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Drakensberg Cableway Challenges

Challenges facing the Drakensberg cableway project
A 2016 compilation of concerned inputs coordinated by the Mountain Club of South Africa (KZN section)

Note: A pdf document, summarising the procedings of the 2016 Cableway Conference in Durban, is available for download at the bottom of this page.

The water production function of the Drakensberg cannot afford to be compromised.

Robin Gardner (2016)

The Maloti-Drakensberg range of mountains constitutes the principal water production area of South Africa. This strategic watershed depends upon the integrity and health of its montane grassland ecosystem to function efficiently. The Thukela River is the largest of the three main river systems draining the province of KwaZulu-Natal, with approximately 60% of its water originating from the Drakensberg escarpment. The upper station of the proposed Drakensberg cableway is planned to be positioned at the headwaters of the eBusingatha River, a tributary of the Thukela. The two cableway sub-stations, and the base-station, are planned to be positioned along the flanks of the same river. The eBusingatha River has been delivering pristine mountain water to downstream communities for generations. The establishment of the 7km cableway will indeed pose high risk to the entire Busingatha natural ecosystem, including the provision of high quality drinking water to those who live in the area. Refuse and sewage disposal systems will undoubtedly be part of the design, but due to the ever present possibility of human and mechanical error, from beginning of construction work and into the future, there will be the ever present associated high risk of pollution and degradation of the catchment area. The soil erosion that will undoubtedly arise from the significantly increased level of foot traffic on the summit in the vicinity of the upper station poses a threat to the future well-being of the Maloti-Drakensberg catchment area. The upper Senqu River catchment is destined to be a major provider of high quality water to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). Degeneration of the grassland ecosystem in the upper Senqu catchment area through increased human activity could have a major impact on the planned water supply of the river to the LHWP.

Full Text

South Africa has limited natural catchment areas and is considered a water-scarce country, having an average annual rainfall of only 490 mm (world average annual rainfall is 860 mm). The Maloti-Drakensberg range of mountains constitutes the principal water production area of South Africa 1. While occupying less than 5% of the country's surface area, it produces 25% of the country's water runoff. The areas along the international border between South Africa and Lesotho create a drainage divide on the escarpment that forms the watershed for two of southern Africa’s largest drainage basins, viz. those of the Thukela River and the Senqu/ Orange River 2. This strategic watershed depends upon the integrity and health of its montane grassland ecosystem to function efficiently on a sustainable basis. The natural vegetation cover reduces high surface water flows during frequent heavy summer rainstorms typical to the area preventing soil erosion 3. Apportioning of rainfall to downward and lateral permeation through the regolith (upper- and sub-soil strata) results in supplementation of groundwater stocks as well as filtering of the through-flow 3. The fragility and importance of the Maloti-Drakensberg catchment area is not to be underestimated. This was one of the original compelling reasons for the joint (Kingdom of Lesotho / Republic of South Africa) declaration of a wilderness conservation area termed the “Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Park” 2.

The Thukela River is the largest of the three main river systems draining the province of KwaZulu-Natal. It arises in the Drakensberg mountains very close to the border with Lesotho and meanders through central KwaZulu-Natal discharging into the Indian Ocean about 85km north of Durban 5. Total estimated flow from the Thukela is 3 881 million m3 annum-1, of which about 60% originates from the Drakensberg escarpment. The other two major river systems in KwaZulu-Natal, the Umkomazi (3 112 million m3 annum-1) and Umzimkulu (1 373 million m3 annum-1), derive approximately 25% and 15% of their water from the Drakensberg escarpment 6.

The Thukela Water Management Area (WMA) consists of the entire catchment of the Thukela River. Due to the mountainous nature of the Thukela WMA and its proximity to the Indian Ocean, the rainfall is high by South African standards, ranging from over 1 500 mm per annum along the Drakensberg escarpment to about 650 mm per annum in the central parts of the catchment 7. The upper station of the proposed Drakensberg cableway is planned to be positioned at the headwaters of the eBusingatha River, a tributary of the Thukela River. The two cableway sub-stations, and the base-station, are planned to be positioned along the flanks of the same river. The Busingatha valley is home to many of the amaZizi people who inhabit the region. The amaNgwane mountain people populate the area between Busingatha and Cathedral Peak. The eBusingatha River has been delivering pristine mountain water to downstream communities for generations. The establishment of the 7km cableway will indeed pose high risk to the entire Busingatha natural ecosystem, including the provision of high quality drinking water to those who live in the area 8, 9.

