Updated: Mar 10
Recent devastating floods on the Vaal river - a prime tourism and adventure destination - have raised questions about sustainable land use. Investment in tourist facilities such as lodges and campsites, as well as trails, fishing and paddling, must take account of regular flooding. The Vaal has a long history of unpredictable high water flows that leave many facilities damaged or destroyed. Yet despite the risks, entrepreneurs are very active in the area, and its future as a tourist destination seems assured. Flooding is truly a part of the tale that is told about this valley and its inhabitants. Disaster is a factor in collective memory just as other events are too, including the gold rush that once enlivened the region and the battles that have been fought here in successive wars.
A tourist is a person who seeks information and experiences rather than just being a visitor looking for leisure and comfort. With this in mind we can ask further questions about the long-term development of tourism products. The Vaal-Dome is an example of a region awaiting a tourism boost from knowledge enhancement. The more that can be known about the peoples and their histories in a geographical area, the better will be the design for more interesting and fulfilling tourist experiences. While land as such is physical entity, its geography is a cultural construct. The stories we tell about landscapes are ancestral treasures whose meaning and value can only be expressed through proper research and storytelling.
Sustainable land use and sustainable tourism are intimately related. Ecotourism in particular relies on natural resources and ecosystems that attract nature lovers and adventurers. We can see this in Parys, the main centre of Vaal and Dome tourism where a combination of outdoor activities – hiking, rafting, horse riding and other pursuits – feeds the demand for accommodation and supports restaurants, curio shops, artist studios, motoring and IT services. The multiplier effect spreads through job creation and construction, giving Parys the feel of a boom town.
The Vaal is the only major river on earth that cuts through a meteorite crater: and it is the biggest and best preserved crater at that. The Vredefort Dome UNESCO World Heritage Site is centred on the core of the impact structure. Formed some two billion years ago by an asteroid that crashed into a primitive continent, the Vredefort structure is a Mecca for geologists and is slowly gaining traction in public imagination. This is not the impact that killed off most of the dinosaurs but in many ways it is more significant as it provides a geological window into the early Earth. The total three-ringed crater is about 300 kilometres across, stretching from Johannesburg to Welkom. It has played a central role in South Africa's modern history. The impact brought deep-lying strata of the Witwatersrand to the surface, exposing fabulous gold wealth, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. The gold mining industry fuelled industrialisation and the growth of South Africa's economy. But it also shaped socio-political relations through the migrant labour system and job reservation for whites, two of the foundations of apartheid.
Dome and Vaal tourism therefore have a dramatic story to tell, starting from the origins of our planet and coming down to the struggle for democracy in South Africa. The local tourism industry has barely begun to realise the tremendous potential of the region to draw both domestic and international travellers. Neither government nor the private sector have made serious investments in the future of the area as regards facilities, marketing, education or transport infrastructure. Compare this with the Cradle of Humankind and its Maropeng display centre. That World Heritage Site, which adjoins the Dome structure just to the north, shows that Gauteng has done for Maropeng what neither the North West Province nor the Free State have sought to do for an equally significant venue in the heart of the country. Lack of funding, a failure of determination, local politics and differences over the cultural value of the Vaal region have paralysed efforts to move ahead towards enriched land use by tourism enterprises.
A critical aspect of sustainable tourism is the vision assembled by knowledge providers. Novelists and poets, painters and sculptors, academics, oral historians, news media and local researchers all contribute to the facts and legends that make up the character of a region. It takes a special kind of commitment to seize these materials to express the spirit of place, a zeitgeist that differs from all other places. Where vision is lacking, the community suffers loss of potential. Without vision, tourism products become stale and inauthentic, as the purely commercial exploitation of assets loses touch with the real cultural, natural and scientific value of these assets. Profit takes precedence over planet and people. As a result, land use is degraded by facilities and services that bear little relation to the qualities of knowledge and understanding that would add value to geographical features.
South Africa is sitting with an unrealised opportunity to create a geopark around the Dome core and Vaal environment. Piecemeal developments, which are mainly undercapitalised due to lack of a mobilising story, are performing scattered services with little appreciation for high-grade information about the region. Furthermore - and this is crucial - the cultural geography of the region with its mix of peoples, histories and traditions, remains stuck in the mould of handed-down white perspectives. Black African, Khoi and Bushman lore are hardly known or touched upon in the marketing pitches and educational presentations made to visitors. From the Stone Age to the Gold Rush, from Boer cuisine to Sotho artefacts, from spiritual animism in the rocks and trees to the homegrown art and sculpture found in town museums, the cultural kaleidoscope of the region affords many discoveries - if only providers would seek to unearth them. This lapse is not only evidence of a blinkered view but is self-defeating commercially. A narrow approach to the country's complex and fascinating past limits tourism product development.
