Tag Archives: South Africa

Drought: The Material Immaterial

This post first appeared on the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities Blog, which can be found here: http://www.ppehlab.org/blog/

By Eckard Smuts

Fixing the number is not an easy matter. One media report claims that it is the worst drought in South Africa “in thirty years”;[1] another mentions 1992 as the previous benchmark.[2] The title of a third piece announces, rather puzzlingly, that the current lack of rainfall comes in the wake of the “third driest season in 80 years”.[3] A story in Al Jazeera summons 1982 as the former driest season. That piece goes on to present the thoughts of Lennox Mabaso, a spokesperson for the local government in Kwazulu-Natal (one of the worst hit areas), who reveals, simply but effectively, that the dams are at an “all-time low”, and that we are indeed in the midst of an “epic drought”.[4]

The South African Weather Service appears to have picked up on the media’s difficulty in ascertaining the comparative severity of the drought. In a report that presents the annual total rainfall in South Africa since 1904, they affirm (in bold – in a subheading, in fact) that “2015 was indeed a very dry year in South Africa”.[5] It gets worse: at 403mm of precipitation, 2015 was the single driest year over the “full 112-year period” (the yearly average is 608mm). It is not clear why “the full period” should begin 112 years ago. One imagines that earlier rainfall records for large swathes of the country are rather spotty. Nevertheless, 112 years is a substantial period of time, one against which fluctuations of a few years this way or that in various media reports seem to diminish in importance. The numbers – unsettled, wavering – conspire to tell us what we already know: it is very dry.

Comparative rainfall statistics is, however, not the only numerical paradigm along which the drought pipes its forbidding tune. Food, and the vast amounts of food that will have to be imported this year (5.67 million tonnes of grain is a conservative estimate)[6] – and more precisely, the cost of these imports (R14 billion for maize, a staple grain in South Africa)[7] as a figure in a fiscal budget that is already buckling under the strain of a number of industrial, political and socio-economic crises over the past year – means that the drought has begun to weave its sombre incantations over a whole different set of numbers, namely the numbers expected at the polling booth in the upcoming municipal elections (“Weather presents political challenge to ruling ANC”, reads a subtitle in one article).[8] Agricultural doom prophets have gone as far as comparing the pending food shortage in South Africa to the conditions that preceded the regime-toppling events of the Arab Spring.[9] (Is that a fair comparison? Difficult to say – most likely not. Things never do seem to ramify quite as catastrophically here as everyone expects them to.)

What is clear is that behind the swirl of numbers – the lists and statistics that attempt to map out and ratify this slow-moving, diffuse yet fearsomely implacable climatic event – there lurks a sense of the abysmal: a panicky premonition that some kind of standing order between society and the environment has been withdrawn, or that the collective bill for our climate debt has arrived, and there is nowhere left to shift the “unpaid costs”[10] (“It’s like a person in the distance. We can see him coming towards us,” says Hambaseni Mncube, a stricken farmer from Kwazulu-Natal, about the effects of the drought).[11] A drought is an insubstantial, drawn-out event (or precisely a non-event: drought is, among other things, another name for when it does not rain). It does not announce itself with a flash or a bang. Instead, it makes itself known through a series of diffuse effects that shift and ripple through the various systems that have evolved to accommodate our interactions with the world. These shifts and ripples accumulate, of course, into consequences of massive devastation and personal tragedy (more numbers: 1 353 980 cattle, 308 573 sheep and 969 275 goats in the Eastern Cape are said to be “rendered vulnerable” because of the drought;[12] in the Free State, a cattle farmer committed suicide one day before the first rain of the season)[13]. And that is precisely why drought is, I think, a suitable metaphor for our environmental thinking: it forces us to grapple with the relationship between systemic dysfunction and tangible suffering in the immediate world of things.

It does not seem possible enough water can ever again fall to damp or even to cool this parched and cracked earth and to fill these moats of burning sand. Optimism suggests it is only the great tidal swing of nature exemplified; that we are at the lowest point of the periphery, and that from now onwards it must rise steadily to better things. But at the back of one’s mind remains the pessimistic conviction, apparently borne out by every fact observed, that the oscillations of the pendulum are gradually lessening round the dead point.

These words were written by the South African poet and prolific amateur naturalist Eugène Marais somewhere near the start of the twentieth century, based on his observations of the effects of extreme drought in Waterberg, an area in the far north of the country.[14] If they are true, then we have by now graduated to somewhere well beyond the “dead point”: we are living, as it were, in a new, arid reality. We can stop worrying about the kind of world we will bequeath to the next generation, because we are already living in it. It is not clear yet what the full implications of the drought will be for the millions of South Africans who are already struggling to afford food.[15] It is probably time, however, to accept that our environmental thinking needs to adapt itself to what has been called the “new normal”. The challenge for the humanities, I think, is to figure out what that means.