The projected base number of 300 000 visitors per annum to the cableway 10 undoubtedly poses a significant threat to the northern Drakensberg catchment area. The high amounts of refuse and sewerage that will be generated at all four cableway stations will be just two of the several environmental threats posed by the cableway development. Although refuse and sewage disposal and treatment systems will obviously be part of the design plans, due to the ever present possibility of human and mechanical error, from time of beginning of construction work, onwards into the future there will be an ever present threat of pollution to the pristine mountain environment posed by the cableway project. With a projected minimum of 300 000 visitors per annum, a high level of foot traffic in the vicinity and surrounds of the upper cableway station will undoubtedly have to be accommodated. Even with walkways installed, foot traffic in the grassland areas surrounding the upper station will undoubtedly increase dramatically, opening the way for decimation of the natural grassland groundcover. The temperate grassland vegetation on the Drakensberg summit is highly sensitive, and soils are typically shallow 3, 6. The soil erosion that will undoubtedly result from a high level of foot traffic will be the starting point of the degeneration of the surrounding wilderness and catchment areas.   On the Lesotho side of the Maloti/ Drakensberg watershed drainage divide, major tributaries of the Senqu River, such as the Khubedu,and the Senqu itself, are an important part of Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP)14, 15. The upper Senqu catchment is due to be a major provider of high quality water to Phase II dams such as the Polihali and Mashai, which will contribute to the existing Katse Dam storage and pumping system 16. A major portion of the headwaters of the Khubedu, including its wetlands,are in the areas immediately west of the site of the proposed cableway upper station. Increased human activity, particularly foot and vehicle traffic,in the area poses a high risk to the montane grassland ecosystem in the area, and ultimately of degeneration of a major sector of the LHWP upper catchment areas17.

The cableway cannot fail to have serious and irreversible impacts on many of the major rivers which rise on the summit close to where the upper station is envisaged, almost on the boundary of the World Heritage Site. The likely cumulative, irreversible impacts on the mountain and its wilderness is a prospect that cannot be ignored 8. Tampering with any aspect pertaining to the natural fresh water supply of a water-scarce country such as South Africa should be considered nothing short of irresponsible recklessness.

Climate change poses a significant threat to South Africa’s water resources. Under all future climate scenarios considered by Long Term Adaptation Scenarios (LTAS), higher frequencies of flooding and drought events are projected for our country 11. South Africa is situated in a region with increasing levels of water scarcity and water-quality problems, compounded by population growth and issues of social and economic development. The introduction of additional stresses on water resources arising from potential climate change can intensify these problems over much of the country 12. The general conclusion from most studies is that southern African streamflow is projected to decrease significantly by 2050, with a streamflow decrease of up to 18% being predicted for the Thukela catchment 13. It stands to reason, therefore, that current and future generations should focus on protecting existing natural rainfall capture mechanisms, such as the temperate grassland ecosystems currently intact within the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg catchment, rather than exploiting them.


Potential Risk to Conservation From the Construction of the Proposed Drakensberg Cable Car.

Jan Phelan (2016)

The most significant impacts for conservation from the proposed cable car are likely to be with regard to the following:

  • High risk for endangered Bearded and Cape Vultures which breed here.
  • Exacerbate the invasive alien plant problem which is the single biggest threat to the WHS.
  • Increase the risk of the existing fungal threat to amphibians.
  • Possible degradation of a fragile alpine landscape and sensitive biodiversity
  • Visitor Safety Risk owing to precipitous terrain and unpredictable weather patterns
  • Detract from attractiveness of Community Nature Reserve
  • Potential Indirect impacts (including sociological and cultural) need input from management custodian of the WHS (EKZNW).
There may well be others once the full extent of the proposed development proposal is known and the envisaged infrastructure at the base and upper cable station are set out. Further details are included below.

Once details of the development are known, the magnitude and extent of the risks for conservation can be determined and prioritised. The following are some indications of the nature of these risks.

Bearded Vultures (Critically endangered in Southern Africa) and the Cape Vulture (Endemic and Endangered) These red data species whose numbers are declining rapidly, are two of the iconic faunal species in the Drakensberg, and play a significant role in the ecology of this magnificent wilderness area. There are less than 100 breeding pairs of Bearded Vultures left and less than 625 breeding pairs of Cape Vultures left in the Berg, and the cable way is within the territory one of the breeding Bearded Vulture pairs. They have been breeding here for a long time, and if these birds are disturbed, they could well abandon the nest and possibly not find a good alternative site.

Vultures have amazing eyesight, but they are always looking down in an attempt to spot potential food sources, so it is suspected that they will not be vigilant for cableways spanning across valleys and up against cliff faces. It is anticipated that they could become collision victims killed by the cable way as they soar the valleys below the escarpment or fly along cliffs to access their nests or roost sites. If one of the birds is killed, there are no non-breeding adults around, so no potential new mates and therefore it will have a significant negative impact on the breeding. An impact on breeding adults will negatively affect the population growth rate which is already severely compromised for both species of vultures, in that the populations of both Bearded and Cape Vultures are declining. (Birdlife Africa Red Data Book for Birds of Southern Africa)

There is an even higher collision risk to juvenile birds which are more mobile than the adults and move along the whole length of the Drakensberg. Another species prone to this same collision risk is the Verroux’s Eagle (Black Eagle). A publication by Tim Reid which looks at flying behaviour and habitat use indicates that there is a 95-100% use of the area below cliffs, and the whole of the Northern Drakensberg is therefore a high risk area.

A cableway development must take cognizance of the impact on biodiversity, especially where adequate mitigatory measures cannot be implemented.