Innovation is needed to meet the expectations of increasingly diverse types of visitors from many backgrounds. Many are in search of new and surprising experiences. The so-called experience economy describes the shift in consumer behavior towards valuing experiences over material possessions and offering fresh perspectives on what is already known. Travel is discovery. Exploration is the thing. The adventure, nature or culture tourist seeks personally meaningful, memorable, and educative engagements rather than simply purchasing goods and services as a form of escapism from city life and dull routines. The casual visitor may aim to "get away from it all" but the interested tourist seeks engagement.
Of course, there will always be plenty of visitors who want nothing more than bathing-booze-and-bed for their holidays, or will pursue theme park style soft adventures for their thrills. Even they, however, appreciate culturally appropriate comforts and entertainment. The South African leisure market is dealing increasingly with black customers so it's beholden upon providers to research their needs and expectations. After all, that's the way to do business, getting to know your customers. Sustainable land use in the tourism sector requires fresh thinking to design products that draw audiences and participants to experience something beyond the ordinary.
Quite apart from what the customer wants, there are ecotourism principles to observe. Goods and services should not be bought elsewhere and shipped in. Local people should be trained up as guides and encouraged to be entrepreneurs. Sustainable ecotourism aims to create a positive impact on the environment and to interact with local communities for mutual reward. It behaves responsibility towards rural people whether they be landowners, tribal authorities, or the inhabitants. Much of what ecotourism is about dovetails well with sustainable land use. Adventures in the outdoors require a clean and peaceful natural environment where visitors can enjoy competently led activities. Community support for business ventures and conservation is strengthened by income opportunities and collaborative projects.
Given all of this, what can be said about the cultural geography of a region such as that of the Vaal and Dome? The character of this area is far broader than current narratives suggest. African and other indigenous memories are waiting to be plumbed for their creative potential. But let there be no illusions about what such inquiries will involve: South Africa’s history is contested terrain where strong emotions rule.
I'm busy with a project about the Vaal or Lekoa river, land dispossession, the spirit of place and modern tourism. The cultural geography of SA creates sharp divisions among those who occupy and those who claim the land. This is material for an extended article but here a few examples will serve.
The Vaal River is a prime example of how most providers treat heritage as a given story without examining its origins. Even the name Vaal (meaning the cloudy or pale river) signals a dispute over history. One explanation given for the name is that it harks back to the Waal River in the Netherlands, the country from which Dutch colonists originally came. But the Vaal has several other names drawn from indigenous sources. These include Vaal / IHai (Khoi) / Lekoa (Sotho) / IliKwa (Nguni). The word Vaal itself, though used by the Voortrekkers to mean murky may also have come from indigenous sources as a Dutch/Afrikaans translation of the earlier Khoekhoe name meaning "drab" river. This was sometimes spelled as Tky-Gariep or ǀHai!garib.
As with the word Vaal, so with Lekoa, the Sotho-Tswana label for this "drab" river. There is nothing drab about how it got its designation from the people who were occupying the region when the first waves of settlers arrived. The Vaal valley and environs contain many battlefields, signifying that here is a choice piece of real estate (or communal land) that people were prepared to fight and die for. The great Basotho chief Moshoeshoe is reported to have regarded the whole area from the Vaal to the Caledon and Orange Rivers as his territory. So when whites moved in to possess it their "ownership" of the land was not readily accepted.
As the Basotho see it, colonial expansionism reached its zenith when the two-tongued British, with the help of priests, facilitated the annexation of Lesotho and parcelled it out to the Afrikaners. In disgust, Moshoeshoe remarked: "Have they taken our land that far?" In Sesotho, this is "le koa?" - that is where the name Lekoa River comes from. (Sowetan, 24 July 2019). The article quoted here was written by none other than Pali Lehohla, former Statistician-General of South Africa. His views are hardly on the fringes but reflect widespread black opinion underlying the campaign to repossess lost lands.
