Cableway to conflict

2012-10-08 00:00

A PROPOSAL for a cableway for the Drakensberg, to rival that of Table Mountain in Cape Town, was announced at the KZN Tourism Indaba in May by Michael Mabuyakhulu, KwaZulu-Natal’s Economic Development and Tourism MEC. He said a feasibility study had been commissioned and that advertisements calling for service providers to do the study had been published. The deadline for submissions was June 11.

“The project aims at investigating the development of a 3 300 m cable-way with an intermediate station, climbing 1 300 m to the summit, which will be an elevation of 3 300 m above sea level, offering expansive views of KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho and the Free State,” he said.

The minister’s spokesperson, Bheko Madlala, indicated that one of the preferred sites for the cableway was in the Mnweni Valley between the Royal Natal National Park and Cathedral Peak sections of the World Heritage Site uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, with the base station situated near Woodstock Dam. This area is the home of the amaZizi and amaNgwane communities.


Mnweni and the local community

The Mnweni, especially the summit traverse between Cathedral Peak and the Amphitheatre, is considered by many as the crème de la crème of hiking experiences. The fact that it is also one of the most rugged areas of the berg has probably saved it from the development that has clogged the other entry points to the Drakensberg. There are no big hotels, no ribbon development of guesthouses and shopping outlets. The main access to the area is through the amaNgwane Tribal Authority land, which, together with the adjacent amaZizi Tribal Authority, combines to form a wedge into the World Heritage Site uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, known as the Mnweni-Busingatha Gap.

The tourism potential of spectacular scenery, hiking trails and over 101 rock art sites recorded and monitored by community rock art groups in the mountain areas has been tapped into by the local community, with the creation of the Amangwane Mnweni Hiking and Cultural Centre, which provides accommodation in rondavels for hikers and climbers. The ideal jumping-off point into this remote area, it is one of the few profitable community-run ventures in KwaZulu-Natal. The addition of trained community mountain guides and also visits to four rock art sites, supervised by community custodians who are trained and approved by Amafa, the provincial heritage agency, has added to what the centre already offers, and provides a further boost to local coffers.

The centre has been in operation since 2002 and hosts visitors from all over the world. In 2008, the centre won a R75 000 Jet Community Award and was the only winner in the Vukuzenzele (Small Enterprise) category, which recognises entrepreneurs among black women, youths and small rural enterprises.

The local mountain communities regard the wilderness as their major asset and a Wilderness Working Team actively maintains the area, recruiting local people for alien weed eradication programmes, fire-management and the monitoring of environmental quality. The Wilderness Working Team established a Forum of Elders as a “sounding board” and also interacts with the Mnweni Donga Committee, which recruits local residents to restore erosion dongas within a proposed community wilderness area.

A Cultural and Rock Art Committee looks after the numerous rock art sites of the mountain area, has implemented a Cultural and Rock art appreciation programme in local schools and, from time to time, receives funding from heritage institutions to work with specialists who supervise graffiti cleaning if required.

These environmental and cultural conservation community groups all have “sister groups” on the AmaZizi side and meet from time to time to discuss common problems and solutions.


Nature reserve plans

Over the past few years, the Mnweni Wilderness Working Team, with the backing of the mountain communities — has been working towards having portions of the area designated as a nature reserve incorporating a wilderness area. Team members, together with community members between Royal Natal and Cathedral Peak, GPS’d and ground-truthed a wilderness boundary. A management plan was created which gained the full support of the community and, in September 2011, it was reported that Nkosi Mthethi Miya of the amaZizi and Nkosi Menzi Hlongwane of the amaNgwane were applying for 45 000 hectares of their land to be proclaimed as a Wilderness Nature Reserve under Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Biodiversity Stewardship programme. At the time, both amakosi said they wanted the land “untouched for future generations”.

For this to happen, the landowners  — the Ingonyama Trust — have to agree, and the plan for a nature reserve is now with them for approval.