Introduction of Invasive Alien Plant Species to High Altitudes via Cable Ways. Currently the presence and spread of invasive plant species is one of the most significant threats to the Maluti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site (WHS). There is work being done in other areas in the world on the threat of the introduction and spread of invasive species in high altitude areas through cable cars and the relevance of this to the Drakensberg situation is being assessed. It is the increased propagule pressures which are the risk, the risk of seeds pre-adapted to high altitude and a cold environment being introduced via clothing, socks etc. The precautionary principle should apply until full understanding of the situation has been gained.

Funds critical for the control of the existing invasive alien plants are currently not available and the risk of the introducing pre-adapted seed will only serve to exacerbate this problem.

Fungal Threat to Amphibians The fungus which has been responsible for the global demise of amphibians is present in the Drakensberg area. There is concern that with people being transported rapidly to the top of the Drakensberg, this will exacerbate the spread of this fungus and introduce it to new, pristine areas which have until now not been affected. There are 26 amphibian species in the Maluti-Drakensberg Park WHS and mitigatory measures should be taken to minimise any risk posed to this component of the biodiversity from a cable way.

Fragile Landscape The upper reaches of the Drakensberg constitute a fragile alpine landscape susceptible to degradation from human pressure, trampling, waste and pollution and once lost cannot be restored. The area has been kept in good condition (aside from some overgrazing) because of its very remoteness and because it has been difficult to reach. If one removes these two safeguards / barriers then there is a risk of it not surviving owing to human pressures. The unique flora and associated fauna are in delicate balance and are very vulnerable to disturbance. The presence of an upper cable station suggests the possibility of a road from Lesotho to the cable station for management, maintenance and other purposes. Vehicles tend not to stay on roads, and in addition to vehicles there have already been cases of motor bikes and quad bikes leaving roads and driving across the terrain. Indirect impacts of a road include a change in settlement patterns because the area is more easily accessible. If fuel and wood are more readily available, it is easier for people to live in higher areas all year round leading to an increase in livestock pressure. This is a high risk to a vulnerable habitat.

Visitor Safety Risk The upper cable car station is only 200m from the Royal Natal section of the Maluti-Drakensberg Park WHS, so visitors are bound to walk into this section. The terrain is precipitous and dangerous and as visitors will be unaware of the hazards of unpredictable weather including mist, the possibility of lost and /or injured people cannot be ruled out. This becomes the problem of EKZNW who manage the WHS and is therefore a conservation problem because the safety of visitors will be at risk.

There is an unmarked international border issue up here, and fairly recently some attacks on hikers occurred. It is anticipated that cable way users could include international visitors and exposing these or any visitors to risks of this nature could have consequences for tourism, aside safety risk to the tourists.

Community Nature Reserve For almost a decade work has been underway to proclaim a Community Nature Reserve. There has been work with the Stewardship programme and a management plan has been drawn up. The economic model looked at aspects such as carbon sequestration, water generation and tourism would be an important part. The presence of the cable way over this nature reserve would detract from the attractiveness of the reserve for certain visitors and could impact on the economic viability.

UNESCO has been very adamant that the EIA should include a full Heritage Impact Assessment which would include sociological and cultural impacts. For communities living in the Businghata Valley, part of the cultural value of wilderness is that they can see the landscape as it was seen by their ancestors. A cable way cutting across this view of the amphitheatre from the base will create an irreversible impact.

Terms of Reference for the EIA The cable way will result in a number of indirect impacts including those of a sociological or cultural nature. They will also relate to the sustainability of the management of impacts, such as a road on top of the escarpment. There is serious concern as to whether EKZNW would be involved in the setting of the Terms of Reference for the EIA. It is seen as critical that the WHS Authority, appointed by the Minister i.e. EKZNW, be consulted in the drawing up of Terms of Reference for the EIA.

Aside from the EIA, UNESCO has issued a directive for the State party of SA to furnish evidence of the joint Management Plan to control invasive alien plants in the WHS as well as a fire management plan. This has to be completed and submitted before the end of 2016.

Conclusion It is hoped that the above issues give some idea of the types of considerations and potential risks a cable way could hold for conservation. Each will require careful thought in order to determine appropriate terms of reference for an EIA and relevant studies so as to arrive at a decision which will have a sustainable outcome.

World heritage status may be under threat if guidelines are not followed.

Murray Sanders (2016)

The World Heritage Committee notes the State Party of South Africa’s agreement to carry-out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the proposed cableway, and requests that it should include a detailed Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA), in line with IUCN’s World Heritage Advice Note on Environmental Assessment and ICOMOS’ Guidelines on HIAs for Cultural World Heritage properties, and also requests the State Party of South Africa to submit a copy of the completed assessment to the World Heritage Centre, for review by the Advisory Bodies.
This document and further details are available on the web via the link below:

Without a verdict of 'feasible', and without a favourable EIA, further promotion of the cableway project at public expense is unjustified.