Much of this history and these attitudes have been conveniently forgotten and glossed over in the retelling of the Vaal story. Let's not forget that before the arrival of black migrants, crossing the Vaal into the central interior of South Africa, there were Khoi and San occupants. The San or "first people" had been here since time immemorial, while the Khoi probably entered up to 2000 years before present, drifting down from Botswana. The Great Trek - presented in apartheid South Africa as the central epic of our history - was simply another migration, this time from the south, into the fertile and well-watered grazing lands of the future Maize Triangle.
What we are dealing with is fractured histories that do not, yet, constitute a unifying national narrative. Black visitors to the Vaal, who come for leisure and adventure in quaint towns like Parys and Christiana, are treated (if at all) to the colonialist view of history. How must they feel when they know there is another story to tell? Might does not make right, nor is possession of the land its own justification. Cultural geographers examine how the memories of different cultures are produced by historical experience. Stories told by tribal elders challenge ideas about how things came to be as they are. There are clearly alternative narratives about land and identity that tour guides should be aware of.
We live in time and place. We are not divorced from our origins, nor are we free-floating beings without anchor points in landscape.
According to the Tourism Act in SA, a Tour Guide is "any person who for reward, whether monetary or otherwise, accompanies any person who travels within or visits any place within the republic and who furnishes such person with information or comments with regard to any matter”. Information is not an add-on but an essential part of the process of guiding. Note that the Act allows for "comments" or opinion. Here guides must be especially careful not to force their opinions on listeners but to present reasoned and balanced comment. Of importance in this article for members of the SA Adventure Industry Association for is that outdoor "adrenaline leaders" are not exempt from giving information. They too should know the history and cultures of the areas in which they operate, and chat about people and places when the chance arises.
Raft guides are not just rubber bus conductors. Adventure guides are teachers too.
The mood supporting government plans to expropriate land is driven by a burning sense of injustice. Sol Plaatje, a prominent South African writer and political activist, wrote extensively about various aspects of South African history and culture, including how indigenous people perceived the Vaal River. In his novel "Mhudi," published in 1930, Plaatje describes the Vaal as a vital water source for the original inhabitants of southern Africa. He portrays the river as a lifeline that sustained communities and facilitated trade and communication between different groups. His was the most prominent voice among many calling for restitution of land rights long before the ANC government proposed to expropriate without compensation.
What does the term "sustainable land use" mean when possession is so much in dispute? Land that was "stolen" must be returned, say claimants. The concept of sustainability in farming, mining or any other usage hangs in the balance. Ideas about property ownership are at variance, complicating any legal settlement. Who is to take over the land - the state, chiefdoms, community groups or individuals? Ownership of property, in Western terms, requires that a person hold the title deeds to a surveyed area. African communal principles treat land as belonging to the people, upon which the occupants live as their ancestors did. It is by no means clear who would own the land if and when it were returned. With uncertainty prevailing, long-term sustainability is in abeyance.
This is without going into problems of climate change, global disorder, political turmoil and human rights violations, all of which also affect sustainability. The tourism industry is a Cinderella whose ugly sisters are despoiling the earth.
History, identity, dignity and disputed ownership converge on our mountains, plains and rivers. On the Vaal, tourism creates jobs and also brings people of different cultures together to experience and enjoy a common geographical asset. As far as public policy is concerned, we need, as a nation, to reach an understanding that common enjoyment of the land (including "adventure" venues). Tourism itself cannot bring about consensus over land use. But information providers can at least open up issues for public discussion. The highly contentious and divisive issues of apartheid and colonial land grabbing (with benefits accruing to current occupiers) will not soon go away. All that an article like this may do is suggest that tour operators and guides should keep an open mind and educate themselves as well as domestic and foreign public about the past and present.
There are wonderful opportunities to grow tour itineraries set against the fascinating and complex history of the country. Many South Africans are indeed searching for a perception of what land means to us all. Modern explorers are out there encountering memories and symbols that tell us who we are and where we've come from. Natural assets like the Vaal, Orange and Tugela rivers, the Drakensberg and Cederberg mountains, and our stunning coastlines and game reserves must be cherished no matter what happens to reallocate land.
Let the Vaal flood remind us that we are all children of nature and equally exposed to the dangers of existence. Too much blood and treasure has been invested in South Africa to let fall to further conflict over land.
About the Author:
Graeme is a Professor of Communication and National Tour Guide and Assessor