Before the arrival of the Dutch at the Cape Colony in 1652 and the English in the Eastern Cape in 1820, South Africa only had natural forests. Introduction of exotic species to the country only started to happen during these periods.
There has been massive exploitation and devastation of natural forests owing to the fact that there were no legislation or policies to control access and to protect these forests and forest products from human exploitation. Governor Van der Stel inaugurated a plantation for oaks at Newlands in 1670 but the real afforestation of exotic species began in 1875. This was stimulated by high demand of fuelwood for the growing railways and there was no way in which supply from the natural forests would satisfy this demand.
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that most of the natural forests species were only endemic to certain environments, hence it could not be planted elsewhere. It was also not going to be possible to meet the demand due to the nature of the slow growth rate of natural forests. The Black Wattle was seen as an answer to mitigate the fuelwood demand and this was imported from Australia in 1864 and the species was also recognised as a superior vegetable tanning material by 1880.
The notion of tree planting grew exponentially and by 1910, an area of about 60 000 ha was commercially planted to wattle. Forestry was solely a State affair prior to the World War II, with the exception of the wattle industry in Kwazulu-Natal which was at the hands of private landowners. More exotic species, that is, pine and eucalyptus were also explored as a means to balance the demand supply continuum in so far as demand for fuelwood, building materials, and windbreaks are involved. During World War II an entity called the Department of Forestry was inaugurated within the State sphere and aimed at better management of forests (both natural and commercial). Planting occurred at an accelerated speed but this was mainly in the form of small woodlots and by 1938 a total of 150 000 ha of commercial timber plantations had been planted and a first State Sawmill established.
The private planted area also increased to 370 000 ha, including an area of 220 000 ha planted to wattle. The 1950s saw even more forestry development as the State encouraged the private sector to plant more, whereby in 1960, an area of 981 640 ha had been planted of which 720 320 ha belonged to the private sector. In 1975, the total planted area in the country reached just over 1.1million ha, of which 769 000 ha was privately owned.
By 1985 the Department of Forestry controlled 1,6 million ha of land, of which 263 000 ha was commercial timber plantations. A further 350 000 ha of land was in the former self-governing states and homelands of which 150 000 ha was under plantations. The total planted (public) area was 333 776 ha. The area under private ownership was 800 000 ha.
In 1990 Government decided to devolve its commercial timber activities and this resulted with the establishment of a parastatal, the South African Forestry Company Limited (SAFCOL) which took over approximately 500 000 ha of State forest land of which 263 000 ha was planted to timber plantations. The State retained the natural forests.
After South Africa’s first ever real democratic elections in 1994, the plantations from the former self-governing and homelands administrations returned to the control of the Department of Forestry as a temporary measure with the long term objective of devolving these and all assets under SAFCOL to third parties as part of Government’s restructuring processes.