Michael Relihan (2016)

A 'Feasibility Study for the Development of a Drakensberg Cable Car', and a 'Final Draft Business Plan for the Development of a Drakensberg Cable Car' were released for this project in 2013 by Graham Muller Associates. The 2013 feasibility study report highlights major challenges relating to weather, environmental impacts and community involvement issues, and these have received considerable media attention. The 2013 business plan was reviewed by Jonathan Newman towards the end of the same year and is available online The business plan review highlighted serious concerns with the economic feasibility of the cableway project and these concerns have been echoed in various other media reports available online. Nevertheless, EDTEA have released no official response to the review that addresses the concerns raised.

The KZN Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs department (EDTEA) and affiliates have promoted the Drakensberg cableway project actively as a fait complete by various means for a few years at public expensive. Nevertheless no EIA report is available to date and the initiation process of this is questioned! A second feasibility study was tendered for in May 2016, as many unaddressed public objections on practical and economic feasibility issues were raised to the 2013 feasibility study. The recently advertised new tender for a full feasibility study are tacit admission by EDTEA that major questions about the project need answers before the project can be considered 'feasible'. Moreover, only once an EIA has been completed can any official decision be made about whether the project may proceed. It is high time that a brake be put on promoting a project that lacks the support of both a positive feasibility verdict, and a positive EIA.

The 2013 Feasibility study, Draft business plan, and reactions to these
In 2013, then KZN Department of Economic Development & Tourism (DEDT) commissioned a feasibility by Graham Muller Associates for a proposed cableway in the northern Drakensberg to the escarpment at a suitable site.   This feasibility study was completed in July 2013 1 and proposed that the base station be built at Busingatha (in an area overgrown with wattle trees) with the cableway running up a spur adjacent to the Busingatha Valley up to near the summit on Mount Amery where a top station would be constructed.  The proposed cableway would be a short distance south of the Royal Natal National Park and just outside the world heritage site.  The land identified for the basal part was part of the Ingonyama Trust and this was occupied by the AmaZizi clan.  This feasibility study comprising 82 pages reported on a broad variety of challenges including economic feasibility, environmental impacts, weather concerns and community impacts.  The summary verdict for this feasibility study was "The project team found that the development of a cableway at the site would be feasible"1 
An associated 'technical description and prefeasibility study' was also released by KUKA2 in September 2013 focusing on the engineering and construction options and details.
In October 2013 Graham Miller Associates released a 'Final Draft Business Plan for the Development of a Drakensberg Cable Car'3 that was also commissioned by DEDT.
Soon after this the African Conservation Trust (ACT) issued 'Initial comments' on the project referring to these documents4.  Some key comments were: (i) regarding use figures: "We  also feel that the initial estimates are grossly over any real tourism visits and request more in depth market research" and "The 300,000 visitors at R300 each and growing at 10% per year is a large number for these areas, given that total numbers to the northern berg are about half this" (ii) The allocated upper area was being managed as part of the World Heritage Site (WHS) (iii). A map on page 19 of the feasibility study showed an incorrect boundary to the WHS. (iv) the project would require a large supporting infrastructure to sustain it and this had not been quantified. (v). "Consultants confirmed that the cableway itself would provide only about 30 local jobs"; (vi) "the draft Feasibility Study by-passed the Steering Committee, with unnecessary and rather unseemly haste, and has already been accepted by DEDT"4.   Their first major recommendation was that "A full Environmental Impact Assessment needs to be conducted", but they also emphasized the economic value of the Drakensberg, as well as a need to understand the impact on affected mountain communities 4.
An in-depth review of the 'Final Draft Business Plan'3 was conducted by Newman Accounting and Tax Services5 and released on December 31.  This 19 page review evaluated many aspects but a key problem identified was whether the target market would be willing to spend "R350 per adult and R200 per child", and moreover that they would have great interest in repeat trips5.  Another key issue was how the projected "300 000 cableway users" envisaged to make it sustainable could be achieved when currently "approximately 135 000 individuals visit the Northern Drakensberg each year"5.  This review concluded with "With reference to the review that has been conducted, given the various material aspects of the Final Draft Business Plan there does not appear to be sufficient documentation and market research to justify the conclusion that the cableway is financially feasible or can reasonably be expected to draw the required numbers to the region to justify the development."5  This review as also reviewed by another chartered accountant and UKZN lecturer6 whose verdict was "Based on my review, nothing has come to my attention that causes me to believe that the Report by Jonathan Newman, is not logical and does not address some of the financial concerns with the original Draft Business Plan of Graham Muller Associates6.  These documents were forwarded to Graham Muller Associates forthwith7.
Media reports soon followed which echoed the objections to the feasibility report and business plan for the cableway8,28. In particular a 27 minute documentary on national TV was released soon after as part of the 50_50 program9.  Among the key people interviewed in the program were: The MEC: Michael Mabuyakhulu, Graham Muller, Oscar Mthimkhulu (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife), Sonya Kruger (a vulture expert), 2 AmaZizi local residents, Godfrey Miya (AmaZizi tribal spokesman), and central Drakensberg residents9.  The program highlighted that strong controversy remained over the proposed cableway especially with regard to environmental impact risks and unhappiness of the local resident community with the developments at that point, and therefore that its feasibility had not been accepted by key stakeholders9.  Moreover, to date EDTEA have released no official response to the review of the 2013 business plan that addresses the concerns raised.

