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Return to the “Beloved Country”

It’s been five years since I last visited my native land, South Africa. I returned recently from a three-week sojourn there, my third visit in 15 years. I found it a vastly changed place, much of it for the better. In the course of my travels I set foot in six of South Africa’s nine...

It’s been five years since I last visited my native land, South Africa. I returned recently from a three-week sojourn there, my third visit in 15 years. I found it a vastly changed place, much of it for the better.

In the course of my travels I set foot in six of South Africa’s nine provinces. I was able to see a great cross-section of the country, from the Western Cape to KwaZulu-Natal to the northern bushveld territories of Limpopo and the North West. I was in cities, on farms, and in coastal resorts. I visited nine nature reserves.

protea-photo.jpgHelderberg Nature Reserve is on the slopes of the Helderberg mountain, overlooking Somerset West in the Western Cape, where my parents live. My father and I have enjoyed a number of memorable hikes through this reserve over the years.

Owned and managed by the City of Cape Town, Helderberg Nature Reserve forms part of the Cape floral system, which features proteas (the flower in the picture) and a spectacular variety of other plants. The mountain is also home to numerous birds, small mammals, bontebok antelope, large tortoises and other reptiles.

The Helderberg is an excellent example of how South Africa uses a natural asset like this for cultural events such as open-air concerts and to reach out to local schools to facilitate teaching appreciation of the environment.

Photo by David Braun

Black middle class

The most striking feature of post-apartheid South Africa is the extent of the new black middle class. Everywhere we went we saw signs of this. From the many luxury cars driven by black South Africans, to the shopping malls where black families were out in droves filling baskets with holiday purchases, to restaurants where white patrons were often in the minority, South Africa has visibly become a more egalitarian nation.

Fifteen years ago–and indeed for all of my life before that–South Africa’s economy was racially segregated. The best amenities were reserved for whites. There was no black middle class to speak of because black South Africans were denied a decent education, and many jobs were “reserved” for whites.

Now, according to some accounts, the black middle class is larger than the white middle class. The explosion in the number of new consumers has had an enormous impact on the economy, as can be seen by the cars on the roads and the crowds in the shopping malls.

south-africans-shopping-photo-1.jpgSouth Africans holiday-shopping in a mall in Pretoria.

Photo by David Braun

It is true that South Africa still has vast squatter camps, and thousands of shacks can be seen in and around the cities. But it is also striking to see so many new low-cost, high-density housing estates.

The African National Congress government has financed vast numbers of homes for urban black communities–and this too has had an impact on the economy, stimulating the building and related industries. Where I remembered open spaces around Johannesburg 15 years ago, I saw sprawling new high-density suburbs, and within them yet more shopping centers and new roads.

Wildlife popping back

Species of birds I knew only from places like Kruger National Park when I was a boy are now resident in Pretoria and Johannesburg. Hornbills and go-away birds flit around the suburbs, and the cry of the hadada ibis is ubiquitous throughout the country.

hornbill-photo.jpgYellow-billed hornbill at dawn.

Photo by David Braun 

Wildlife sanctuaries are proliferating, driven by tourist demand. The many new game farms and urban parks that are being returned to indigenous habitat are luring indigenous birds and small animals back to the cities.

There are so many new nature reserves in and around the cities that it is no longer necessary to trek to remote places like Kruger National Park to see Africa’s famous wildlife–although nothing can surpass the experience of being totally immersed in a large game sanctuary.

Rietvlei-lions-photo.jpgThese lions (in the photo on top) were confiscated by the authorities from a private game farm that did not have a permit to keep the big cats. They are now in a large enclosure surrounded by an electric fence in Rietvlei Nature Reserve, owned and operated by the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Authority, which includes Pretoria. The 8,000-acre sanctuary between Johannesburg Airport and Pretoria is also home to cheetah and rhinoceros, including the two rhinos in the photo below.

Photo by David Braun


Photo by David Braun

In Pretoria I was delighted to discover zebra, springbok, and ostriches among the wildlife resident in a city park hemmed in by housing estates. The cities feel a little less European. There is a new pride in Africa’s natural heritage.


