Friends of Table Mountain questions the legality of the SANParks’ access system – and the exclusion it creates

Aside from hiking and trail running by yourself or with a small group, there’s little you can do for free anymore in Table Mountain National Park.  Friends of Table Mountain says this raises a host of questions about the so-called open access Park, particularly one of exclusivity.

The formation of Table Mountain National Park was underpinned by extensive research and public consultation which are referenced in the Heads of Agreement between SANParks and the City of Cape Town. “It’s very clear from the foundational documents and the Agreement that access to Table Mountain was to be available for all the people of Cape Town not just a few,” says Andy Davies. He points to the 1994 Policy for the Multipurpose Use for the Cape Peninsula which makes reference to the fact that during the apartheid era the mountains of the Cape Peninsula were one of the few areas where all people from were allowed to relax and escape from tense living conditions. He also notes that 1995 report of The Table Mountain and Peninsula Advisory Committee stipulated that any managing authority must provide for the needs of an urban public on a sustainable basis, which is inclusive of local mass markets. Yet, says Davies, more and more Capetonians are being excluded from their mountain as access and permits fees increase annually.

Robert Vogel, Chair of Table Mountain Bikers, says he questions the legality of the permit system. “The Heads of Agreement,” he says, “makes it clear that SANParks should obtain the prior written consent from the City before levying any charges for access by members of the public, including areas that were once free of charge, like Tokai Newlands, Silvermine picnic sites and Boulders Beach.” 

Vogel says the Agreement also refers to the levying of charges at points where access fees are charged and indicates that these must be referred to the National Park Committee for consideration and recommendation. “The National Park Committee would seem to refer to the Park Forum,” says Vogel, “but that’s been defunct since 2009 and we’ve been unable to find any record that these recommendations were ever made.”

Davies adds that the City claims it has never obtained prior written consent from SANParks to the levying of charges or the annual increases in access and permit fees.

Anwar Adams of Hikers Paradise Adventure Club finds the situation concerning. “Aside from appearing to be in breach of the Agreement with the City, the permit system and access fees creates a virtual fence around the Park – letting in those who can afford it, keeping out those who can’t.”

He points to long popular picnic sites like Tokai and Newlands where it now costs a family of four, at current rates*, a minimum of R124.00, and that’s before they’ve paid for food and beverages. “If they’re a family with a dog and want to walk their dog in Tokai or Newlands Forest, that’s another R305 per year,” says Adams. “And if they want to cycle in or line fish in the Park, that’s R625 per year and another R270 for additional family members.” He notes that access fees to picnic at popular Cape Point sites, like Buffels Bay, are even higher.

Stakeholders are impacted in many different ways by the Park’s permit system from dog activity permits at one end of the scale to permits for various sporting events and film shoots at the other. 

Ellie Courts, Chair of TrailWP, highlights running as one example. “14 race events have been cancelled over the last few years, including many with a charitable outreach, because permit fees became too exorbitant for organisers, let alone runners who then had to carry permit costs in their entry fee. Worse, permit fees have impacted on development work for different types of running because the high fees exclude development runners and children.” She adds that many events that used to take place in the Park now take place further afield, resulting in further exclusion for those without transport.

She also observes that organisers have to deal with constantly changing rules and an inordinate amount of paperwork before an event can take place. “It really makes no sense,” says Courts. “All the event closures ultimately do is create a loss of tourism revenue to the Park because hosting sporting events in the Park has just become too costly and onerous.” 

Determined not to be put off, Courts says that together with Western Province Athletics (WPA) and TMNP management she is discussing opportunities to re-establish events that would be beneficial to the running community, including development of the sport and introducing youth to the Park.

Adams says he finds the situation intolerable.  “It’s as though SANParks is being run along the same lines as the old apartheid system, creating a divided society of those who can afford to enjoy the mountain with the rest excluded.” He adds that communities are not just excluded from enjoying the mountain on a recreational basis, saying that many indigenous groups are harassed and prevented from conducting long held rituals and ceremonies fundamental to their culture. “This is not the kind of exclusion we expect from an agency of a democratic government.” 

“SANParks seem only interested in what they can extract from stakeholders and if you have nothing to offer you can take a proverbial hike,” says Adams. 

Davies says SANParks forgets that it is a custodian of the Park, not the owner, and that as much as they are in the business of conservation the State Owned Enterprise also serves a diverse range of communities.  “The issue around permits and access once again highlights the complete disconnect between SANParks and the public it serves – and the complete disregard SANParks has for the Agreement it entered into with the City of Cape Town. Critically, it reveals a worrying disregard for social upliftment and development.” 

*SANParks rates increase each November.

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