Minister Edna Molewa’s speech at the funeral of the late Field Ranger, Mr Respect Mathebula in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga

29 July 2018

 

Programme Director;
The Mathebula Family, especially you Wisdom Ndlovu and your four children;
Relatives and Friends;
Religious Leaders and the Traditional Leadership;
Councillors;
The CE of SANParks, Mr Fundisile Mketeni;
SANParks officials;
Rangers;
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is with sadness that I express my sincerest condolences to the Mathebula Family and to the colleagues and friends of Respect Mathebula. There are no words to comfort you at this time – only gestures of kindness and love that all can show in the support given to you in the days and months to come. 

Respect Mathebula was one of a select group of rangers in South Africa, working in the Kruger National Park to protect our natural heritage. As the scourge of rhino poaching took greater hold in the Park, so the work of the ranger changed.  The work of a field ranger became more diverse and complex as these men and women woke each day to continue to lead the way for all of us in conserving our country’s natural wonders.

It is through this dedication that I would like to pay tribute to Respect Mathebula – a man in whose footsteps we should all follow in. On Tuesday (31 July 2018), we will be marking World Ranger Day – a day set aside annually to commemorate rangers all over the world who have died in the course of their duties, and who risk their lives daily as they work at the forefront of conservation.

The South African Constitutional provision relating to environmental rights emphasises the protection and regeneration of our environment as an inheritance.

Like many countries, South Africa faces the challenge of managing its rich biodiversity in the face of increased environmental degradation. The threats are varied, complex and multi-faceted, and range from the threat posed by climate change, to the activities of transnational, organised criminal syndicates involved in the illegal trade and trafficking of wildlife.

It is our rangers who are at the frontline: whether they are battling wildfires, or confronting poachers.  Respect is the first ranger to be killed by poachers in the Kruger National Park in more than 50 years. 

The murder of one of our rangers is an act of aggression by unscrupulous individuals and gangs. His death at the hands of alleged rhino poachers is an indication of the severity of the threat our rangers are faced with a daily basis.

As you will know, one of Africa’s most iconic species, the rhino, is increasingly under threat from the poacher’s gun. Rhino populations around the country are vulnerable, as are the rangers who have dedicated their lives to protecting the animals.  Respect was based in the Crocodile Bridge section of the Kruger National Park – a hotbed of poaching activity in the park.  He was one of hundreds of rangers that have had to take up arms in the execution of his duties as the work of field rangers has become more militarised in order to address the scourge of poaching.

Respect was one of these men who spent days in the veld, patrolling select areas to flush out poachers and thus ensure no animal or plant is harmed.  

In particularly hard hit areas the ranger corps has been militarised, with some rangers engaged in daily confrontations with heavily armed gangs in the parks. Poachers pose a major threat to the rhino population, particularly in the Kruger National Park, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, North West and Mpumalanga. 

Respect’s death has highlighted that rangers’ work in environments that range from peaceful on one day to confrontation the next.  This is a line of work where the ranger stands between the criminal and poacher and the country’s heritage.

As a member of your community, you can honour him by working with SANParks and the government to preserve South Africa’s natural heritage.  You can become directly involved in combating wildlife crime, as Respect did, or you can assist in educating our children, or other members of your community, about not only the importance of wildlife in strengthening our country’s economy, but also in conserving our biodiversity.

The important role of communities in the fight against rhino poaching and wildlife crime in general cannot be over-emphasised. As you know, nowhere is the importance of Rangers more clearly illuminated than in the fight against rhino poaching.

As government we are working to boost the morale of rangers by showing them their battle against poachers and other environmental crimes are not in vain. We understand and fully appreciate that rhino poaching goes much deeper than mere physical security. Social and economic problems such as unemployment and poverty are part of the problem. 

It is a multi-dimensional problem that extends beyond provincial borders, countries and government departments, and we are committed to ensuring that the multi-sectoral Integrated Strategic Management Approach adopted by government delivers greater success as we step up our efforts to combat rhino poaching, and wildlife crime.  These successes should serve as a tribute to all field and marine rangers.  

The men and women who risk their lives daily are akin to the Ranger Monument at the Kruger Gate which comprises parts of the Leadwood Tree -- the epitomy of longevity, outlasting many challenges and is a true icon of the Lowveld savanna.

The rangers of the Kruger National Park, like the Leadwood, have survived for more than 100 years. Through their strength of spirit, their resilience to the hardships and dangers they face almost daily, the rangers will survive and continue to stand tall.

While Respect’s sacrifice was great, his contribution to our world was even greater.  I once again express my sadness and send my heartfelt condolences to you and your family.

I thank you