Tourism is South Africa’s New Gold

by David Cogswell
Tourism is South Africa’s New Gold

To address the problem of crime, the former South African tourism ministry recently launched a program to help ensure the safety and comfort of tourists with a small army of 1,400 tourism safety monitors. Photo:

Derek Hanekom, South Africa’s former Minister of Tourism, is not your ordinary tourism minister.  Appointed Minister of Land Affairs by Nelson Mandela in 1994, Hanekom worked closely for five years with South Africa’s first democratically elected president as he laid the foundations for a new nation.

But that, too, was no ordinary political appointment. It came only after years of Hanekom’s deep involvement in a kind of political activism we in the States have not seen for generations, if ever. Hanekom was among the major players in the movement to overthrow the harsh, Nazi-inspired apartheid regime that ruled South Africa from 1948 until Mandela’s election in 1994.

Hanekom was tempered like hard steel in the fiery furnace of South Africa’s liberation movement. Through his anti-apartheid activities with the African National Congress (ANC), he was arrested multiple times and served a two-year prison term. This is no ordinary sales ambassador for a country’s tourism industry. But then, South Africa is in no way an ordinary country.

Five years working closely with one of the tallest figures on the crowded canvas of the tumultuous 20th century surely helped to mellow the old freedom fighter. Today, Hanekom beams with magnanimity. When he strolled around the trade show floor at Africa’s Travel Indaba in Durban on May 2-4, he drew crowds, cameras and flashing lights, creating a commotion like a noisy carnival parade through the aisles of the exhibition hall.

Return to optimism
It was the week before South Africa’s presidential election, and Hanekom didn’t hide his bias in his support of Cyril Ramaphosa, under whom he serves as tourism minister. When the election was held the following week, Ramaphosa sailed to an expected victory.

Hanekom had been reappointed tourism minister in 2018, after being fired from the position in 2017 by then-President Jacob Zuma in retaliation for being one of the first to call out Zuma for his rampant corruption.

Zuma was finally pushed out of office in 2018 and now stands charged with 16 counts of corruption, racketeering, fraud and money laundering. Zuma’s corruption dealt the country and the ANC a staggering body blow, economically crippling and demoralizing the country and stripping confidence in the ANC. Mandela’s dream of the Rainbow Nation suffered a hard setback during Zuma’s nine years in office. And now his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, must struggle to put back the pieces.

At a press briefing during Indaba, Hanekom expressed confidence in Ramaphosa. “I suppose I’m a bit biased in praise of Cyril Ramaphosa because I’ve known him for so long,” he said. “So I know where he comes from. I know what his qualities are. And he is the person that we need in South Africa right now. So I have huge confidence in him being able to give the leadership that South Africa now quite badly needs.” 

Addressing crime
Hanekom also addressed reporters’ concerns about South Africa’s perceived crime problem.

“That South Africa has a high crime rate, we can’t sweep that under the rug, that’s true,” he said. “And we are serious about dealing with crime. But the crime rate is also a legacy of the dehumanization of apartheid, and it comes along with poverty and inequality, as well. Most of the murders committed are not in places that tourists come to. They are mostly committed in taverns in the townships and in homes, and mostly by people under the influence of liquor.”

Supporting sustainable tourism projects that feed money into local communities is one of the ways South Africa is addressing its problems of unemployment and wealth inequality. Tourism is one of the sectors that provides opportunities for people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism creates 1.5 million jobs and generates $30 million U.S. dollars a year, 8.6 percent of all economic activity in South Africa. Because of that, Hanekom said in his opening address, tourism is the new gold.

He compared crime in South Africa to crime in major American cities, where there may be places that are not safe for tourists to walk around, but the tourist sites are safe.

“I don’t think we should be dishonest and say we have no crime in South Africa,” he said. “Crime is in every other country, and we have a challenge of crime in South Africa. But I think the message is that the places you are going to want to go, when you do your shopping at the waterfront, it is safe. When you go stay in Kruger National Park or any park, you are safe. Most of our beaches, especially around the city, are 100 percent safe, not safe from being swept away by a strong current. But you are not going to be the victim of a crime.”

Tourism ambassadors
To address the problem of crime, the tourism ministry recently launched a program to help ensure the safety and comfort of tourists with a small army of 1,400 tourism safety monitors.

“It’s not like Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, which died and was revived through steps they took there,” said Hanekom. “It has a strong military presence, and we don’t want that. These tourism safety monitors are more like helpers. We place them strategically, on hiking trails, in cities. The intention is for them to be tourism ambassadors, the friendly face of tourism. They are branded and visible. They are trained in first aid. We are very serious. It’s happening already.”

On working with Mandela
As Mandela’s lifetime fades into history, his shadow looms large over his country, which is now struggling to maintain the enthusiasm for the vision that buoyed the new nation in the years after its birth. As President Cyril Ramaphosa sets out to put the nation on the road to recovery from the damage inflicted by Zuma, the figure of Mandela provides a benchmark for what can be achieved by a determined and inspired people.

“It was an extraordinary privilege to be a part of that first cabinet,” said Hanekom. “I was quite young at the time, I did not expect it. It was an amazing experience.

“A lot of these big, well-known figures, when you meet them, when you spend time with them, it’s a disappointment. With Nelson Mandela, it’s the opposite. He’d walk out and he’s larger than life.

“I spent five years with him. I had long got over standing in awe of people. But for the entire five years, I never got over the awe. And you can only have that awe for a person that earns your respect all the time.”

Hanekom recognizes that of the country’s myriad tourist attractions, Mandela himself is still one of the country’s greatest magnets.

“We should do more to promote the Nelson Mandela visit,” he said. “When you come to South Africa, you come to the home of Nelson Mandela. Feel it! Experience it.”

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