Antagonism of some groups such as the hiking community, local tribal community and other interested and affected parties
A web site ( was set up to promote the Drakensberg Cableway by what is the newly formulated KZN Economic Development, Tourism & Environmental Affairs (EDTEA) department10.  To date this website has presented only positive sentiments about the project without acknowledgment that strongly negative perceptions exist.  In contrast to this, a blog on the cableway was set up by Vertical Endeavour a website11 largely representative of the hiking and climbing community of the Drakensberg and the vast majority of input was about serious concerns that this project was worthwhile.  Another website ( was also set up by an anonymous individual to archive documents and media releases on the Drakensberg cableway proposal and the history of events12.  This website has archived considerable resources on the project and its history12.  The cableway has also been allocated its own Facebook page13.  A petition website against the cableway has also been set up by AVAAZ14.  As at 2016-06-18 there were 1717 digital signatories against the cableway14.
A public meeting was arranged at Busingatha on 23 November 2013 which was attended by a large number of people15,16,17,18.  The description of attendance varies as follows: "attended by more than 20 000 community members"17  "According to different reports between 10 000 - 15 000 people were present"18, "which was attended by more than 10 000 people"26.   It has been stated by Graham Muller on TV that the AmaZizi clan living at Busingatha number about 2000 people9, so where did so many people come from?
In December 2013, soon after this gathering, a letter of complaint was published by Sigungu Miya as brother of the late nkosi E.M. Miya of the AmaZizi.19:

"FIRSTLY: The MEC Mabuyakhulu, DEDT has shown a complete lack of respect to the royal family of the AmaZizi, even after the loss of Nkosi Miya. They never formally introduced the proposed Busingatha cableway to the late Nkosi Miya and they have never come to consult at the Amazizi Tribal Office.
SECONDLY: Without any consultation with us, the office of Mabayukhlu put up their big tents at Busingatha on 23 November 2013, the day before the burial of the late Inkosi’s brother, who died soon after our Inkosi, and who was to be buried on 24 November. On 23 November while we, as the family, were preparing for the funeral of our Nkosi’s brother and were bringing his body from the mortuary, there were loud speakers in a mourning tribe."
Their letter states that they did not support the Cableway project at that stage19.  Another media statement followed soon after where the reiterated their complaint stating "the meeting held in the Busingatha on 23 November 2013 was held without consulting us. ... We know that many buses came in that day bringing many people from areas outside Busingatha and the AmaZizi."20.  It has been reported that people were bussed in for this event "as far away as Estcourt"18.  In contrast the website reported about this event as follows: "The consultation was held to engage with the community regarding the project, there was great participation, members indicating what the project of
this magnitude would do to uplift their livelihoods and also the local economy"17.
It has been reported to me in the region that the cableway project has subsequently stirred up serious factions with strongly opposed views on the project. The new nkosi of the AmaZizi has not released a statement about how they currently regard the cableway project.
Letters of complaint have also been issued by the Wilderness Action Group regarding notice of a public meeting "on 5 December 2013, with an advert appearing  in the newspaper only two days prior to the meeting, blatantly violates the EIA regulations", and also regarding an "inordinately short period for comments for a proposed development"21.

A comparison between the Table Mountain cableway and the proposed Busingatha cableway
Comparisons have been made between the long-running cableway at Table Mountain and the proposed development.  Some of the comparisons presented below show that major differences apply to the proposed development which pertain to the feasibility of the project.

  1. Altitude of the top cableway station and the altitude gained: The Table Mountain cableway tops out at 1067m with altitude gain of 765m22,23, whereas the proposed Busingatha cableway tops out at about 3100m (some figures of 3300m also cited but do not make sense) with altitude gain of about 1600m1.
  2. Distance of cableway and expected travel time one way: The Table Mountain cableway has cables of about 1200m that allow a travel time of 4 to 5 minutes22,23.  The proposed cableway is about 7 km long with a travel time of about 25 minutes but greatly affected by gondola system used1,2.
  3. Terrain at the top station: The Table Mountain top area is relatively flat (hence the name) and composed of hard rock which is highly resistant to foot or animal erosion, but the Mount Amery area, like much of the escarpment, has much sloping ground largely of thinly vegetated ground that is much more susceptible to foot erosion1.  Restriction of tourists to use of controlled foot paths has been advocated in the 2013 feasibility study as a consequence1.
  4. Vehicle and pedestrian access to the top station: There are several moderate hiking routes to the Table Mountain cableway top station and some people walk up and take the cablecar down (or visa versa).  In addition road access to close to the top of Table Mountain not far from the cable car is present.  In contrast Mt Amery has no four wheel vehicle accessible road for many kilometers and the hiking option in or out is an epic adventure.
  5. Distance from an international airport: The Table Mountain base station is about 25km from an international airport (about 24 minutes travel)5, whereas Busingatha is about 311 km from King Shaka Airport (about 3.5 hours travel)24.
  6. Ticket costs for return: The Table Mountain Cableway cost is currently R240/adult and R115/child but special rates apply also for certain users at certain times23,25, while the 2013 feasibility study for the Busingatha cableway proposed ticket prices of R350/adult and R200/child1,5.
  7. Unfenced international border: Table Mountain is an iconic and fully South African mountain. Cablecar users on Table Mountain have no need to consider an international boundary. In contrast, virtually the entire length of the border between Lesotho and KZN is unfenced. The border follows a line from summit to saddle to summit for each peak with a slope that drains towards the eastern seaboard and the summit of such peaks belong to South Africa. The unfenced border with Lesotho near Mount Amery is frequently crossed by poor shepherds and their grazing animals. With such a large number of tourists arriving, there may be a need for fencing at the border and a border post to be set up and this adds considerable challenges to the cableway project.
  8. Weather: The Table Mountain Cableway is not subject to the extreme winter cold that is experienced at the Mount Amery location. Wind and thunderstorm hazards can be severe at Mount Amery, and may be worse than Table Mountain, affording more days when the cable car may be unsafe to operate.

