Days of Miracle & Wonder – Amid the most devastating drought in 24 years, thousands of ordinary citizens have launched a massive, spontaneous national rescue effort, fuelled by the greatest positive social media storm South Africa has experienced. COUNTRY LIFE tracked this phenomenon and toured some of the hardest-hit areas.
Words and Pictures: Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit, www.karoospace.co.za
While the dust devils of January 2016 ran riot across the parched midriff of South Africa, crows sat gasping on telephone lines and a sign outside an old-age home in Senekal begged for drinking water, convoys of Drought Angels were criss-crossing the country on countless missions of mercy.
Truckloads of water and livestock feed worth millions of rand were accompanied by cash donations from South Africans at home and abroad over this festive season, when most of the inland regions were bone-dry and suffering the brunt of the latest, dreaded El Niño-induced drought.
Farmers faced a heartbreaking decision to slaughter their livestock because there was simply no grazing left. Cities were placed under water restrictions while rural towns and settlements ran dry. Fingers were pointed in many directions. And then, in typical South African fashion, something wonderful happened.
The social media scene began to light up with hundreds of calls for help and, more importantly, an equal set of positive responses. Each act of kindness seemed to inspire another. This was South Africa’s first drought in a digital time, when the written word became the actual deed.
It was a process that bypassed all forms of government except the rules of the road. It included truck drivers and little old grandmas, office workers, holidaymakers and housewives, all involved in the mass delivery of hay bales, water and hope.
In late December 2015, while most of the country was down at the beach, the tinder-dry farmlands around the eastern Free State town of Zastron were in flames. Within a few days, JD Stemmet Vervoer, a trucking company based in the Little Karoo town of Montagu, began to transport much-needed loads of hay and lucerne (donated by Overberg farmers) to Zastron.
You might have seen them on Facebook or tooling down one of our highways over Christmas in real-time: the big trucks with the blue tarpaulins emblazoned with heart symbols and the words Droogte Hulp – drought aid. The idea of the painted hearts belongs to Christa van Schoor, who works for the company. She told us, “You cannot believe how grateful these farmers are. We first cry for half an hour on the phone together and only then can we talk.”
When it came to national impact on farmer rescue, however, the major force on Facebook was Boere in Nood – Farmers in Distress. We watched this social media group, started in November 2015 by farmers NC Schoombee and Nico Gerber, gather more than 40 000 followers by mid-January 2016. More than 1 000 desperate farmers had registered to have 10 bales of feed delivered to their farms to keep animals alive.
The nationwide ‘bottle-drops’ began on 28 December, when a young Cradock woman called Corné Mulder Gerber heard that the Eastern Cape town of Aliwal North had no water – the Orange River had stopped flowing days before. Via her Facebook page and a local community group called Cradock Soekhoek, Corné called for water donations. Within a few hours, hundreds of bottles had been dropped off at her home. Corné and her family personally delivered 900 litres of water to a drop-off point in Aliwal North that same day. In the next two days, she drove up with more water, totalling around 3 000 litres. It was the beginning of a Facebook flood that would lead to mass donations from private individuals and from companies.
Around the same time, a Facebook group called Water Shortage South Africa was formed, growing to about 20 000 followers within two weeks. Water Shortage SA posted a comprehensive list of all the bottle-drop spots around the country, and ran with the simple but inspiring slogan ‘Be a hero – it’s easy’.
It’s one thing tracking the national drought response on Facebook and Twitter from the comfort of an air-conditioned office back in Cradock, but we needed a roadtrip to bring the story home. And so, on 4 January 2016, at the start of a murderous 40-plus degree heat wave, we jumped into our dusty bakkie and went on a four-day tour of the towns around the Gariep, the largest dam in the country.
Our first stop, after skimming through a burnt-brown section of the Eastern Cape, was Aliwal North. Local photographer and entrepreneur Deon Smit met us at the Toyota dealership, the central drop-off point for the town, amid a sea of blue bottles full of water. Deon and Jacques Venter, who runs the dealership, were getting the water supplies to the most vulnerable sectors of Aliwal North – the various townships that ring the urban area. A large dollop of water from Lesotho’s Katse Dam had been released for the relief of the Aliwal North area, but was still days away.
Outside in the forecourt, we found Capetonians Danie du Preez with his wife Bernadene and their daughter Marichen, heading up via the N6 to see family in Bloemfontein. While in East London, they had heard of Aliwal North’s desperate plight via Facebook. Now they were hauling bottles of water out of their car. “We brought as much as we could fit in,” said Bernadene.
One of the most touching donations came from Reddersburg, because it too was a town suffering from the drought. They managed to send 600 litres of borehole water to Aliwal North. One old lady knocked on the glass door of the dealership with a two-litre bottle in each hand. As she turned and walked away, Deon and Jacques saw she was on crutches. “Pensioners are calling to find out how to donate a little portion of their meagre income” said Jacques.
We were staying overnight in Smithfield at the home of old friends John and Barbara von Ahlefeldt. Smithfield had become the ‘poster town’ for the national drought because, through a combination of mishap and mismanagement, it had used up its last-resort municipal water source: the town dam.
There had been no steady supply of water for nearly two months. The army had stepped in for a precious two weeks, organised what they could and kept the town’s water supplies running for a few hours a day. But they couldn’t stay on indefinitely, performing what amounts to an essential municipal service. So Smithfield simply went dry again.
