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  • Land of dreams:land restitution on the eastern shores of Lake St Lucia
  • Cherryl Walker (bio)

From the 1950s to the early 1980s some 1,200 Zulu-speaking households were removed from what is now the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park (GSLWP), a World Heritage Site stretching along the northern reaches of the KwaZulu-Natal coastline. Some lost their land in the name of nature conservation; others were dispossessed to make way for commercial forestry and the establishment of a South African Defence Force (SADF) missile base on the Ndlozi Peninsula in 1968 (Surplus People Project 1983). The claims of the dispossessed to this land first began to receive serious recognition from national policy-makers in the early 1990s, during the hard-fought battle between conservationists and mining interests over an application by Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), a subsidiary of a major multi-national company, to mine the valuable titanium deposits in the high dunes running along the Eastern Shores of Lake St Lucia. After a protracted Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) - the largest of its kind in South Africa to date - conservationists won a qualified victory in 1996, when the new, post-apartheid government decided in favour of conservation linked to eco-tourism as the development strategy for the region.

Today the legacy of forced population removals remains one of the biggest challenges facing the GSLWP Authority. In coming to terms with the past and looking to the future the Park Authority and other conservation officials accept that they must respect local communities' claims to the area, thus distancing themselves from previous conservation policies that accorded little intrinsic value to black people's land rights and citizenship. Turning that acceptance into practice within the mandate of conservation with development remains difficult, however. It also raises complex questions about how 'community' is to be understood in relation to the Park. Not only are there tensions between those people whom the post-apartheid state has [End Page 1] recognised as legitimate land claimants and other, neighbouring groups who do not have direct ancestral ties to conservation land, yet still look to the Park and the uncertain promises of eco-tourism for improved livelihood opportunities. There have also been bitter struggles among restitution claimants themselves over whose claims are legitimate and why, as well as who should represent them and why. Furthermore, external interest groups - government officials, local politicians, mining company representatives, environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), development consultants, researchers - continue to advocate their own understandings of community, land ownership and the public interest, driven by competing visions of how the public interest is constituted, what the landscape represents, and where responsibility for decisions about its future should lie.

This article explores these knotty issues as they weave themselves through one of the pivotal land claims in this region - that of the Bhangazi (Mbuyazi)1 people to the Eastern Shores of Lake St Lucia. This claim was formally settled in September 1999 in terms of the Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994, thereby clearing the way for the declaration of the GSLWP as a World Heritage Site. The history of this claim reveals the limitations of easy, ahistorical notions of community identity that inform much of the popular and policy discourses around land restitution since 1994. It also brings to the fore the difficulty of reconciling the very different scales of public interest that are vested in the environment of Lake St Lucia, as well as the differentials of power that shaped the claim settlement yet were not hegemonic in determining the outcome.

The claim is also interesting because the formal settlement - financial compensation and a stake in the future development of the area, without the restoration of underlying ownership of the land to the claimants - is out of step with the official policy that has since been approved by the post-apartheid government to guide the resolution of claims on conservation land. This policy aims to combine claimant ownership of protected areas with the continued conservation status of their land, by means of partnerships with national or provincial conservation agencies. The rationale is that this represents the optimal balance, a harmonious synthesis, between restitution and conservation - one that will both guarantee...


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