When I visited South Africa in 1992 after a prolonged absence I found that my brother Charel had changed into a different person during the intervening years. His job as a scientist with the Department of Water Affairs required him to spend about three months of every year in remote rural areas. We had both grown up as city boys, but he had morphed into a real bushie.
He invited me to go with him on a work trip to Zululand. On the way there he told me that the government had built a dam on the Phongolo River nineteen years earlier that had affected the ecology and the black villagers living along the flood plains downstream from the dam. During the wet season the river used to flood and the entire subsistence economy of the local Zulu villages had revolved around these floods. They had their cattle, but their main source of food was the maize, pumpkins and other vegetables that they would plant in the rich soil on the riverbank as the floods subsided.
The dam was constructed to provide irrigation for white farmers and recreational activities such as water skiing and fishing for white holiday-makers. In those days the needs of black people counted for nothing in the minds of the white government. The consequences of damming the river on the Zulu villagers downstream along the Phongolo River were completely ignored.
When the Phongolo River first attracted Charel’s attention as a limnologist he found that there were no roads that would allow him to get to the river and to the flood plains, so he asked a university in Durban to undertake a flight over the area and to take aerial photographs for him. He used the photos to locate cattle tracks along which he could drive his 4WD to get to the water. I was amazed at how easily this different version of my brother could find his way around in the remote bush.
“I’m going to show you the flood that I’ve just organised,” he told me. He said that he had discussed the absence of floods with the local Zulu chieftains, with Clive, an anthropologist friend who spoke Zulu fluently, acting as his interpreter. Clive had told him how outraged the chieftains were because the floods had stopped, with devastating effects on their crops.
Charel set up a water committee comprising himself and the local chieftains. At the first meeting of the committee he asked the chieftains when they would prefer a flood to occur. They negotiated a date that was acceptable to all of them. He told them that he would see what he could do about the floods.
Later, back in Pretoria at the Department of Water Affairs, Charel managed to convince his boss to allow him to arrange a flood by opening the sluice gates and letting water out of the dam for a limited period of time. The problems experienced by the Zulu villagers would not have swayed any white bureaucrat at the time, but he based his argument on the negative ecological effects downstream due to the lack of normal seasonal floods.
On the agreed date the sluice gates were opened and the first man-made flood on the Phongolo River occurred, to the amazement and delight of the Zulu chieftains downstream.
Charel and I arrived at a Zulu village along the river. There were no mod cons such as electricity or water taps. The women would peer around carefully for crocodiles before quickly filling their buckets from the river. Afterwards they would boil the water on their open fires to kill off any water-borne parasites before using it for drinking water and for washing.
We slept on old mattresses on the ground under a stretched canvas that Charel had rigged up. The nearest pit toilet had no door. I asked him what to do if someone approached while I was sitting on the toilet. “When you hear anyone coming, just clear your throat to let them know you are using the toilet and they’ll keep their distance until you’ve finished.”
He opened a large metal trunk in the boot of his vehicle. It contained a great variety of foodstuffs, including delicacies such as tins of smoked mussels. “Good grief,” I exclaimed, “this is amazing!”
Charel grinned and said, “Just because we are in the middle of the Zululand bush it doesn’t mean we have to eat like the bloody blacks.”
That night I could hear the beating of drums somewhere in the distance and smell the smoke from the villagers’ fires. I could hear the click sounds of the Zulu language as the villagers conversed with each other. The stars were incredibly bright in the night sky. My heart soared.
The following day we drove to the dam wall and watched as the sluice gates opened at the pre-arranged time. A deafening torrent of water escaped from the dam and thundered down the riverbed.
Charel had asked one of the villagers to take me out on the river in a canoe the following day. Early that morning we were dropped off downstream with the canoe and spent the whole day paddling back up to the village. Only the tops of some large trees protruded above the water, which had risen by at least seven metres because of the flood. At one stage I suggested that we should row towards the top of a tree that was protruding out of the swirling water to have a look, but the villager said, “Au, that’s not a good idea. Every snake in this whole area will be up in that bit of tree.” We eventually arrived at the village just on dusk.
My brother is an old-fashioned Afrikaner who still clings tightly to his people’s original racist views in a country that has been governed by the black majority for more than twenty years since the end of Apartheid. During a recent visit I was appalled to find that he still used the old offensive Afrikaans racist terms when referring to black or coloured people.
But then, one morning, I asked him if he had been back to Zululand in recent times. He said that he had recently visited the same village where I had stayed with him. “I’ve told my family that they must send some of my ashes up there after I’ve died,” he told me. “The chieftain insists that a part of me must be buried in their village, because I was the one who had brought the annual floods back.”