This article investigates how the Makuleke community in Limpopo Province achieved iconic status in relation to land reform and community-based conservation discourses in South Africa and beyond. It argues that the situation may be more complex than it first appears, and the ways in which the Makuleke story has been deployed by NGOs, activists, academics, conservationists, the state and business may be too simplistic. The authors discuss historical representations of the Makuleke ‘tribe’ against the backdrop of their experiences of living in the borderland Pafuri region of the Kruger National Park prior to their forced removal. After investigating the ways in which the chieftaincy, and its relation to communal land, has been strengthened by local mobilizations against threats from the neighbouring Mhinga Tribal Authority, the authors suggest that a central tension in the Makuleke area is the conflict between democratic principles governing the legal entity in control of the land (i.e., the Communal Property Association), and traditionalist patriarchal principles of the Tribal Authority. The article shows how these restitution-linked processes became implicated in the establishment in 2002 of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The authors also argue that the image of the Makuleke as a ‘model tribe’ is both a product of changing historical circumstances and a contributor to contemporary discourses on land restitution and conservation.