Grey, green, brown and olive: My walk with Dr Ian Player

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As tributes to Dr Ian Player pour in from across the planet, his legacy will prevail to the extent that those who follow him also simultaneously undertake a journey inward and a journey outward. Inward to contemplate the gift of life within, and outward in actions to change social, political, economic and religious systems that are life-destroying.


As a tension-relieving entertainment event during the 2002 International Wilderness Conference in Port Elizabeth Ian Player and Credo Mutwa put on a joint “storytelling around the campfire” evening performance. The hall was darkened to simulate a night in the bush, and the stage was set with a fake, but plausibly realistic fire which flickered to create atmosphere. Both men were great storytellers, able to connect universal themes with particular human experience. Credo and Ian danced with languid storytelling while the silently respectful audience listened attentively. Suddenly the sound of a deep, low, grunting and snorting sound echoed through the sound system. Startled, my first thought was that the producer had added a bush sound effect to lend authenticity. Was it a hippo or a buffalo? My elementary bush craft couldn’t tell. It was neither. Ian had fallen asleep in the middle of Credo’s story. Ian was human, after all.

I like to think Ian was communing with his Self in a Jungian-inspired dream moment to prepare him to respond to Credo, because Carl Jung’s thinking and philosophy ran deep. But rather than simply sitting around a campfire philosophizing, Ian had much to show by way of practical achievement. He thought deeply and acted boldly, both in full measure. He combined the reflective journey of a pilgrim with the active journey of a missionary, without being overwhelmed by either or torn apart by their mutual impact.

I attribute my own commencement of both to an experience of my first Wilderness Leadership Trail in 1972 when I was a pimply-faced 17-year-old boy. In founding the Wilderness Leadership School, Ian Player had a deep intuitive sense that the human species was on an evolutionary dead end for as long as we hubristically asserted dominance over nature, and continued to use our technologically extended arms to plunder its bountiful resources. It wasn’t Ian who led the trail, but Don Richards, who was part of the pioneering group who had formed the Wilderness Leadership School with Ian two years earlier. But I knew Ian Player by reputation as the hero of the story that brought the White Rhino back from virtual extinction. To be given the chance to spend three days walking with friends from the First Dundee Boy Scout Troop into the successfully conserved domain of the White Rhino in the Umfolozi Game Reserve was priceless. Yet the paradigm-shifting experience commenced not with an adrenaline-charged tracking of an ill-tempered wild animal, but sitting around a pile of rhino shit! The rhino midden served as raw material for Don to introduce us to the intricate web of life and to learn how, left to itself, nature does not need to be conserved. Nothing is wasted. Every species has its niche. Resourced by the primal elements of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water, an ecology evolves.

So commenced a three-day immersion experience to trek ever deeper into the unspoiled Wilderness area of Umfolozi game reserve. The absence of any modern industrial comforts and distractions opened our minds to deepen our consciousness apace with the walk. Evolution, both in its biological and spiritual trajectory, doesn’t stop. I returned home feeling more evolved.

It signalled the shift within me from a dull ‘grey’ to a vibrant ‘green’ consciousness, which I discovered has considerably more shades than fifty.

Forty-six years later Dr Ian Player presented the SAB Environmental Journalism awards for 2009. It was one of the greatest highlights of my life. Firstly because Ian honored another important spiritual mentor to me, Bishop Geoff Davies, who in 2005 led a group of us to form the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute. The “Green Bishop” won the SAB Environmentalist of the Year award.

On top of that Don Guy’s film “Pondo People” was voted the winner in the Broadcast Category. As one of the judges, Ian had a big influence in this. He felt the competing entrants were too ‘green’ in hue and too ‘white’ in complexion. Pondo People was ‘brown’ and ‘black’, a testimony to another major shift in consciousness that had occurred over the previous decade.

The following background explains.

In 1994-95 a major controversy erupted over competing alternatives for ‘development’ for people living adjacent to the St Lucia nature reserve on the KZN North Coast. Ian had played a significant role in the “Save St Lucia” campaign to convince the newly formed Government of National Unity not to award mining rights to Richards Bay Minerals to mine the coastal dunes of St Lucia for titanium, and instead to pursue an eco-tourism strategy to conserve it as a World Heritage Site. However RBM had strong support from advocates of poverty alleviation since they claimed that mining offered much more lucrative prospects for income generation over the short term. Their detractors said that the sense of place that Saint Lucia had come to represent as a wilderness area was priceless. “Save Saint Lucia” won the day.

When the South African Constitution was adopted in 1996, the fact that “the right to an environment that was protected and conserved for the benefit of present and future generations” was entrenched in the Bill of Rights (an internationally unique innovation at the time) was in no small measure thanks to the grappling that took place over Saint Lucia.

Thus a decade later, when the old familiar battle lines were drawn over the Wild Coast mining vs. ecotourism controversy, thankfully some ‘white’, ‘green’ conservationists among us had realised that the contest would never be won unless the local residents were on the forefront leading the campaign, asserting their now clearly defined constitutional rights. We started out as “Save the Wild Coast” with the familiar patronizing messianic tendency, but thanks to the local residents who converted us ‘greeny beanies’, we transcended that and changed the name to “Sustaining the Wild Coast”, eager to embrace in equal measure the ‘green’ conservationist imperative and the ‘brown’ environmentalist agenda of to address poverty, water and air pollution, and sanitation. The late academic theologian Dr Steve de Gruchy ingeniously proposed the blending of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ interests into a richer concept that merged and blended these into an “olive agenda”. The coincidence with the peace-building notion of the ‘olive branch’ inspired us to move from concept to practice.

Nevertheless, two years later, when we enlisted Don Guy to film local residents telling their story on their own terms, he refused to believe my assurances that the local residents were overwhelmingly opposed to mining and were in fact driving the process. I didn’t try to persuade him. I dropped him off in the community with his camera, and left him to immerse himself, just as I had become immersed forty years before in the Umfolozi wilderness. Except it was not in an uninhabited, dangerous wilderness, but in a welcoming rural community deeply connected and coherent with their environment and determined to retain their cultural identity and traditional way of life.

Thus it was a source of considerable satisfaction to Ian to be able to honour Pondo People. All the residual criticism for “caring more for butterflies and frogs than people” that was left over from the Save Saint Lucia campaign was completely dispelled by Pondo People. It was a huge boost to the amaDiba coastal residents in their ultimately successful campaign to have the mining rights revoked.

Dons’ film gives a glimpse as to why.

That ought to have been the end of the story. It wasn’t.

The further unfolding of the epic saga is related in my book The Promise of Justice. A week before he died Dr Ian Player asked for a copy of the book. He never had a chance to read it and comment on it before he died, but just as his life cannot be unlived, no book can be unwritten. They can only be improved upon in the endless, ongoing evolutionary journey inward and outward, as we seek to achieve a balance between the World Survival Trinity of Nature, Humanity and Technology exemplified by this ancient symbol.

About John GI Clarke

John Clarke hopes to write the wrongs of the world, informed by his experience as a social worker and theologian, to actualise fundamental human rights and satisfy fundamental human needs.  He has lived in the urbanised concentration of Johannesburg, but has worked mainly in the rural reaches of the Wild Coast for the past decade.  From having paid a fortune in toll fees he believes he has earned the right to be critical of Sanral and other extractive institutions, and has not held back while supporting Sustaining the Wild Coast (, the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute ( and the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (, in various ways.