Moreleta Kloof Nature Reserve is a 200-acre park right in the middle of suburban Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, and a two-minute drive from my wife’s family’s home. Among the animals that can be found here are springbok (the antelope in the photo) and many birds, including ostriches.

Photo by David Braun

Some of the urban nature reserves are more managed than others, a necessity when it comes to keeping big cats and other large predators. One such place, the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve, is within view of Johannesburg’s downtown, which is why it can bill itself as “the nearest faraway place.”

The privately owned Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve sits on 3,500 acres and includes separate large camps for predators like lions, cheetahs, and wild dogs. Visitors can drive through these camps for viewing of the animals from the safety of their vehicles.


Cheetahs in a predator enclosure at the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve on the fringes of Johannesburg.

Photo by David Braun

The intense management of this kind of reserve is not for nature purists, but it does mean thousands of acres on the periphery of a large city are protected for many small wild animals and plants. City-dwellers are able to experience and appreciate the large animals on a day trip and the entire enterprise stimulates the local economy.

The emergence of so many new wilderness parks forms an effective corridor for birds to move through and around the cities. It sounds like a win-win for both the people and the environment.

We vacationed on the beach at Trafalgar on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. More than 600 acres of beach and tidal waters are in a marine reserve, so everything from the high-water mark to a nautical mile offshore is protected.

Behind the beach are additional protections for the coastal dune forest, which is a writhing mass of of some of the rarest trees and plants in South Africa. We traversed this forest to get from our condo to the beach, sometimes disturbing monkeys and large monitor lizards. I hadn’t seen such pristine coastal dune habitat in South Africa since I was a child.


Line fishing is allowed in the Trafalgar Marine Sanctuary, KwaZulu-Natal–so long as you don’t mind sharing the beach with the local wildlife.

Photo by David Braun


Low tide exposes the rich diversity of life clinging to the rocks along the Trafalgar Marine Reserve beach. Many of the rocks also contain fossils.

Photo by David Braun


The southern end of Trafalgar Beach is flanked by the Mpenjati Nature Reserve, a 150-acre protected area of wetlands, grasslands and dune forests that abound with birds, including breeding fish eagles, as well as antelope and other small mammals like monkeys.

Photo by David Braun

A few miles south of Trafalgar the Umtamvuna River cuts a deep gorge into the earth along the border between KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Eastern Cape provinces. On the KZN side more than 7,000 acres of wilderness have been protected along about 15 miles of the river in the Umtamvuna Nature Reserve.


Umtamvuna Nature Reserve contains hundreds of species of trees and cycads (a cycad is in the picture above), many of them endemic and rare, and it is regarded as an important sanctuary for birds, including eagles and endangered vultures. The nature trails are said to be the best along the KZN coast.

Photo by David Braun


Hiking in paradise is not without its dangers, as this brochure put out by the Umtamvuna Nature Reserve reminded us. The sanctuary is home to many of South Africa’s deadliest snakes. But in three major hikes in the reserve we did not see a single snake–although no doubt many saw us. We did encounter a couple of troupes of baboons, who glared and barked at us across a ravine.

Photo by David Braun

On the inter-province roads we passed many private game farms. Some of these are for hunting; others are for bird and photo safaris. Whatever their commercial basis, the farms are replacing cattle ranches that could barely scrape together a living on the arid veld. The farm country has become so wild in parts that we saw a large cat, something like a cerval, run across the freeway in front of our car in broad daylight.

The jury may still be out as to whether all this investment in game farms will pay off, but for now it is thrilling to see so much land restored to the African bush.

Safaris–for game viewing, photography, or hunting–have become such big tourism magnets and income generators that the national and provincial governments are promoting projects to expand wilderness areas. There are plans for country-size transfrontier wildlife parks throughout southern Africa.

Pilanesberg-elephants-photo.jpgElephants in Pilanesberg Game Reserve, North West Province. When young male elephants were first brought to this sanctuary they killed many rhinos. It took a while for the conservation authorities to figure out that they needed to bring in older, mature male elephants to keep the young bulls in check. Since this was done the elephants of Pilanesberg have settled down. These three certainly appeared to be bonding. 

