WILLIAM VASS was eight years old when armed government officials broke down his parent's simple stone and thatch home in the Riemvasmaak region, set it alight, and loaded the family's meager possessions onto a truck headed for a destination 600 miles away.
``They said: If you don't go, we'll shoot you dead,'' recalls Francina Jantjie, Mr. Vass's aunt.
It is described by civil-rights workers as one of the most vicious forced removals of the apartheid era, which saw a total of 3 million South Africans uprooted from designated white areas in a program aimed at achieving territorial segregation.
``I can remember them taking off the thatch roof and then burning it,'' says Vass, who is looking forward to returning to this remote stretch of semidesert in the northwestern corner of the country that he calls home.
Vass and his family were part of an ethnically diverse, but close-knit community of pastoralists and stock farmers whose ancestors first settled in the area in the 1870s (See chronology, right).
They were removed from their land in 1973 and 1974 to allow the adjoining Augrabies Falls National Park to expand and become a viable ecological unit.
The park, site of the dramatic Augrabies Falls on the Orange River, is one of 320 national parks in South Africa that offer a wide range of terrain, plants, and animal life to the ecotourist.
Until the demise of apartheid four years ago, little attention had been given to the indigenous people who inhabited the surrounding regions of many of the country's parks. But, in the last few years, the park system has begun to acquire a human face.
In February of this year, the people of Riemvasmaak were given legal rights to reoccupy the 70,000 hectares (172,900 acres) they had once occupied. A new community is to be reborn later this year when about 50 families of the original 5,000 residents plan to return to the area in a phased program of reoccupation.
The land they will return to, apart from 300 hectares of arable land on the banks of the Orange River, consists of sparse scrub, sand, and stones. The only building left standing from the former settlement is a Roman Catholic mission.
In addition, the area is riddled with scores of unexploded bombs left behind by the South African Defense Force (SADF), which used the land as a military testing site after the forced removals in 1973 and 1974.
But ecotourism has brought new hope to this dispossessed community, which has begun negotiating a deal with the National Parks Board to jointly administer the Augrabies Falls Park.
ABOUT 4,270 hectares (10,550 acres) of the park overlap with the land restored to the people of Riemvasmaak. In 1993, the parks board, which 20 years ago had wanted the Riemvasmakers moved to make way for an extension of the park, opened negotiations with the community based on the acknowledgment that the land was their rightful property.
Following a five-day conference with government officials and development organizations in the nearby town of Upington in May, the community mandated its newly elected trust to negotiate a contractual arrangement with the parks board. The board would offer the community a monthly rental for the part of their land used by the park, and it could also offer some 70 jobs to the community. If completed, the deal would represent the first with a community that has returned to the land from which it was forcibly removed.
This is in line with a strategy being followed by the parks board in other parts of the country to create harmony between national parks, in the past mainly the preserve of white tourists, and surrounding indigenous communities which have invariably perceived them as a threat.
``I think the National Parks Board has been working very well for future generations,'' says Paddy Gordan, a parks-board worker. ``It is time we started working for the present generation.''
The deal would be modeled to some extent on another joint- management agreement 200 miles to the west where the Richtersveld National Park is contained in a loop of the Orange River on the Namibian border with South Africa. This historic deal - finalized in 1991 - was the product of 18 years of negotiations between the parks board and the community which was under threat of removal to make way for the park.
In the Richtersveld, the parks board leases land from the local community and employs community members to run the park. The community gets 50 percent of the profits from tourism and from a plant nursery run by the board. It was the first deal in which an indigenous community was actively involved in the running of a park.
``From our point of view it is working well,'' says Howard Braak, the National Parks Board warden for Richtersveld. ``We are making the park part of the community rather than the community part of the park. We are a full partner of the community. I see it as a role model for Riemvasmaak and other places. We have learned that community involvement is totally necessary for a successful park.''
Agab Fredericks, a member of the local community who serves on the joint committee running Richtersveld, says the deal worked very much to the advantage of the community.
``In the beginning people were very opposed to the park,'' he says. ``Initially, the community was not involved in the plans and that is why they stopped it. Through negotiation we reached an agreement which the majority supported.''
But the shattered Riemvasmaak community has needed some persuading to go the same road. ``The wounds have not yet healed,'' says Dawid Malgas, a builder who now lives in Upington. ``People are still afraid to talk about new deals ... but when the SADF has completed its withdrawal it might be possible to talk about a deal with the parks board. They are neighbors, and we must learn to work with them.''
Mr. Malgas says he was overjoyed to return in May to his ancestral land for the first time in 20 years. He was among a group of about 200 people who held a celebration at the old Roman Catholic Mission there. Members of the community danced to traditional Nama music and visited the neglected graves of their family members nearby.
``People are quite positive about the parks board idea although some of the older members of the community and those who previously lived on the park land have reservations,'' says Freddie Bosman, chairman of the Riemvasmaak Trust, who initiated the community's bid to return to their land two years ago.
The parks board, in the meantime, has begun to reach out to the community. ``Parks are not places where animals are regarded as more important than people,'' National Parks Board Director Anthony Hall-Martin said at the Upington conference in May. ``They are places where animals are used for the development of the community.''
Mr. Hall-Martin said that the park received 65,000 visitors a year and was a significant contributor to revenue for the sparsely populated region. ``We recognize that this land belongs to the community and has been given back,'' he said.
The government has committed to assist with housing costs and the provision of services, and is under pressure to contribute towards the relocation costs of people who must travel vast distances to return to their land.
When the removals were carried out in 1973 and 1974, William Vass and his family were arbitrarily classified as members of the Xhosa group and sent to a remote and arid piece of land on the eastern seaboard in the former black homeland of Ciskei.
Those deemed to be of Damara or Nama origin were sent to the Skeleton Coast, 1,000 miles to the northwest in what is now Namibia. Those classified as mixed-race ``Colored'' were sent to towns in the Upington area.