This region of South Africa was not suited to permanent agricultural activities until the late 1940s for various reasons which included the presence of tsetse flies in the summer months and Anopheles mosquitoes. Historically, the area had no permanent human residents. The Bapedi (Northern Sotho) people used to live west of the Drakensberg Mountains, which divide the Lowveld and the Middleveld regions, in the area which is today referred to as Sekukuniland.
In years of drought, it was common practice for these people to cross the Drakensberg and graze their cattle in the Central Lowveld during the winter months when the risk of Malaria and Ngana was minimal. As soon as the first rains fell, they would migrate with their cattle back to Sekukuniland. Europeans began hunting and exploring in the area during the early 19th century. The area was properly surveyed for the first time in 1886 by the Royal Geographical Society on behalf of The Harmony Mining Company. To this day, the area is locally referred to as the Harmony Block.
Gold was discovered in the 1890s, and very soon, the first town in the area was developed, Leydsdorp. The mining activities had dire consequences to the once abundant wildlife in the area, as miners and labourers hunted, snared and trapped game for both sport and food. Fortunately, the gold ran out and the miners disappeared. A few attempted farming, although most attempts were unsuccessful, the remainder being marginal or subsistent.
During the late 1940s, the situation was brought under control (from a human perspective) by the aerial spraying of DDT over the entire area, completely wiping out tsetse flies and controlling mosquitoes to a large extent. One can hardly imagine the effect this must have had on the invertebrate diversity. The trend at the time was to farm with cattle and this, combined with excessive hunting caused the decimation of natural game in the area due to excessive hunting and poor land management.
It took these farmers more than 40 years to realize that cattle farming was not a viable option in this area, due to low carrying capacities for grazers, an abundance of red ear and bont-legged ticks which transfer parasitic diseases and unpredictable weather patterns. Years of heavy over-grazing also resulted in large-scale bush encroachment, lessening the grazing capacity even further. The lifting of sanctions against South Africa also resulted in beef being cheaper to import than to produce in marginal areas such as this.
The three decades between the 1950s and the 1980s again saw an influx of miners, this time in search of mica and feldspar. The mining activities came to a gradual halt as the mining methods used were very labour intensive, resulting in high recovery costs. Mica and feldspar are used in the production of cosmetics and paint, and ceramics and glass respectively. Fortunately for us, these minerals can be mined more effectively in other areas. Despite this, Makalali is littered with 27 abandoned mined mines of varying sizes, which we are gradually rehabilitating. Naturally, these later miners also took what they could from the area’s wildlife resources.