From houses and mining to game

2008-10-31 00:00

The rural areas of South Africa tend to be considered farm land. However, these days, the rural areas are far from being merely agricultural. There are major housing developments, varying from the very exclusive to huge areas of low-cost housing. There are vast areas set aside for game reserves while mining also takes precedence over farm land.

These intrusions into South Africa’s farm land were very obvious on a recent trip that I took through the Limpopo and North West provinces.

Departing from Johannesburg via the ever-expanding outskirts and avoiding the inevitable rush hour traffic, I took the road to Brits and travelled through smallholding country until I came over a rise to see the Hartebeespoort Dam below. What was previously farm land there has been replaced by thousands of upmarket houses.

Moving on to my first stop at the Borakalalo National Park in the North West Province, I passed through kilometres of low-cost housing that is part of the ‘“rural slum” development that has been predicted for a large area of the country as the government’s housing plans are implemented.

It is obvious that the government has spent a vast amount of money on developing the Borakalalo game reserve, which has excellent facilities. Being only 150 kilometres north of Pretoria, the large Klipvoor Dam in the reserve is well utilised by carp anglers. The birders can eat their hearts out — I found the elusive Levaillants Cuckoo, but only with the help of agricultural consultant Richard Hurt.

Further north there were suddenly many fields under centre-pivot irrigation with very high yields of wheat ready for harvesting. The further north, the hotter the climate and the more mature the wheat. So the harvesting starts in the north and heads south as the wheat matures. A farmer with five centre pivots could have an income of R5 million but with the input costs being so high it is debatable if there will be much profit unless the wheat price improves.

When I arrived at the little town of Thabazimbi I saw how the iron ore and other minerals have been ripped out of the mountains — an incredible bit of mining providing huge amounts of ore and, no doubt, foreign exchange.

Heading for Lephalale (Ellisras) in Limpopo, the heat and dryness increased and I saw how game farms have replaced what were cattle farms. Many of the game farms are overstocked and overgrazed while others are well managed. In most instances there has been huge capital investment.

At the Mapungubwe National Park I realised that I was in a very special place. It is at the junction of Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa as well as being at the junction of the enormous Shashe and Limpopo rivers. At this time of the year the rivers are dry, apart from a few water pans, and are marked by vast areas of sand. The bed of the Shashe River is particularly spectacular. Livestock and people move freely from one country to the other. The tragedy of Zimbabwe was obvious from the number of destitute people crossing through the game reserve, unmindful of the herds of elephant.

The reality of the pain of Africa sank deep into my mind and was difficult to eradicate.

The Limpopo valley is a magnificent game sanctuary although entrepreneurs have seen the potential for growing agricultural produce by combining the heat of the valley with underground water from the rivers. The citrus and tomato crops are well managed and no doubt supply early season produce for the South African and export markets.

Next door to Mapungubwe is De Beers Venetia diamond mine, which uses huge quantities of water pumped from the sands of the Limpopo but at the same time the company is developing a sizeable game reserve to preserve many wildlife species, including several rare animals.

Moving south, I saw that the town of Alldays has changed a lot since the days when it was the set for the TV show Die Bosvelders. There are now tar roads and a very pleasant restaurant which is having vitally important air conditioning installed.

Between Alldays and Louis Trichardt (sometimes Makhado or Tshitandani) the game farms have taken over from cattle. The famous Bonsmara cattle, which were developed at Mara Research Station near Louis Trichardt, are not very obvious. There are now far more of them in the Free State than in the Limpopo Province. Maybe it would have been better to keep South Africa as one big game reserve rather than introduce commercial agriculture, but that is just wishful thinking. Thanks to the foresight of Paul Kruger the vast Kruger National Park was established.

There is new legislation out to reintroduce the culling of elephant. The destruction of the vegetation by these magnificent animals at Mapungubwe and in the Kruger Park is extreme and culling has to be introduced soon if these reserves are to be saved. It is a terrible decision to have to make but it is vitally important.

Back to Howick I came with the realisation that there are many wonderful places to see in our country but also a need to appreciate the changing rural scenario. Our rural areas are no longer the farms we used to know.

• Alastair Paterson is an agricultural consultant. He can be contacted at 033 330 4817, 082 880 9002 or e-mail

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