A view of a dry plain in the northern Kalahari region of the Northern Cape. A protracted drought in the province has hit farmers hard. Picture: AFP/GUILLEM SARTORIO
A view of a dry plain in the northern Kalahari region of the Northern Cape. A protracted drought in the province has hit farmers hard. Picture: AFP/GUILLEM SARTORIO

Livestock farmer Hermanus Willemse ekes out a living from his small property outside Kenhardt, Northern Cape. He hasn’t seen a drop of rain since he started keeping sheep and goats three years ago.

“What’s happening to us now is exceptional,” he says.

In 2019, the Northern Cape region clocked its lowest average recorded rainfall since 1933. That came after an already devastating drought, now in its eighth year.

In this part of the world, wetter and drier periods usually alternate in cycles of seven to nine years, but the current drought was preceded by just two years of normal rainfall, says Willem Symington, head of disaster management at industry body Agri SA.

By the time this drought started, pasture and water reserves were already below their usual levels.

The impact has been devastating for farmers across the province, where about 70% of land is used for livestock. For generations, farmers here have kept mostly cattle and sheep, though some breed game too.

Symington, also vice-president of nonprofit farmers’ group Agri Northern Cape, says red meat production in the province has plummeted 50% since the drought began, causing devastating losses for farmers and knock-on effects in local communities.

But their plight has rallied South Africans countrywide to help, with donations of groceries, water, animal feed and even toiletries being driven in or sent by post.

Water warriors

Last weekend, the streets of the small town of Kenhardt were lined with locals in bakkies waiting for the SA Water Warriors, a volunteer group.

We farm in hard country. But when it comes to donations, and people are good to you, that’s when you cannot control your emotions any more
Willem Symington, head of disaster management at Agri SA

They arrived with nine trucks of feed, a cooler truck of perishable goods, four trailers of groceries and 37,000l of water to distribute to the families of 355 farmers and farmworkers in the Kenhardt area.

Since the SA Water Warriors was set up two years ago, it has delivered relief supplies to drought-hit farmers, mostly in the Northern Cape, says founder Deon Smit.

Agri SA’s Symington, himself a farmer, says his peers are used to facing difficulties.

“We farm in hard country. But when it comes to donations and people are good to you, that’s when you cannot control your emotions any more.”

Standing in line for handouts is tough for people who have taken care of their families, workers, animals and communities for decades, he says. “But we are very thankful.”

At the onset of the drought, many farmers started adapting to the coming dry conditions according to accepted practices.

“Good pasture management is the bottom line for our people,” says Symington.

This approach has kept farmer Wynand Bezuidenhout going through the worst of the drought so far. He started reducing his flock early on, letting go of the breeding ewes first. His remaining sheep looked plump, in part thanks to the river running through his farm. All that is left of the river is a broad expanse of soft, red sand but the groundwater has sustained a strip of riverine vegetation for his livestock.

Saved by shrubs

Bezuidenhout has another advantage. Kicking up a trail of red dust as he marches across his farm, he points to a gnarly brown shrub, called gannabos, sporting small green leaves.

Only two things can kill it: overgrazing and drought, he says. But drought alone will not eliminate the bushes, he adds.

The previous owner of the land that Bezuidenhout bought 20 years ago practised conservation farming, taking care not to overgraze his plots, keeping invasive plants to a minimum, and scattering the local gannabos seed whenever he could.

Bezuidenhout said farms with gannabos can sustain livestock longer than those with only grass. But he too is now digging into his dwindling funds to buy feed to sustain his animals, and his family is among those gratefully accepting donations.

Symington says reducing livestock as pasture declines is common practice, despite it lowering production. Under-stocking a farm with 20% to 30% fewer animals than its grazing can support during flush years provides a buffer against drought, enabling farmers to keep their livestock for two to three years longer when rains are poor.

We will not stand up again. If your plans run out, what do you do then?
Memory Buis, farmer

In the Northern Cape, the biggest risk is drought, Symington says, adding that due to the unusual length of the current drought many simply will be unable to continue farming. They have received inadequate support from the government, he notes.

By December 2019, an estimated R800m in relief funding was needed to feed remaining animals for three months. The SA government announced in January R300m would be set aside for emergency drought aid, after a R30m allocation last year. For many farmers, that is too little, too late.

Third-generation farmer Memory Buis has seen her flock of sheep reduced from 360 to 42. “We will not stand up again,” she says. “If your plans run out, what do you do then?”

Symington says that if severe, prolonged droughts were to become the new normal, livestock farming would be under threat in the Northern Cape. Meanwhile, he and many others have no alternative but to push on.

“I’m 55 years old,” he says. “There is only one option: I have to make it work on the farm.”

While sorting flour, oil, long-life milk, snacks, deodorant and soap into separate packages for each family, Buis thinks a while when asked what helps the most.

“That people think of you,” she says.

Thomson Reuters Foundation