‘The animals call for food, but we have nothing’
Tearful farmers tell of their drought nightmare as trucks arrive in Springbok with fodder and food parcels
The Boesmanland sun beats down on farmers and their workers as they stand in a half-moon, heads bowed and shoulders hunched.
“Lord, thank you for you, who convinced donors to give to those in need, animal feed and vehicles. Help those who receive today and those who give,” prays a pastor from one of Springbok’s Dutch Reformed churches.
Drops of moisture fall on to the scorched earth from the creased faces of the 50 men and women gathered in a truck yard in Springbok’s warehouse district.
On a sweltering day like last Thursday, you might think those drips consisted of a healthy sweat worked up during a hard day’s labour.
But for many months there has been no labour – not when your few remaining emaciated sheep are confined to feeding pens and the ground is cracked and bare.
In fact, the drips were tears of relief, welling from the knowledge that for a short while, at least, they won’t have to sell another 50 sheep, or stop paying school fees, or lay off the last remaining workers, or let the bank take the farm.
Standing in the only shade on offer in the truck yard – provided by three Gift of the Givers vehicles packed with animal fodder and food parcels – farmer Hester Maasdorp said the relief supplies were a lifeline not only for practical reasons but because they represented hope and the knowledge that they were not forgotten.
But among Gift of the Givers volunteers who had driven hundreds of kilometres from the Cape Flats neighbourhood of Hanover Park through a drought-ravaged landscape, the mood was sombre.
Missing from the team was 20-year-old Ameerodien Noordien, who was shot dead in gang violence near his home three weeks ago, shortly after returning from a similar relief mission to Beaufort West.
“It has been very, very hard. Driving here, normally the team would be making jokes, having fun ... the drive was very quiet,” said Ali Sablay, who a year ago hand-picked Noordien and other young men and women from Hanover Park to help as volunteers in the drought-relief team.
“His presence is missed. He’s been to all the towns we’ve delivered animal feed to. It’s been quite hard for the workers, and for me personally, because we’ve grown as a family,” said Sablay.
“We have to move on, but it’s just hard knowing one of our key volunteers, who always had a smile on his face and who captured the hearts of the farmers and the farmworkers, is not with us here today.”
Soon after arriving in Springbok at 10am on Thursday, the young volunteers were handing out large bags filled with essentials such as rice, mielie pap and beans, sponsored by Shoprite and Gift of the Givers. Farmers stood in line with their workers.
Bales of hay were donated by farmers from North West and the Free State.
Tertius Scheepers, of the Koringhuis farmers union, said his 30 members met to decide who among them was in greatest need before the Gift of the Givers convoy arrived. Six farmers from his district received animal feed last week. For some it was heavily subsidised, while for those whose cash flow had dried up completely, it was free.
“Everyone is in need. A lot of farmers are home-schooling because they can’t afford to send their kids to school,” said Scheepers.
Gift of the Givers chief hydrologist and palaeontologist Dr Gideon Groenewald said the organisation had drilled 108 boreholes on farms around Sutherland, where the situation is so dire that the remaining 104,000 sheep are six weeks away from dying of thirst and hunger.
“There is 1.4 million hectares of land without any water there. If they don’t get water in six weeks the sheep will have to be sold. These sheep have been bred in this area for 300 years. When a farmer sells his last sheep he’s given up hope,” said Groenewald.
“No one alive has ever even heard of such a drought. It will force everyone together – otherwise everyone will die.”
Sablay said a disaster was unfolding in remote areas of the Northern Cape like an invisible apocalypse. “If the farmer gets affected, it’s the farmworkers, their families, whole communities. In Fraserburg, the big banks closed down, the big supermarkets closed down. The town is dwindling.
“The farmers had to sell their farms, some of them lost their farms. There was absolutely nothing they could do and the farmworkers lost their jobs, it was absolutely terrible. People don’t realise what crisis the farmers are in at the moment until you come here and see what’s happening.”
Among the people queueing for food and blankets donated by The Foschini Group were the Maasdorps, from Aggeneys. Their flock of 800 sheep has been reduced to 300, and when Deon Maasdorp is able to afford a bale of fodder his cattle finish it in a day.
Then he listens to them calling for food for another week.
“It [the Gift of the Givers delivery] means so much to me. It won’t go very far for me personally, but it’s a starting point, just to see that there are other people who care about us,” he said.
“It just shows that we must look after each other, and I’m just thankful.”
His wife Hester said: “I have mixed feelings of sadness and deep thankfulness. It’s an injection of life for us as farmers. Now we also saw a broader picture of Gift of the Givers which we only saw on television.
“Gift of the Givers and all the other role players thought about the mouths that needed to be fed. Sometimes a farmer will put his hands deep into his pockets to keep the animals alive without realising that he needs to keep something for himself and his house.
“We sighed when uncle Gideon spoke of another three years of drought. These nine years have felt like an eternity. We really hope that you can go and tell the world how difficult it’s going for us, because few people who sit in air-conditioned offices realise that the piece of bread and meat that they are going to eat this afternoon comes from the farmers who sacrifice so much.
“They burn in the sun. They wipe off their tears and sweat together, not just tears because they are suffering, but they cry sometimes as well for the animals who call out but then they have nothing to give.”