MEDIA RELEASE: The Trouble in Tokai – SANParks’ extraordinary management of an aesthetic and heritage landscape

The recent Devil’s Peak fire has thrown concerns about the management of Table Mountain National Park, by SANParks, into sharp relief. While issues abound across the park, these concerns are particularly obvious in Tokai – a multifaceted section of the Park popular with a wide range of recreational users and rich in both cultural and aesthetic heritage – and home to the TMNP Head Office.

In the present moment the slopes of Upper Tokai are blanketed under a heavy fuel load resulting from the clearing of dense infestations of predominantly Australian species but also pines which flourished in the wake of the 2015 fires.  The fire risk alone is cause for considerable concern, but there is a backstory which needs unpacking.

In 2005 an unsuspecting public were made aware via the 2005 Park Management Plan that the plantations of Cecilia and Tokai (the birthplace of forestry in South Africa) were to be clear-felled.  This was a national government decision and ran counter to the consultation and research conducted by UCT’s environmental unit in 1994, which underpin the Park’s formation. The UCT report noted, “Both Cecilia and Newlands forests are effectively managed for recreational purposes only, and are considered distinctive components of the Peninsula’s cultural landscape.” The report noted the considerable value the plantations had for the people of Cape Town, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. When SANParks made a submission for World Heritage Status to UNESCO in 2004 it stated that: “Portions of the demarcated State Forests, Tokai and Cecilia, are managed for timber production by a state company, Mountain to Ocean (MTO). Negotiations are currently underway to include the forests into the CPNP [Cape Peninsula National Park] to be managed as part of the national park.”

Given this, it is unsurprising that the public took exception to the proposed clear-felling of the plantations. Intense negotiations with stakeholders ensued, which gave rise to the Tokai Cecilia Management Framework (TCMF), a document providing for the retention of critical shaded recreation (species were not specified) on a rotational basis thus also ensuring restoration of fynbos seedbanks. Negotiations also included saving the Tokai Picnic site following on SANParks’ intent to remove it and the old oaks that line the avenue to the Tokai Manor House.

The TCMF should have been reviewed in every five years, but this has never happened. Instead following on the fires of 2015, the exclusion of the TMCF was simply noted in the 2015 Park Management Plan. What Park users saw was the closure of Upper Tokai for two and a half years, and a move to clear fell the entire upper, middle and lower Tokai.  This was done ahead of the harvesting schedule, using the fires as the reason (despite middle and lower Tokai being unaffected by the fires) and without the legally required public consultation.

When MTO Forestry arrived in Lower Tokai – a site popular with the surrounding community and mixed user groups – in September 2016 and attempted to start felling, the community exploded in uproar.  The uproar was to have been expected given SANParks had assured the community at a public meeting in July 2016 that it was committed to the TCMF and could not reverse the plan. An urgent interdict was sought by voluntary NPO, Parkscape, which led to first High Court and then Supreme Court action, which Parkscape won on both occasions.  SANParks and MTO Forestry were interdicted and restrained both “from felling any trees in the area of the Tokai Forest described as the Dennendal plantation in accordance with the new felling schedule, unless and until valid and lawful decisions to that effect are taken”. The valid and lawful decisions reference public consultation.  The judgement was handed down in May 2018.  To date, no public consultation has held and emails requesting clarity have been ignored, as have lawyers’ letters detailing the multiple breaches to the TCMF.  The replanting of shade trees that should have commenced has also not taken place.

Following on the March 2015 fires, Upper Tokai wasn’t fully reopened until 29 December 2017 and then only after considerable pressure from the mountain biking community. Immediately evident, aside from the considerable erosion of forestry jeep tracks, was the sheer volume of young Australian acacia species and eucalypts invading the slopes. When asked why these infestations were not being addressed, Parkscape was advised that the Park faced a lack of budget. This from a Park that earned R307 973 959 in 2018 and R371 657 366 in 2019…

From the time of reopening Upper Tokai until approximately five months ago, the landscape remained untouched, the infestations of exotics spreading  – an ecological catastrophe and a massive fire risk, which Parkscape warned about in its 2019 fire presentation at Kirstenbosch.