“The discussions are proceeding well and we are hopeful that consultations will be finalised soon,” says Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesperson Musa Mngambo.

According to a Weekend Witness article by Patrick Compton, writing on behalf of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and published last December, following on the expected approval from the Ingonyama Trust, the area will be proclaimed a protected area.

According to Compton, “Both Inkosi Menzi Hlongwane and Inkosi Mthethwa Miya also expressed a desire to fuse this community-occupied land into the UDP”.


the contentious cableway

Now comes the announcement of the proposed cableway. This has upset the amaNgwane mountain communities who would be most affected by the siting of the cableway and who claim they were not consulted prior to the announcement, nor have they been contacted since.

It’s not the first time a cableway has been mooted for the Mnweni area. In 2000, a study titled Taking Tourism Investment to New Heights — a technical document on the Mnweni Cableway compiled for the Uthukela District Municipality - was produced by Grant Thornton Kessel Feinstein.

This study noted in its “invitation to investors” that the “cableway’s base is to be located in the Mnweni Valley, one of the few last undeveloped valleys in the northern Drakensberg, and its summit will be between the Drakensberg landmarks of the Amphitheatre and Cathedral Peak.”

It also stated that the venture was “to be facilitated by the Uthukela District Municipality” and carried the “full support of all affected parties”, and that Inkosi Hlongwane had “expressed his support for the project and has already proposed satellite developments associated with tourism”.

This study was referred to by Mabuyakhulu when making his announcement in May. He pointed out that the study indicated that some of the benefits of the project included the creation of 1 200 jobs and increased opportunities for small business in the tourism value chain. “That study also indicated the project will create a new economic node in the Drakensberg region and will position KwaZulu-Natal on the national and international tourism map as a preferred tourism destination.”

Mabuyakhulu said the detailed feasibility study would include an environmental impact assessment (EIA) that would look at the environmental, economic and social issues, as well as cost of development. However, repeated calls and e-mails to his spokesperson have remained unanswered and it is not known if a service provider has been appointed at this stage.

At a recent meeting, the wilderness committee, headmen and elders of the AmaNgwane mountain communities of Khokwana, Manzana, and Mabhuleseni, discussed the proposed cableway and their response to it.

They were unanimous in opposition to the cableway. “The cableway will destroy our community and our wilderness (ihlane),” said Mkwazeni Hlongwane, who detailed the various cultural and community activities such as controlled hunting and medicinal plant harvesting that would be adversely affected.

“There has been no consultation with the community; we are not happy about the process,” he said. “One thousand people survive here because of what the mountains give us. The cableway will employ 100, but what about the other 900?”

What also became apparent during the meeting was that communities have realised that environmental maintenance and restoration work are labour-intensive and can employ many hundreds of local people on a long-term basis.

Bhatha Khumalo, headman of Khokhwana, said it was the first time that he had heard of the cableway. “People in cities think those living below the mountains know nothing, that they are not educated, but we have spent years living here.”

There were calls for an imbizo of the entire community to discuss the issue and it was finally decided that a delegation of selected elders and the three headmen from the Khokwana, Manzana, and Mabhuleseni communities would meet with Hlongwane on August 31. However, Hlongwane declined this meeting and said he would set another date.

An approach was then made to meet with the Tribal Council in order to convey their concerns to them and to Nkosi Hlongwane. A meeting was duly set up, but there were two deaths in the Hlongwane family just before this was about to take place and the meeting was postponed until traditional protocols had been observed. A new date for the meeting has not been set as yet.

Questions via land line, cellphone and e-mail to establish whether a tender has been awarded for the cable-way feasibility study announced by Mabuyakhulu at the Tourism Indaba have gone unanswered.

“If the cableway goes ahead, the plans are going to kill us as a community living below the Drakensberg,” said elder Muzi Mthabela. “When the ancestors were here, the mountains were like this.

“Now I am getting old and I see the Drakensberg in the same way as the ancestors. I’m not sleeping at night thinking about the cableway. I am happy with life as it was — and as it is.”

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