1 “South Africa grapples with worst drought in thirty years,” BBC Africa, November 30, 2015

2 “First it was electricity, now water,” Mail & Guardian, November 1, 2015.

3 “SA drought follows third-driest season in 80 years,” Moneyweb, November 10, 2015.

4 “South Africa in midst of ‘epic drought’,” Al Jazeera, November 4, 2015.

5 De Jager, Elsa. “South Africa – Annual Total Rainfall.” South African Weather Service, January 13, 2016.

6 Willemse, Strydom and Venter. “Implications of the lingering 2015 drought on the economy, agricultural markets, food processors, input suppliers and the consumer.” December 11, 2015.

7 “Report: Fighting the Great South African Drought”, Daily Maverick, February 23, 2016.

8 “SA drought follows third-driest season in 80 years”, Moneyweb, November 10, 2015.

9 “Farmers bear brunt of South Africa’s severe drought: ‘All we can do is pray’”, The Guardian, November 17, 2015.

10 I am borrowing rather freely here from Canavan, Klarr and Vu’s fascinating re-interpretation of the idea of “ecological debt” along the lines of K. William Kapp’s notion of capitalism as a system of “unpaid costs” in their introduction to Polygraph 22: Ecology and Ideology (see pp3-5).

11 Hornby, D. and Vanderhagen, Y. “After the Drought: The rains have come to Msinga, but the devastation still remains. ” Daily Maverick, February 25, 2016.

12 “Op-Ed: SA Government’s numbers game”, Daily Maverick, February 8, 2016.

3 “Drought: Farmer commits suicide a day before rain falls”, http://www.news24.com (http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/drought-farmer-commits-suicide-a-day-before-rain-falls-20160101)

14 Marais, E.N. “Notes on Some Effects of Extreme Drought in Waterberg.” Versamelde Werke Deel 2. Ed. Leon Rousseau. J.L. van Schaik: Pretoria, 1984. p1217.

15 “In 2012, the general household survey found that 14-million South Africans did not know where their next meal was coming from. Another 15-million were on the verge of this, and were one shock away from not having food,” writes Sipho Kings in the Mail & Guardian (“Full horror of drought emerges,” January 16, 2016).


Perceptions of Waste

– Megan Reddering

Since I started recycling three years ago my perceptions of waste have drastically changed. I realized that about seventy-five percent of what I previously took to be waste could actually be recycled. This reduction in my own production of waste has made me more aware of waste and how it comes to be waste. When can something be classified as waste? Is this classification different for different people? Why is there a difference in what people consider to be waste?

In my neighbourhood it is waste and recyclables collection day every Tuesday. I go for a run every Tuesday at six in the morning and I noticed that already at that early time homeless people with their trollies start rushing towards the neighbourhood. Many people put their waste bags and recycle bags out the night before, so these early birds I’ve see migrating up the Dalsig hill are doing so in hope of getting the best pick out of our waste and recyclables.  Whenever I see them digging about in the bins it seems like they are on a kind of a treasure hunt and I am ashamed that what appears to be waste to me and the rest of the neighbourhood seems so precious to them.

This made me think back to the December holidays when I volunteered at a soup kitchen in the industrial area that is right next to one of the informal settlement just outside Plettenberg Bay, and I realized that all the shacks I had seen were made out of things that had been used for other purposes before. I did a lot of work with the children in the area and I was completely blown away with how little they are satisfied with. They made anything they laid their hands on into some kind of toy; old bottles, crates, boxes and ropes are just some of the things I saw them playing with or reusing as it were.

During the time I was volunteering at the soup kitchen a room in the building used for something else previously was being converted into a little classroom to keep the smaller children whose parents cannot afford to send them to crèche off the streets and to provide a safe place for activities for the bigger children during school holidays. While the classroom was being fixed up we did our activities outside on the stoop and the one day one of the kids came running to me very excitedly with a big crumpled and muddy poster he had picked up somewhere, which I could see had previously been used in a classroom and said, “Teacher for classroom” with a huge very proud smile on his face. The poster was in no condition to go up on the wall and I had to throw it away once the children had left.

Looking back on my time at the soup kitchen and seeing the homeless people every Tuesday I have realized that these are perfect examples of how huge the differences are on the view of what waste is in a country like South Africa with such great economic inequalities. I read an article by D. Scott on low carbon citizenship this week and this quote from that article sums up the point I want to make, “The best way to reduce carbon consumption is to be poor.”