Additional economic aspects of the proposed Busingatha cableway
MEC Mabuyakhulu and EDTEA have promoted the concept of the cableway as a boon to tourism revenue for the province that should bring in millions 26,27,28.  The Drakensberg Cableway project has been included in the KZN long-term tourism master plan28.   However, funding models to date have all listed taxpayer dependent funding and Ithala Bank is currently the main state-linked funding entity.  No foreign donors or investors have yet been named.  Estimated costs to set up the cableway are in the region of R500 million or more 27,30,31.  The allocated costs for different aspects as indicated by the 2013 business plan are quite high such as "R75 000 per month" for public relations at least 12 months before project completion, R50 000/month to develop social media pages and R20 000/month to keep this up to date, R1.4 million on magazine advertising 4 months before opening, R500 000/month on newspaper adverts, and advertising of R20 million/year after the project gets under way3.  A budget of R800 000 has been allocated for the EIA29.  Cost figures incurred for the 2013 feasibility studies have not been found.  Simulation videos of the proposed cableway setup, and a radio advert in Zulu have been put on Youtube and the costs for this are unknown32,33.

The EIA and a new feasibility study
A tender was advertised in May to June 2015 for conducting of an EIA for this project34,35.  This comes several years after the project had been announced and was promoted26,36,37,38.  Another startling announcement was a recently-issued new tender "to complete a Full Feasibility Study for the development of the Drakensberg Cable Car and related activities" for which the budget has not been disclosed39.  This is a tacit admission by EDTEA that the cableway project does not yet have the verdict of 'feasible'!  In addition, media reports cite MEC Mabuyakhulu as stating that there are plans to extend the Busingatha cableway an additional 5km from Mount Amery to the AfriSki resort in Lesotho40,41, which is something not addressed by the 2013 feasiblity study, though upgrading a road track to the AfriSki resort was mentioned1.  Ezemvelo chief executive Bandile Mkhize has complained about "speed of the public participation process and short period suggested for a full environmental impact assessment" 38.   Recent media reports referred to a very costly planned overseas delegation to visit cableways around the world, which fortunately was panned in favor of running a local conference in Durban on the cableway42,43,44.  An initial conference was scheduled for April 2016 at extremely short notice and then canceled shortly before it was to run44,45.   The date for the conference has recently moved to June 20 and 21 with details on the website10.
 I was startled to find a media statement reporting that an EIA is already running 45, but I have been informed that "the EIA was withdrawn on the same day that the tender was issued for the full feasibility study". The cableway project has to be fully defined before an EIA is done, as significant changes to the proposed development would require a new EIA to be done at great expense.  Key interested and affected parties should be aware of the status of an EIA, so any secrecy about the initiation of an EIA would be a violation of Regulation 41 of the NEMA act46.

The fact that a new feasibility study has recently been tendered for, and that an EIA is not commenced indicate the Drakensberg Cableway project cannot yet be described as feasible.  Numerous government departments have had budgets slashed this financial year to save costs and yet this project continues to drain major funds.  It is time that the vast flow of public funds to promote this project be curtailed until a properly conducted feasibility study delivers a 'feasible' verdict, and this is backed up by a properly-conducted EIA.  There are other worthwhile causes to spend funds on such as: (i) controlling the terrible proliferation of alien and invasive weeds that threaten the Drakensberg and many natural areas in the province, (ii) the need for a rail link from King Shaka airport to major centers such as Durban, Pinetown and Pietermaritzburg, (iii) alternative job-creating projects in rural areas that enhance tourism and local entrepeneurship.


Report on expected negative impacts of the proposed Drakensberg Cableway on key attributes of the Drakensberg.

Bill Bainbridge and Ilan Lax (Wilderness Action Group) (2016)

The proposed cableway is not in keeping with the legislation and policies that protect key attributes of the mountains (unspoiled scenic beauty, wilderness resources and cultural character). It will unfortunately have severe negative impacts. The KZN Drakensberg comprises two components: the Maloti Drakensberg World Heritage Site and the traditional lands of impoverished rural communities, in urgent need of sustainable development to relieve their indigent state.

