CELEBRATION OF WILDERNESS
PORT ELIZABETH : NOVEMBER 3, 2001
I am honoured to pay tribute tonight to a great son of South Africa and a long-time friend and brother, Dr Ian Player. I have known Dr Player for almost half a century, during which time I have developed an unshakable respect for his character and integrity. Generations to come within our own country and abroad will appreciate Dr Player for the giant figure that he is in the world of conservation and environmental protection. In my own mind, he remains distinguished not only for his faithful commitment to preserving South Africa’s greatest treasure for those who are yet to come, but also because he has proven through his work that a vision worth living for, is a vision worth fighting for.
As we gather at this 7th World Wilderness Congress, to honour Dr Ian Player, I wish to recall our personal interactions, for it is in these that our friendship has become solid. At the outset, I must mention that Dr Player has been assisted in his achievements by a rare partnership of devotion and courage. His wife Anne, a remarkable woman in her own right, has been a constant support for her husband without which, I feel sure, he would perhaps not have achieved the great vision of his soul.
I met Dr Player in 1953, shortly after I was installed as Inkosi of the Buthelezi Clan in the Mahlabathini District. Together with Nick Steele, Hugh Dent and several others, he worked as a ranger in the game reserves in northern part of KwaZulu Natal. At that time there was often controversy among the amaKhosi and the people in the Hlabisa District concerning the so-called "corridor". It was difficult for our people to understand why a stretch of land could be reserved for animals when they themselves so desperately needed land on which to live. As the senior conservator, Ian Player, together with the Natal Parks Board, approached me in my capacity as Undunankulu, Traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu Nation, to intervene in these disputes. From this early time I saw the value of what Dr Player was trying to achieve, not only for the few who would enjoy it at the time, but for our posterity who must inherit the treasures of South Africa.
During many meetings we attempted to resolve the dispute, and I appealed to my fellow compatriots, the amaKhosi and their clansmen, to understand the importance of what we would be preserving by protecting our game and having game reserves. Recognising the passion within Ian Player for our natural heritage, tempered by his deep respect for people, the Zulu people came to affectionately call him "Madolo". From that time, I interacted with Madolo continuously, even visiting Hluhluwe Game Reserve with my family at his invitation. That invitation was an object of contempt for some who held fast to the apartheid notion that game reserves were the playground of white people only. Indeed, such notion had itself compounded the difficulty of our task in persuading our people about the importance of conservation.
What Dr Ian Player and I did at the time was indeed controversial, but truly valuable. It is amazing how often the really valuable things in life are controversial and in order to create long-term value one needs to challenge present conventional wisdom. At the time I was ridiculed for my concern for animals, plants and nature as if matters of this sort were so frivolous that they should not engage the mind and attention of a person of my rank. Environmental concerns were not regarded to be mainstream politics, not only in our country but throughout the world, and were somehow considered matters to be dealt with by political lightweights. I recognised the importance of environmental issues when it was not fashionable to do so because I recognised that, in the long-term, the survival of mankind and its prosperity depend not only on political and social conditions, but also on a balanced relationship with mother earth. Dr Ian Player contributed, with others, to my reaching this deep understanding early in my life.
I also had the opportunity to recognise how the understanding of environmental concerns and the care for nature conservation is part and parcel of our African culture. Also in this respect I must praise Dr Player for teasing the environmental themes out of the thematic of our own African culture. He recognised that the African people are intrinsically bound to their environment and naturally inclined towards nature conservation. It was a matter of reconciling this natural inclination with the pressing demands for land and natural resources which our people had been placed under once our life and existence had been relegated to a small portion of our national land, which was often of poor quality. In this way in the early 80s I began conceiving with Dr Player a genuinely African notion of development which postulated that we do not need to achieve our industrialisation and social and economic development by following the same path of many western countries which, in the process of growth, ended up destroying their environment. In this sense, environmental conservation gave impetus to a much broader vision, comprising all aspects of development and a possible path towards a genuine African Renaissance.
It is through the visionary foresight of men such as Ian Player and Nick Steele that our heritage has been preserved and the basis for a broader vision was founded. When we began, their work was much harsher than that of any nature conservationist in other countries of the world as at the time, their battle was engaged on many fronts. Even the Parks Board did not like what they were doing or how they went about it. By breaking the colour bar, they risked their jobs by insisting that I and my family stay at Mthwazi Lodge in Hluhluwe.
Yet, from his youth I recognised in Ian Player an unusual courage and vision. I was not overly surprised when I received news after my family’s visit to Mthwazi that the blankets, linen and rooms had been fumigated upon our departure. But this shows the depth of ignorance and contempt against which we struggled.
The Parks Board and its then Chairman, Mr Douglas Mitchell, deemed me as "too controversial a figure" for them to allow substantial association of my name with that of their conservators. In the early 70s I was invited to speak at the World Wilderness Congress in San Antonio, Texas, by a mutual friend, Mr Harry Tennison. Mr Tennison had wanted the late Nick Steele to accompany me and introduce me at the conference, yet this was forbidden. In the end, it was Ian Player who attended the conference in Texas with me, Anne and my wife, Irene, as part of the delegation of the Natal Parks Board. Thus, it was not merely the ire of the Zulu people which Dr Player had to contend with in doing his job with such excellence, but also opposition from apartheid-minded officials. Moreover, there was the added wrath of many white people who were voters of the National Party, who opposed the existence of what they, in Afrikaans, termed "Pig Parks", referring to warthogs.
At times, Dr Player and his colleagues also met with stiff opposition from official quarters, such as magistrates in the Province. I recall in particular one magistrate who, faced with the magnitude of Dr Player’s vision, decided he had become too big for his boots, prompting the caustic remark: "Who does he think he is? Does he think he’s important merely because he founded the Dusi boat race?". Yet for those who lack vision, men of vision appear as dreamers. What Dr Player was working to achieve was far greater than himself and today his work has jumped the limits of time to be of benefit to generations not yet born. I stand in awe of his fortitude and tenacity. Deservedly, he has received honours from all over the world and has been decorated with a Distinguished Meritorious Order by the Head of State of his own country. He is indeed a giant among men.
It is a pleasure and an honour for me to praise Dr Ian Player on this occasion for the outstanding work he has accomplished in the field of nature conservation and environmental protection. I honour him as a fellow conservator, a fellow visionary for South Africa, and a close friend for whom I have the greatest respect. Madolo has left his mark on our Province and among the Zulu people, and on South Africa as a whole. His life’s work speaks of the noble value to be found in living for a cause that will secure a better quality of life for those who will follow in one’s shadow. He is an inspiration to me and I count it a privilege to applaud his life’s achievement at this "Celebration of Wilderness" in 2001.