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Conspicuous Destruction

– Dr Megan Jones

When we think of waste, we imagine opportunities missed, lives ruined or environments polluted. “What a waste” we say, and we mean despair, destruction, desolation. Eliot’s clean, austere lines, the “vacant lots” of the dying city, shape our words in the throat. Rarely does waste conjure economies of affect or resilience, or the possibilities of forging counter-publics. For Achille Mbembe, the neo-liberal pursuits of post-apartheid South Africa have exacerbated the production of poor bodies as socially elided detritus, set adrift in no-man’s lands between the spectacle of consumption and rigorously defended privatization. In a landscape of excess —excess wealth, excess consumerism, excess security— the poor are rendered admissible, and so they remain below the horizon of social visibility. But what are the ways in which we think about waste as a means of articulation? How might waste offer opportunities to pressurise the distribution of wealth and well-being in South Africa and beyond?

I want to linger briefly on recent images of waste surfacing in urban communities in Mumbai and Johannesburg. Go to Youtube and watch Nandos’ recent ads, and you’ll see how the company has appropriated the stylings of izikhothane, a youth practice emerging from Johannesburg’s townships. Izikhothane’s participants, mostly men, burn expensive clothes and designer goods in a display of apparent indifference to the commodity. The idea behind this performance of wastefulness is that one has so much, one needs nothing—we might call it conspicuous destruction. Responses in the media and public discourse online have been scandalised; how dare people with so little behave in this way. What the responses miss is how practices like izikhothane push for a presence in the public domain and resist invisibility. Is there is a limit to which modes of consumption are able to provide their practitioners with agency? Yes, of course. Its appropriation by Nandos signals exactly the triumph of exchange value. Burning clothes and cars will not shift structures of power and privilege. Nonetheless, the reaching for presence that izikhothane attempts has rich symbolic and psychic value.

Refuse and Refuge

Published last year, Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers charts the difficulties endured by the Hussain family in the slum of Annawadi, located next to Mumbai’s expanding international airport.  The airport is a sleek symbol of India’s economic successes; the inhabitants of Annawadi survive by picking through its piles of discarded junk. On one level, the book is about the vast inequalities shaping the city’s spaces and the social and political injustices this often produces. Yet there is another facet to these lives lived through and in waste. The focaliser of the book is the Hussain’s eldest son, Abdul, who makes a living as a collector and seller of waste. Let’s not sentimentalise: Abdul dreams of escape from the slum’s desperate conditions – filth, disease, crowding, persecution by the authorities. But waste is also the site of his resilience and aspiration, is a cage and a refuge. Thus Boo asks us to read the inhabitants of Annawadi not only as victims but also as actors, and the waste-filled landscapes of their homes as home.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

The value of waste

– Dr Tilla Slabbert

Ten years ago I moved to a small coastal village in the Western Cape where I now live within walking distance from the beach. One of the rituals that came to form part of my life is a diligent gathering of washed-up and discarded garbage whenever I walk the dogs. For most of these years, my immediate neighbour was a seventy something Dutch man who immigrated to South Africa in the late 1950s. I say was, because he sadly passed away less than a year ago. Jan was a real character; a positive and vibrant man who managed to banish one’s own fears of growing older. A true raconteur, he could capture his audience with colourful anecdotes, always ending on a humorous note. He used to laugh heartily at his own jokes. Two years ago, Jan and his wife sold their house and moved to another part of town. In packing up—and to my great disgust—he promptly dumped a load of unwanted waste across the road amongst the fynbos; in the vicinity of one of the footpaths leading to the beach. Broken garden tools, old buckets, a huge fifty gallon drum, and other junk littered the area. My partner and I later removed most of the garbage, but the drum, filled with bags of dog poop, we left behind for the time being, intending to collect it at a later stage, once the stench has faded a little.

Life carries on, one postpones, and after a few months the drum was covered by the resilient vegetation.  Two weeks after his birthday, and the day before his death, I had the honour of hugging Jan’s tall but faded body for the final time.

Recently the municipality removed some of the rooikrans in the neighbourhood and the hacking once again exposed the drum. It now lay rusted and eroded. Walking past it the other day, I thought: Jan is gone, the drum remains. I suddenly realised how self-righteous and selfish one can be when you become selective about what seems precious. Inorganic waste supposedly outlives humans, but could it not serve a purpose when it unearths nostalgia about those no longer visible? Or does it merely become valuable because it has been aestheticized by time? Once it has acquired a kind of weathered appearance, faintly resembling its previous form, like the murky outlines of a memory. The reflection brought another of Jan’s tales to mind.

During his youth on their farm in Holland, he was kicked in the face by a horse, losing all his teeth; he ended up wearing dentures before he turned twenty. On his arrival in South Africa (by ship), he was so pleased with the sight of Cape Town in the distance that he cheered madly, knocking his own dentures from his mouth. The set promptly plonked overboard and disappeared beneath the waters of Table Bay. As I stood staring at the rusty drum, I imagined hearing the teeth clicking with muffled laughter, lolling about somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic. I envisaged them covered with nettle and sea slugs or swaying gently beneath the flux of oceanic silt: out of sight. On the other hand, perhaps there is a sea nymph somewhere on a rock, grinning widely and knowingly at those huge fishing trawlers, harvesting their loot.

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