A suite of laws and policies have been put in place in terms of the requirements of UNESCO for World Heritage Sites and for the protection of such unique environments under the Constitution of South Africa. In terms of these laws various planning instruments have been adopted, viz., the Integrated Management Plan, the Development Concept Plan and the Wilderness Management Plan. Cableways are specifically noted as non-conforming developments for the area, even in the buffer zone. There is no doubt that a mass tourism instrument such as a cableway will irreversibly and inevitably destroy the present unspoiled natural beauty and wilderness character of many parts of the mountains, by imposing on it substantial artificial physical structures that are an indispensable element of any cableway, compounded by an artificial lighting system, often also compounded further by noisy activities including helicopter flights, not to mention the necessary likelihood of a road or roads being required during construction and subsequently for maintenance and access purposes. Such structures will also pose a threat to various rare biodiversity. It is difficult to determine without reference to detailed specifics whether a compromise can be reached between the need to protect the Drakensberg and the apparently opposing need to provide sustainable development to provide employment and improve the livelihoods of these rural communities.

More information must be provided, with clear details on how the cableway will benefit the rural communities; what alternative development options have been considered; and most importantly, how the decision to go ahead with the project to construct a cableway was arrived at and what considerations were weighed up which justify the decision. This information must be provided in a more transparent manner with sufficient detail to enable interested and affected parties to be better informed and thus be properly consulted.

The Drakensberg mountain range is a national treasure with unique attributes which are recognized internationally, and are described as being of “outstanding universal value” 1. These attributes are important both for the people of South Africa and the international community.

The proposed cableway will unfortunately have severe negative impacts on certain key attributes of the mountains, and consequently also on the legislation and policies designed to protect these.

The unique attributes of the Drakensberg enjoy a world-wide reputation. The mountain system is an environmental phenomenon that evokes our national pride as well as the interest and concerns of the international community. These mountains deserve our utmost respect and efforts to protect them. The attributes of this unique mountain system include,but are not limited to the following:

  • The scenic beauty, wild, unspoiled wilderness character, which the Wilderness Action Group and others have fought long and hard to protect and promote;
  • The geomorphology (or the way the mountains were formed);
  • The biodiversity, including rare species such as an endemic plant or animals, or one of the iconic species such as the Bearded Vulture and Cape Vulture;
  • The water resources (the most important water source area on the subcontinent recognized as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention 2) and other environmental goods and services;
  • The cultural heritage (especially its rock art);
  • The opportunities for recreational and educational activities.

It is one of only 23 sites globally to have been inscribed as both a natural as well as a cultural site.

The KZN Drakensberg comprises two distinct portions:

  • The State land protected areas, the Maloti Drakensberg Park which is a proclaimed World Heritage Site, as inscribed by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee; and
  • The mountainous areas of the upper uThukela area in the Northern Drakensberg, which comprises communal land occupied by previously disadvantaged traditional communities, which has been the subject of collaborative planning initiatives to i.a. identify candidate protected areas, with wilderness zones, within its boundaries.

Protective laws and policies
A suite of protective laws and policies have been put in place by both the national and provincial governments to protect these internationally important attributes, some of the most important of which are listed below 3. In terms of these laws various planning instruments have been adopted, viz., the Integrated Management Plan, the Development Concept Plan and the Wilderness Management Plan. These have been formulated by planning teams and approved by decision-makers over a period of many years. They have also received support at many levels, both internationally (through an international convention) as well as locally. See the list of some relevant laws in the references 4. Cableways are specifically noted as undesirable and non-conforming development activities even in the buffer zone.

Two of these attributes(the scenic beauty and wild unspoiled character or wilderness value, and cultural character and significance) are amongst the key tourist attractions that draw international and local visitors to the area.

A Buffer Zone (“BZ”) is in the process of being delineated, for which a draft policy is also in the process of being finalized,in consultation with stakeholders. Prior to this a policy instrument known as the Special Case Area Plan for the Drakensberg (“the SCAP”5) was developed to guide appropriate development in the approaches to what is now the WHS. The SCAP will be replaced by the BZ and its policy. These instruments are designed to protect the integrity of the special attributes of the park as well as of the buffer zone itself and to make those of the park accessible to visitors. This is especially applicable to the site proposed for the cableway because it adjoins the boundary of the WHS. The BZ will run the entire distance of the KZN Drakensberg, including the Upper uThukela area from the Free State to East Griqualand. In this area, it protects the candidate protected areas referred to below.

The primary role of the BZ includes the following:

  • Ensure the persistence of important species and ecological processes;
  • Promote appropriate broad based and sustainable economic activity;
  • Preserve, adapt, restore and stabilise cultural heritage and secure the sustainable use,
  • Preserve and improve the quality & quantity of water from catchments in the Site & Buffer Zone;
  • Protect and enhance the unspoiled wilderness experience of Site users;
  • Protect, enhance and restore the unique and memorable character – the sense of place - that underpins the image of the WHS and its approaches;

It should thus promote sustainable business opportunities for residents of the buffer zone, based on the WHS and its unique attributes. It will serve a similar role to the candidate protected areas in the upper uThukeka area.

