There were two important events for me recently. Alan Paton told me to go and see the film “Breaker Morant” and I read Michael Green’s column about crocodiles at St Lucia. What is the connection? Well it has to do with obeying orders. “Breaker Morant” is a superb film. But why is it the Australians who make a film about our South African history? What is wrong with our own film industry that it cannot mirror incidents of historical interest or the great conflicts and challenges existing in our multiracial society?
The Australians who made “Breaker Morant” had an astonishing eye for detail. The scenery was meticulously picked for its similarity to the Northern Transvaal. Speech, buildings and uniforms were faultless and even the songs of the birds, with a nightjar calling on a moonlit night, were correct. The story raised deep confusing emotions and each phrase of the actors touched on truths that humanity has had to face throughout its history. Australian independence and sense of humour helped to relieve moments of intense tension.
Again and again as the film unrolled, one was returned to the terrible dilemma of war and the correct moral course of action for the individual. Everyone in the theatre knew it could have been their son or brother husband or father. By the end of the performance a girl in front of us was sobbing her heart out and I had difficulty in controlling my tears. As we drove home scenes in the film recurred and then I remembered the crocodiles and a moral dilemma I once faced over orders. In 1957 following a crocodile attack, a great public outcry arose fanned by all sorts of elements, including political desperadoes who hoped to benefit by having a nature reserve turned into farm land. The Parks Board of the day was placed under continuous pressure and against strong resistance from many of the staff a resolution was passed that any crocodile near the camps was to be shot but we knew that for every one shot another would take its place. We also believed that there was a fundamental principle involved. If animals were shot because they might be dangerous there was little hope of maintaining a park as a wildlife sanctuary. But public opinion was so overpowering the Board was forced to act. I was instructed at a board meeting to take action. To disobey could have meant dismissal and the end of a career, while to obey would have meant a tortured conscience.
In desperation I phoned the most senior staff member. “You will kill crocodiles between such and such a point and only when you have the time,” he said. I then phoned Frank Broome, the judge, and a member of the board I greatly respected. “Drag it out,” was his terse reply. I knew they were on my side. But public bloodlust demanded carcasses and a special ranger was employed to kill crocodiles. I issued him with a rifle with no sights, a lamp with weak batteries and a boat that leaked and I was as unhelpful as it was possible to be. Five crocodiles were killed then the uproar gradually died down. I worked hard to get Pressmen to see our point of view and then crocodile stories ceased to be news.
In time the value of crocodiles in the natural scene was appreciated and years later Tony Pooley was given permission to start a crocodile farm. Natal led South Africa again, this time in research and re-establishment of the reptile in the wild.