Hindsight would suggest that had SANParks not been so desperate to undermine the Tokai Cecilia Management Framework by mass clear-felling of the plantations, they would have been better able to manage restoration work on a block by block basis – particularly given only sections of the plantation were affected by fire.  Now, and following on extensive public pressure during the course of 2020, much clearing has been done and the slopes are brown with dry slash.  This slash should have been piled into stacks, ready for stack burns in the winter.  Instead some of it has been laid out in windrows and the rest simply left in situ. There appear to be no plans to reduce the hundreds of tons of fuel left in the wake of clearing operations.

Also apparent after the reopening of Upper Tokai was the neglect of the Tokai Arboretum, a National Heritage Site first planted in 1885, and the destruction of a grove of protected champion redwoods, planted in 1887. Research revealed that while a handful of redwoods had been destroyed by fire, the majority of the fire-hardy trees were resprouting. This did not stop many of the still-healthy trees being felled. (The grove falls under the protection of the Department of Forestry, which opened a case against SANParks in 2019.)  When SANParks were questioned about the felling, they claimed to be unaware of it – this despite the fact that the road from the redwoods passes in front of the Tokai Manor House, which currently serves as TMNP headquarters. The huge lumber trucks carrying the giant logs could hardly have been missed.

During the time of the closure of Upper Tokai, SANParks installed a boom across the road immediately after the Tokai Picnic Site and a gate across the entrance to the parking at the Arboretum.  Neither have not been removed and what was free access now involves paid parking at the picnic site. For the elderly, the disabled and those with young children the one kilometre distance makes access challenging. Per the Tokai Manor Precinct Plan – which was approved in 2012 but has never materialised – the Arboretum parking is supposed to not only be open to the public, but more parking should have been provided. Repeated queries and requests over the last couple of years, to have the gate opened, have simply been ignored. Further, Lister’s Restaurant, a once popular tea room, named after the “father of forestry”, Joseph Storr Lister, is derelict and abandoned. The Arboretum, a sad shadow of its former self is also at considerable risk of fire, given the condition of the slopes of upper Tokai. We have been advised that SANParks doesn’t have the budget to manage it.

Many of the heritage buildings that surround the Tokai Manor House, which dates to 1796, are in shocking condition, and the new office block has stood empty since its completion over two years ago.

Further, an area in middle Tokai, comprising a mix of approximately 200 indigenous and non-invasive exotics, including both Podacarpus falcatus and Podocarpus latifolius (both protected under the National Forests Act 1998), which could have provided shade space for the community, were ringbarked and poisoned in 2018 – shortly after the judgement was handed down.  The now dead trees still stand – a risk to people and a fire risk to the area, which is directly adjacent to the popular Tokai Picnic site.

Accompanying all the above is the simple failure to engage with the public in any meaningful way. Emails querying concerns and offering assistance are frequently ignored.  Tokai District Riding Association and Tokai MTB build and maintain their own trails.  Tokai MTB provides its own security to mountain bikers in Upper Tokai, while in Lower Tokai, Parkscape runs its own security patrols, awareness drives and clean ups.

It is interesting to note that in response to questions regarding the TCMF put to Minister Creecy of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment earlier this year, she responded: “SANParks acknowledges that this is an area of underperformance.”  She further stated, “As Minister I have written to the chairperson of SANParks to express my dissatisfaction with the manner in which stakeholder management is being undertaken in this regard.”  We would respectfully suggest that the Minister looks further than stakeholder engagement to the broader issues of how the greater Tokai area is managed, and notes that the poor management of the area is representative of the management of the Park per se.


Images of the slopes of upper Tokai and the from the Tokai Arboretum indicating massive fire risk to the entire Tokai area