What alternatives?
Environmental legislation requires that, with any large development, appropriate alternative developments are also considered. (Section 24(4)(b) National Environmental Management Act). Such alternatives should provide for holistic and alternative approaches to meaningful and equitable development and conservation in both the AmaZizi and AmaNgwane Traditional Authority Areas which neighbour each other and which together share a common boundary with the Maloti-Drakensberg World Heritage Site. It is common knowledge that there are longstanding existing community conservation initiatives and human resources in both the areas. It is also common knowledge that these initiatives could be used to safeguard invaluable ecosystem assets of water, biodiversity, wilderness and culture while, at the same time, stimulating widespread entrepreneurship and economic growth. It is in this context that alternative but complementary livelihood strategies and development opportunities are relevant. Residents of the Mnweni have as noted above engaged in a planning exercise that considered alternative livelihood options. This is not being taken into account.

Unlikely as it may seem to those who have not experienced or who do not appreciate their value, these attributes are valued by a substantial support group. There is no doubt that a mass tourism instrument such as a cableway will irreversibly and inevitably destroy the present unspoiled natural beauty and wilderness character of many parts of the mountains, by imposing on it substantial artificial physical structures that are an indispensable element of any cableway, compounded by an artificial lighting system, often also compounded by noisy helicopter flights, not to mention the possibility of a road or roads during construction and subsequently for maintenance and access purposes. By and large, physical development has to date been restricted to the peripheries and their design and siting being especially muted, so as not to impinge on the unspoiled Inner Berg.

Is compromise possible?
Neither the need-imperative to construct a cableway, nor the location where the cableway is proposed for construction, have been published with any serious detail. Consequently it is difficult to make suggestions for an appropriate compromise. One possibility would be to select a location where development has already taken place, and its negative impact already felt, such as in the corridor of the Sani Pass road. Another possibility could be from Witsieshoek Car Park, and onto the escarpment, with the route going over the existing chain ladders again these are developed routes that have been there for many years.

This does not however, solve the problem of how to assist the upper uThukela traditional communities. It is suggested that these communities be properly consulted about the range of appropriate land uses and livelihood development options suitable to the area’s unique character.

Provisional conclusions
It is recognized that the impoverished communities of the upper uThukela areas need investment in forms of sustainable development to provide employment and improved livelihoods. However, in the light of the limited information so far made available, it is difficult to see how a mass tourism form of infrastructure (such as a cableway) can fulfil this need, or how it can be imposed on the conservative planning structure in place in the Drakensberg, without long-lasting negative impact on the internationally recognised unique attributes of this mountain system. If the purpose of the cableway is indeed to benefit the local communities, the proponents should indicate how they will benefit.

Accordingly, such missing information must be provided in a more transparent manner with sufficient detail to enable interested and affected parties to be better informed and thus properly consulted.


  • 1 UNESCO, United Nations Educational , Scientific & Cultural Organisation
  • 2 Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat.Ramsar (Iran), 2 February 1971
  • 3 See list below.
  • 4 uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site:Integrated Management Plan. Version 1.0 (2012); ConceptDevelopment Plan: (2011); Wilderness Management Plan (2011) -EzemveloKwaZuluNatalWildlife, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
  • 5 Special Case Area Plan for the Drakensberg.Town and Regional Planning Commission, February 2001, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Some other Applicable International Legislation (including relevant Regulations):

World Heritage Convention 1972;
RAMSAR Convention 1971;
Cross Border Treaties/Conventions/Legislation;
Relevant Lesotho Legislation; and
Relevant transboundary/biodiversity legislation.

Some Applicable National Legislation (including relevant Regulations):
Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act, No. 108 of 1996;
World Heritage Convention Act, No. 49 of 1999;
National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, No. 57 of 2003;
National Environmental Management Act, No. 107 of 1998;
National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, No. 10 of 2004;
National Water Act, No. 36 of 1998;
National Forests Act, No. 84 of 1998;
Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act, No. 16 of 2013;
Local Government: Municipal Systems Act, No. 32 of 2000;
Local Government: Municipal Structures Act, No. 117 of 1998;
KwaZulu-Natal Ingonyama Trust Act, No. of 1994;
The National Heritage Resources Act, No. 25 of 1999;
Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act, No. 43 of 1983.

Some Applicable Provincial Legislation (including relevant Regulations):

KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Management Act, No. 9 of 1997;
KwaZulu-Natal Heritage Act, No. 4 of 2008;
Planning laws;
Traditional Authorities;

Some Management & Planning Instruments Applicable:
Managements plans:

uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site: Integrated Management Plan. Version 1.0 (2012).Ezemvelo Kwa Zulu Natal Wildlife, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site: Concept Development Plan: (2011). Ezemvelo Kwa Zulu Natal Wildlife, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site: Wilderness Management Plan (2011). Ezemvelo Kwa Zulu Natal Wildlife, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
Special Case Area Plan for the Drakensberg. Town and Regional Planning Commission, (February 2001). Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Daniel Ryding,
26 Jan 2017, 00:34