And no matter what the official press releases tell you, this is a town that is near a river (the Caledon), that once had access to more than a dozen working boreholes and boasted a dam where, on a Sunday afternoon, you fished from the retaining wall and pulled out carp bigger than cats.
Firstly, we observed our hosts’ water rituals. Sometimes a bit of water comes out of the taps – rather erratically and only for an hour or so at very low pressure. Sometimes they’re given a little from a farmer’s borehole. The Von Ahlefeldts, both in their 80s, keep their bath water and store whatever they can.
The next morning, well before dawn, Barbara was out in the garden with a giant watering can. She uses 11 cans-full for 11 trees and beds she cannot live without. The rest of her once-lush garden – apart from a few drought-resistant indigenous shrubs – stands desiccated. John maintains a bottle of sugar water suspended in a tree for the sunbirds that might visit, and fills a small basin for other thirsty birds and bees.
Then we drove off to what was left of the Smithfield Dam. It was just a brown expanse ringed with a thin margin of green, fringed by a line of horses and cows grazing upon the almost invisible grass and weeds. A solitary fish head lay at the edge.
The affable William Novasi, who works for the Von Ahlefeldts, took us to his home in Greenfields Township. In the mornings, the Novasi kids – Joan (13), Emmanuel (11) and William Junior (3) fetch water from a central supply point in Somido Park. It’s a three-kilometre return trip in the searing heat. In the late afternoon, William and his wife Jemima do the same route. The lucky Greenfields people are those who can afford a wheelbarrow.
We also found Ishmael Ntshila, who does the Greenfield-Somido Park wheelbarrow water run three times a day for his family. Ishmael, like just about everyone we met in the townships of Smithfield, was stunned by the heat and completely dispirited by the constant fight for water.
Local DA councillor for Smithfield (and guest house owner) Ian Riddle had been supplying township residents with water from his borehole until it too began taking strain. He had even been trucking water into the townships during December 2015. Riddle had, understandably, some choice observations to make about the efficiency and attitude of the local municipality.
Another guest-house owner, Peter Retief, told us that some of his regular clients had been fantastic over the holiday season. “You cannot believe how kind people are. We had guests who didn’t even use our towels. They used their own. And they separated the linen they’d used so that no unnecessary water was needed for laundry.”
There were 69km of blasted heath between Smithfield and Bethulie, home town of the late great actor, Patrick Mynhardt. But Bethulie clearly had a town dam full to the brim and, for now, no water emergency like its neighbour. Why? It turns out that water supplies to Bethulie are managed by Bloem Water, and it seems to be doing its job. No rocket science here. Just straightforward water management.
The following day we drove on to the Gariep Dam, which we last seriously photographed during the great floods of 2011, when it sent its waters roaring all over the country. At 47 per cent capacity, the Mother Dam was looking pathetic. And we began to talk about the survival chances of our Great Fish River, which is fed by the Gariep.
With heat records breaking all over the country, we finally made it to our overnight stop – Poplar Grove Farm outside Colesberg, home of Antony and Margie Osler. They are spending upwards of R2 000 every week to feed their 500 ewes.
But that’s not where our story ends, because while we had been out in the field that week, all the above-mentioned support groups had been pumping. And more had popped up – too many to mention here. They had also been joined by agricultural groups and private companies like Vibro Bricks and Paving, from Pretoria.
We spoke to Vasti Kirchner, who works for Vibro and is also part of a relief group called Caring Daisies. Her boss, Herman Marx, had decided to fix South African flags atop the fleet of trucks as they ran convoys of feed to the platteland. “The response has been amazing. It’s just gone viral. People have been taking photos of the trucks on the road and posting them all over Facebook,” she said.
Then, in the first days of January 2016, came the Operation Hydrate Initiative, which distributed an amazing 400 000 litres of donated water in one week. It started because of a WhatsApp security-information network based in Johannesburg.
Spokesman Yaseen Theba said, “In late December (2015) there was a crime update about someone being stabbed in a fight over a five-litre bottle of water in Senekal. That was when we realised something serious was going on. We can sit on the sidelines and criticise the government, or we can do something about it. By the end of January (2016) we expect to have distributed two million litres of water.”
One of South Africa’s premier water experts, Professor Anthony Turton commented, “This is a very important initiative. Water is the one thing that has the capacity to unite all humans across ‘normal’ cleavage lines that traditionally divide them.”
The major takeaway point of this immense crisis and the heart-warming response it elicited is that there is now a brand new network of South Africans of all colour, class and creed. And they are reaching out to each other.
Heroes and Angels Needed
The drought is ongoing, and many farmers and towns will continue to need help for months to come.
- To help Boere in Nood, donate money to their First National Bank account number 625 229 860 43, branch code 250 655. Otherwise email them on [email protected] if you have feed you can donate, or if you can help with fuel or transport. Donations from outside the country can be made to a Paypal account – [email protected]
- Contact Deon Smit of Immanuel Photography on 083 455 2166 if you can help Aliwal North. They will pass excess water on to any other towns in need.
- Find the drop-off points for various towns you might pass through and help with bottles of water via the Water Shortage South Africa Facebook (public group).
- AgriSA has started a drought fund. Find out more or donate at www.droogterampfonds.co.za. You could make a donation into their ABSA bank account, number 40 6854 0775. Use the word RAMP as reference.
- Visit Operation Hydrate Initiative SA’s Facebook page or on Twitter (@HydrateSA) to find out how you can help. Donate money to them via ABSA bank account number 931 458 7739.