owned by your great grandfather, now split between the male descendants. These families are the equivalent of the local squirearchy and links go back generations. The Sidbury Club, where the meeting was held, is the focus of weekend social activity and membership opens doors and establishes contacts of immense mutual significance. Representatives of these families, who own the reserves, dominated the meeting and there were also some younger reserve managers, like Francois, in attendance. This constituency said little in the meeting but was much more forthcoming over a few beers and a braai after formal proceedings had finished.
It is in conversation, and once a couple of glasses have been taken, that statements of opinion become less inhibited. Opinion here almost always distils into something to do with race. It is the elephant in every room. A really nice young couple, trying to make ends meet on a reduced salary at a small reserve which has been pared to the bone, were very persuasive in their argument that black workers were better off on farms when apartheid was in place than they are now. Everyone was united in the problems of drunkenness and theft they face with their black labourers. Most took sideswipes at the incompetence and corruption of black administrators and politicians. All, I think, secretly hanker after the days when to be white guaranteed wealth and a position in society, even if it is recognised that it could not have continued.
Being in this part of the Eastern Cape is like being in an institution. Lots of support and friendship but with it an inability to be able to fart and not have someone twenty miles away know you have done so within the hour. There are some very, very nice people but quite how they maintain sanity is a mystery. I guess it is what you are used to and exactly the same is probably said about the job I do in the place I do it. Wellington still seems a million miles away, incidentally, even though I am now into the second half of the Africa leg.