Photo by David Braun

Pilanesberg is one of the more “modern” game reserves in South Africa. A 120,000-acre sanctuary nestled in the eroded remains of the crater of a billion-year-old volcano about 90 minutes’ drive northwest of Johannesburg, Pilanesberg was converted to cattle ranches for much of the apartheid era. It was turned into a wildlife preserve in the 1980s. “Operation Genesis” was a costly venture to restock the place with African megafauna.

I had the great pleasure of visiting Pilanesberg a few weeks ago. The place is a stunning example of what can be done if we set our minds to restoration conservation.


An agama, one of numerous species of reptiles in Pilanesberg Game Reserve.

Photo by David Braun

The game reserve teems with African wildlife of every kind, including the famous “Big Five,” and it is generating a vibrant surrounding economy that feeds off ecotourism. Where before there were unsustainable cattle farms, today there is a lush sanctuary bursting with life. Outside the game fence are accommodations and attractions for visitors, bringing much needed employment to the area.

The success of Pilanesberg is such that the North West provincial government that runs the sanctuary has launched a project to expand and link it with another game park many miles to the north, on the border with Botswana. From there, the new megapark, which will rival the famous Kruger when it is completed, can be joined with Botswana’s wilderness areas.


South Africa has issues.

There is much fear of crime, for example. While I was in the country, I listened to the new president, Jacob Zuma, discuss in a radio interview how puzzled he was that crime in South Africa was accompanied by so much violence. I read that the police chiefs are so frustrated that they are adopting shoot-to-kill tactics against criminals.

Many people say that the violent crime is driven by people who fled conflict in Zimbabwe, the Congo, and other troubled nations to the north. If this is true, perhaps these people have a diminished regard for human life, which they have brought with them to South Africa.

I think the solution lies in more overt policing. I didn’t see much of a police presence in South Africa, certainly not as much as can be seen on the streets of New York.

The roads are also extremely dangerous. I witnessed reckless driving many times, usually people driving way too fast. My extended family has experienced three horrific road crashes in South Africa in recent years.

Again, I think the country needs more police. And the police need to be policed against the corruption many South Africans told me is becoming widespread. It was very noticeable that in the one province which deployed a heavy police presence on the roads, KwaZulu-Natal, the driving was exemplary.

I’m hopeful that the expanded middle class will have both the desire and the means to pay for more and tougher law enforcement in South Africa. 

Football fever

South Africa is hosting the Football World Cup this year. The occasion has kicked the construction boom up another notch. Some of the world’s most impressive stadiums have been built and much of the national road system and all of the major airports have been upgraded to the best that can be found anywhere on the planet.

Football is also fueling its own retail boom. Apparel and tchotchkes of every type celebrating the great event are everywhere. People walk around in the national team’s football jersey. Communications towers and the noses of airliners feature giant soccer balls, Advertising billboards play on the soccer theme for all kinds of goods and services.

football-tower-photo.jpgA communications tower in Pretoria dressed up for the Football World Cup in June. Pretoria is one of the competition’s host cities.

Photo by David Braun

In the apartheid era the country was banished from international competition. South Africans were not allowed to participate in the Olympics. Very few international teams visited South Africa. It was part of the price South Africa paid for the segregationist and racist policies that were the subject of Alan Paton’s famous novel “Cry the Beloved Country.”

Fifteen years after South Africa became a nonracial democracy all that has been swept away. South Africa is hosting one of the world’s biggest and most important international sporting events.

football-stuff-photo.jpgFootball World Cup paraphernalia on sale at Cape Town Airport.

Photo by David Braun

Mandela-in-beads-photo.jpgFather of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela, has retired to his ancestral home in the Eastern Cape. But he continues to be venerated by South Africans of all races. This larger-than-life beadwork rendering of South Africa’s first black President greets passengers in the departure hall of Johannesburg Airport.

Photo by David Braun
For more about South Africa, its attractions and opportunities, visit Brand South Africa Blog.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn