Tree cover in savannas is determined as much by disturbances from fire and herbivory as by rainfall and soil resources. Fire especially acts to limit tree cover via a demographic bottleneck, limiting the recruitment of tree saplings to adults. Because sapling growth rates determine rates of sapling to tree recruitment, predicting changes in tree cover requires data on sapling growth rates, commonly expressed as population means. Here, we discuss the variability in sapling growth rates in Acacia populations in a savanna in Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park in South Africa. Saplings growing at mean rates under typical fire regimes in African savannas would likely never escape the fire-trap to become adults. Only the fastest growing saplings could grow above the flame zone between fires. We suggest that maximum growth rates are more ecologically relevant than mean growth rates in natural populations and experiments. Maximum growth rates are better than mean growth rates as predictors of sapling release within species, as shown here, and probably of which species are likely ‘winners’ in savanna tree communities.