Nkandla: never mind notoriety, Zuma can turn it into a tourist trap

So President Jacob Zuma has done the decent thing and agreed to pay back some of the millions taxpayers have forked out to upgrade security at his Nkandla estate. Hardly were those words out of his mouth, but many of his ‘business friends’, among them Don Mkhwanazi and Vivien Reddy, said they’d be happy to pay up for him. That’s causing even more controversy but never mind the notoriety surrounding Zuma’s luxurious homestead. It shouldn’t be wasted and the grinding poverty of the locals could be leveraged to do some good for a change. Here, Tshwane University of Technology toursim lecturer Unathi Sonwabile Henama makes a compelling case for turning Nkandla into a tourist attraction. He’s not suggesting the president’s private residence be used for tourism purposes. Heaven forbid! Just that tourists – and locals  could benefit from the ‘lemonade’ made from the lemons that lie in the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. If Nkandla was on tourists’ bucket list of attractions to visit in KwaZulu-Natal after Kosi Bay, the Drakensberg and the site of Nelson Mandela’s arrest, there  could be a different narrative around it. – Marika Sboros

By Unathi Sonwabile Henama.

Supporters of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma prepare to prevent opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party members from walking towards Zuma's house in Nkandla in this November 4, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Rogan Ward
REUTERS/Rogan Ward

Durban – A few months ago, I suggested that Nkandla be used as a tourist site. Nkandla has become embedded in our national consciousness because it is the rural residence of President Jacob Zuma and the upgrades on the residence have led to different interpretations.

My call for the use of Nkandla as a tourist attraction is based on the political contestations around the homestead that have made it nationally and internationally famous.

Nkandla is firmly on my bucket list of attractions to visit in KwaZulu-Natal after Kosi Bay, the Drakensberg and the site of Nelson Mandela’s arrest.

The publicity that is gained around Nkandla should not be wasted; rather, it can be harnessed to promote pro-poor tourism that will benefit the locals.

The promotion of rural tourism is imperative to ensure that we diversify the economic base of the declining rural economies, we create new jobs and decrease the migration of people to urban areas.

If pro-poor tourism is correctly planned, it can have a positive impact on agriculture and become a catalyst for other industries such as construction.

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We downplay the economic significance of tourism because we are too used to extraction industries that are concerned with production, while our industry is about consumption.

By consumption, I mean that tourists come with the money which pays for services at the tour operator, the accommodation establishments, the food and beverage outlets, and spending when shopping and visiting our world-class attractions.

The beauty of tourism is that it creates facilities that can be used by locals and the tourists. The Gautrain is a classic example, and the world-class infrastructure around Soweto has been created to benefit both locals and the tourists.

The legacy of the 2010 World Cup can be seen in host cities around South Africa. The country benefits much more that is tangible.

Tourism is about attracting money-flush tourists from outside to come and boost the local economy by contributing their money when they buy an assortment of products at a destination.

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If we are serious about addressing the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment, we as a nation should not be shy to convert a lemon into lemonade.

The major question is: Who are the major economic beneficiaries of tourists (be they ministers, members of portfolio committees, opposition parties, and media) who visit Nkandla?

If the answer excludes the people of Nkandla, then this would be a tragedy. There are basically two choices that we are faced with: One is to develop rural tourism aggressively in Nkandla. The other, easier choice, is to do nothing.

The first choice seeks to ensure that the visitors who arrive in Nkandla are provided with an assortment of amenities such as a variety of accommodation establishments, food and beverage outlets and attractions to ensure that they extend their stay and increase their financial expenditure to boost the local economy.

In the absence of these facilities and amenities, the money that could be used as part of tourism expenditure can be used in urban centres such as Pietermaritzburg and Durban, and the jobs would be created in those urban centres.

We must arm ourselves with the contents of the Nkandla Infrastructural Investment Plan and seek ways with which we can ensure that locals are given guidance on how to use some of their dwelling as accommodation establishments.

We must familiarise ourselves with the history of the Bambata Rebellion of 1906. The rebellion provides rural KwaZulu-Natal with a lot of heritage sites of historical significance that can be developed for tourism consumption to liberate destitute families from the shackles of inter-generational poverty.

With these two publicly available documents, we would understand that the natural beauty of Nkandla is available for exploitation by supporting it with human-made attractions and amenities that will ensure that tourists extend their stay in Nkandla and increase their financial expenditure.

The Nkandla Forest and the Ematshenezimpisi Game Reserve should be developed further so that the municipality undertakes marketing outlays to tell us a different story about Nkandla.

The Nkandla Forest has heritage as it was used by Bambata, the son of Mancinza, the chief of the amaZondi, to seek refuge when the colonial authorities wanted to arrest him for refusing to pay the illegitimate hut tax, and basically starting what was to be known as the Bambata Rebellion.

It is also at the edge of the Nkandla forest, in Enhlweni, where King Cetshwayo was once provided refuge by Sigananda Shezi of the amaCube, during the civil war of 1883.

Gautengers all know about the hot springs in Bela-Bela. Nkandla has its own Shu-Shu hot springs that can attract private-public partnerships to bring much-needed development that will unlock economic prosperity for Nkandla.

Groenkloof statues
Groenkloof ‘struggle icons’ statues

To ensure that the locals benefit, locally owned backpacking lodges can be established with the help of industry associations to ensure that there is local ownership.

The creation of an Nkandla hiking trail through the entire Nkandla forest can bring in tourists who can use camping sites that would be owned by the community.

Tourism is as much about attractions as it is about people. It creates the glue needed for social cohesion.

As locals realise that their way of life is not looked down upon, and that their traditional way of life is appreciated by tourists, they will accrue a sense of pride, self-esteem and appreciation of themselves.

In September, the Groenkloof Nature Reserve, near Pretoria, unveiled statues of 55 struggle heroes as part of the post-apartheid project to tell the full history of South Africa.

These statues will ensure that Tshwane becomes the cultural capital city of South Africa.

The grave of King Cetshwayo is located in Nkandla, and a tourist heritage site with a multimedia interpretation centre befitting his status would be a welcome addition to the tourism product offering of Nkandla.

I am not suggesting that the private residence of the president be used for tourism purposes. What I do suggest is that tourists can benefit from the “lemonade”.

* Unathi Sonwabile Henama, an alumnus of Grey College in Bloemfontein, teaches tourism in the department of tourism management at the Tshwane University of Technology. He writes in his personal capacity.