Last week (11th of July), Bulletin reported that Kruger National Park employees were residing in the rest camps, particularly at the popular Letaba Rest Camp, during the Covid-19 lockdown period. We suggested that this may be a plausible explanation as to the decision by SANParks to suspend all their overnight bookings for July. Soon after publishing the article, we received a communique from SANParks acting head of communications, Rey Thakhuli who accused us of not allowing SANParks time to respond to the matter – this despite our journalist attempting to contact their spokesperson, Isaac Phaahla for comment two days before publication.

Thakhuli issued what appeared to be a generic response (but which he said was issued only to this publication) to the Bulletin article in which they confirmed that staff members were being housed in tourism facilities to prevent cross-contamination.

This according to SANParks Chief Executive Officer, Fundisile Mketeni, who said this included arrangement of temporary accommodation for staff living within the living quarters in various national parks. “The reality is that all sectors of society have a contribution to make in curbing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic – and this includes implementing extraordinary measures.”

Mketeni stated, to this end, with the introduction of a lockdown, SANParks as with many other employers encouraged most employees to work from home and only a limited number remained in various parks as part of essential services. These included rangers, anti-poaching officials, and infrastructure maintenance personnel. To reduce cross contamination risks amongst staff residing in the parks, some staff members have been temporarily accommodated in a portion of tourism facilities in a number of national parks.” This situation has provided an opportunity to carry out much needed maintenance and improvements to staff accommodation he added.

One of the photographs we received from concerned day visitors to the Letaba Rest camp which shows staff vehicles at the rondawels.

Mketeni concluded by stating these unusual circumstances of staff being accommodated in tourist facilities has no bearing on overnight facilities in the national parks remaining closed “The Parks are unable to open to overnight visitors due to the fact that leisure tourism is not yet permitted under Level 3 Lockdown.” concluded Mketeni.

Bulletin wanted more clarity on the matter and so we issued a second inquiry to both Thakhuli and Phaahla. In our inquiry we wanted to know how many staff members were being housed in the camps, how many camps were repurposed, how many staffers, if any, were tested and if so, were there any positive cases. We also wanted to know about the movement of the staff members housed inside the KNP, more specifically whether they were being supplied food and other resources and whether these measures could affect the safety of the day visitors.

Our inquiry was simply met with “you are quoting reliable sources in your badly written article and stated that we have suspended the July bookings due to staff leaving [sic] in tourist accommodation – a fact you are now denying. Please consider our statement released to you as our response as we do not see how responding to the below questions is going to help. You have already taken a position on how you view this matter which we elect not to dignify with a further response. From our part we have considered the matter closed.”

To clarify, Bulletin in no way stated that the July bookings were cancelled to allow for the staffers to stay in the tourist accommodation. We asked whether it could be, in part, a plausible explanation considering the photographic evidence, information by a credible source, and reports from the public.