When Willem Louw retired in May 2021, he had spent 19 years with South African National Parks (SANParks). His latest position was as Senior Manager: Park Planning & Development at SANParks Technical Office in Kuilsriver in Cape Town.
Looking back, Willem counts the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding for initiating the /Ai /Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park in August 2001; formalised with the signing of the treaty by the presidents of Namibia and South Africa on 1 August 2003, as one of the many proud moments throughout his career.
Born and bred in Alexander Bay and schooled in Richtersveld, Willem prepared for his professional career as a student at the University of Western Cape (UWC). He started off with an undergrad in social science and completed his Masters in Development Studies. His thesis dealt with diamond mining and the dispossession of communal land belonging to the Richtersveld Nama people. He then worked as a school teacher for 10 years but decided this was not his cup of tea. His teaching profession was followed by a short stint as the owner of a Moslem butchery in Cape Town.
The vast landscape of the Richtersveld. GEF-5 PA project staff on a field trip in 2018. Image by Martin Albertus.
Then the people from Richtersveld called. They took him back to his birth place, Alexander Bay. Willem explained: “They asked if I want to work at their local transitional council as senior executive officer.” That was during the time Richtersveld started with its land and mineral claim in Alexander Bay, Namaqualand. “It was a very exciting period for me. The only issue was that my wife was in Cape Town with our two small children,” he said.
As the municipal manager for the Richtersveld Local Municipality, Willem was instrumental with the Richtersveld land claim. The Apartheid government had used the proceeds of diamond mining in Alexander Bay to uplift poor white communities. But in the process the local Nama communities lost everything – their ancestral land and diamond mining areas. He realised this linked to the main theme of his Master’s thesis. This was part of the reasons why he decided to go back to the Richtersveld.
The Alexkor Ltd v Richtersveld Community and Others, decided by the Constitutional Court in 2001, is a milestone case in South African law, with a particular bearing on property and customary law. After the court success and almost three years at the local municipality, Willem felt that he had served his cause at local government. During that time SANParks approached him to apply for a park manager post at the Richtersveld National Park.
In 1992 he was only the second coloured park manager appointed by SANParks. He started as a trainee park manager. During this time he got the management plan approved and helped to set up the transfrontier park agreement with Namibia. He was also working on the infrastructure development and managed to secure 1 million Rand from the government and linked it with the transfrontier park agreement. He recalls that he was working day and night and enjoying the work with national and international people.
His next work station was much closer to Cape Town. Willem worked as the conservation development manager on the Agulhas Biodiversity Initiative (ABI). That is where he met Tertius Carinus, SANParks Manager: Park Planning & Projects, and responsible for the overall coordination and management of the GEF-5 Protected Area Project. After two years at Cape Agulhas, he moved to Cape Town. In 2006, he was appointed buffer zone manager with a special focus on the buffer zone of the West Coast National Park. Finally, Willem was reunited with his family and could pay attention to them and his buffer zone work.
SANParks veterans – Willem Louw with his colleague Tertius Carinus who is currently providing GEF-5 PA project oversight as SANParks Manager: Park Planning & Project. Image supplied.
Where the heart is
“It was nice to see my kids growing up,” he said. Willem has two children, Christopher (31), who went to SACS Boys High School and studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He is an electrical and nuclear engineer. His daughter, Simone (28) attended Rhenish Girls School in Stellenbosch and then went on to study BSc (Conservation ecology) at UWC. She obtained her BSc Honours in Zoology at Pretoria University’ and received a scholarship to study at the University of Kent in England where she completed MSc in Conservation Ecology and International Wildlife Trade. She is now working for an organisation called TRAFFIC, which specialises in international wildlife trade research and has published papers on the illegal trade of marine animals. “My wife, Grace, is the anchor in my life. She is the one who made it possible that I was involved in my work while she looked after the children,” he said.
Willem and his family – from left to right is daughter Simone, son Christopher and his wife Grace. Image supplied.
In his latest position, Willem worked with a SANParks team who developed a draft buffer zone policy. At the same time, he started with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) projects and biodiversity offsets amongst others. The Gamsberg and Elandsfontein biodiversity offsets were the first offsets he worked on.
One of the really fun projects Willem worked on during this time was the shooting of a film on the West Coast. The purpose of the film was to promote the Western Cape Climate Change Adaptation Corridor. In 2018 Willem and his colleague, Karen Harrison, were invited to the George Washington University in the United States where they showcased the West Coast Corridor with the film.
In terms of the GEF-5 PA Project and the Richtersveld, the biggest success for Willem is that the Richtersveld Conservation Development Framework (CDF) is included in the Richtersveld Integrated Development Plan (IDP) and Spatial Development Framework (SDF), combining spatial planning and environmental law. The CDF was accepted and approved in a special council meeting, and is now part of the IDP and SDF. The CDF was supported by the Northern Cape Premier’s office, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) and the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD).
Willem’s wish is to declare the whole of the Richtersveld as a protected area, conserving the Succulent Karoo. “This is still my dream, that we declare at least 90% of Succulent Karoo paradise,” he said. The Succulent Karoo biome is an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot, and is the world’s only arid hotspot.
The unique flora of the Richtersveld needs to be protected for the future generations to experience and enjoy. Image: Oscar Osberg.
View from the Stoep
Now you can find Willem overlooking the Golden Mile Beach in St. Helena Bay and his garden. “My wife is good with plants. She is the planner and I am doing the gardening,” he explained. And apart from gardening? Willem plans to complete the Ironman Triathlon and has started training. “My children did it twice. I would like to do it with them next January,” he said.
Looking back, Willem is grateful for all the people who crossed his path throughout his career, especially, Dr Mike Knight, Tertius Carinus, Marinda van Graan, Delsey Monaledi, Zoleka Vaveki, Karen Harrison, Michael Slayen, Giel de Kock, Russel Smart, Andre Spies, Ane Oosthuizen, Kallie Naude, and Sibongile Mampe. They have all have contributed to his journey and made the work so much fun! “SANParks gave my family many happy memories while visiting the parks and helped expose my children to the natural wonders of South Africa,” he concluded.
Willem Louw on the hotel stoep in Morgans Bay after a long day at the GEF-5 PA Project Steering Committee meeting in November 2016. Image supplied.