Wind the clock back to 1994, to the early days of &Beyond (then Conservation Corporation) and the start of Africa Foundation.
At this point, &Beyond’s core impact model of Care of the Land, Wildlife and People was taking shape: it was the first chapter of the Phinda Private Game Reserve conservation story, and Isaac Tembe had been employed as relationship builder and communicator between &Beyond and the neighbouring Phinda communities.
When asked what took him to Phinda, Isaac explained: “I was very excited because here was an organisation talking ecotourism and conservation, with a genuine concern about the communities.”
This was an opportunity that spoke to Isaac at the deepest level – a community initiative that wasn’t simply ticking a box, or a thinly disguised marketing tool, but something truly meaningful. He took up his role, armed with a solid background in both the academic and practical aspects of community development – and then he hit a wall of suspicion and resistance.
In the community’s view at this time, conservation was Public Enemy Number 1. The devastating impact on rural communities of conservation interventions imposed by the previous government had sent a clear message that conservation was more important than the people. So why should things be any different now?
The building of community trust in these circumstances was a process that called for a very special skill set: it demanded patience, a quiet diplomacy, a sensitivity to the communities’ concerns, and respectful exploration of their needs, the capacity to really listen and the ability to ‘hold the space’ throughout these discussions. Today, these are the very qualities that define ‘Baba (father) T’ as Isaac is affectionately known.
How far things have come. In 2007, a pioneering land claim settlement took place between Phinda and two local communities, Makhasa and Mnqubokazi, when 9,085 hectares (22,460 acres) of wilderness land was returned to these ancestral owners.
This was a life highlight for Isaac – he describes it as “standing at the gate of a new dawn” – as both communities requested that the use of this land continue to be kept for wildlife and conservation rather than farming – living proof of the perfect synergy between empowering communities and enabling conservation.
“The people clap and dance in welcome – until the tap runs dry.” This is the way that the Kenyan Noble Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, describes the short-term benefit of community aid that creates a dependency rather than self-reliance. So what is the answer?
Isaac passionately explains that for projects to capture the hearts and minds of the community they must be community led. This talks to the core philosophy of Africa Foundation’s award-winning methodology of working WITH the communities, not FOR them. This has proven to be the key to community empowerment and project sustainability.
The additional challenge is that no two communities are the same, so there is no room for a copy-paste approach. Each requires an understanding of their unique culture, customs and community values.
In reflecting on the development of Africa Foundation, beyond KwaZulu-Natal into Southern and East Africa, Isaac describes it as an expansion of the vision into areas of great need and lost hope.
From his childhood days as his grandfather’s trusted English translator, Isaac has excelled in building bridges that have spanned the yawning gaps of mutual understanding and tolerance.
Here’s to all the bridges to come Baba T. We salute you.