Tiny drops hit the zinc roof of the rondavel. But when the light rain subsides 40 minutes later, the ground is barely damp.
This light rain, almost a mist, has been a constant disappointment to the residents of Ngqwele. The village has been caught in the grip of the Eastern Cape drought for more than a year. In 2019, the winter rain never came and the grass turned brown and dry.
There are standpipe taps every 200m and rainwater harvesting tanks attached to some houses, so those living in the area did not need to queue for water at boreholes or charity trucks, as other Eastern Cape residents had to do.
But because of restrictions on the use of municipal water – it can be used for drinking, washing and cooking only – the villagers could not irrigate their vegetable gardens or grass. So when the drought came, their vegetables died and there was nothing for their cattle to eat.
It rained for about eight days in January but it was too early to say if this rainfall would continue and break the drought said the village farmers.
Samuel Mthobeli Mwahla, 67, owns 40 cows, 110 sheep, 40 goats, four pigs and numerous chickens and ducks. He keeps them in one of the village’s four communal “camps”. These are one-hectare areas of land set aside for grazing. Each camp has a small dam similar to a watering hole in the wild, from which animals can drink. But three of these dams are dry at the moment because of the drought.
“We now have to drive the livestock to [the government-built] Ntsikizini Dam. If you are careful about your animals, you will take them 10km there in the morning and home at night. You won’t just leave them there. The problem is that there is no grass. We have to buy lucerne at R150 per bale, but it is no longer available even if we have the money. We used to buy it from Queenstown. I need 20 bales per month just to feed my cattle,” Mwahla says.
He explains that cattle who feed only on commercially produced lucerne get weak legs and, for this reason, he has to add two powdered supplements to his cattle feed. These supplements cost R225 a bag. “If I feed all my cattle, one bag lasts only a week. I usually sell my cattle, but they are too thin this year,” Mwahla adds. He also has the additional cost of hiring more herders to get his cows to suitable grazing further away.
A former teacher, Mwahla is now a pensioner and depends on his livestock for an income. He cannot afford the extra several thousand rand each month that he has to lay out because of the drought. “We are crying for the provincial department to provide food for our cattle, just as they give to commercial farmers,” he says.
Mwahla says the recent rain has not helped much. “It has rained, but not enough yet to grow anything. The cattle are still suffering and dying,” he says. Five of his cows and two calves have died as a result of the drought. “I was expecting to sell those cows for R8 000 each,” he says. “Government has been promising, promising, promising… but there is nothing they have brought us.”
Watching his livestock slowly dying is painful, so Mwahla drives them out to graze knowing that there might not be grass. “I just drive them to get away from my eyes so that if they die, they die where I can’t see them,” he says.
Somila Sentwa, 29, recently finished working on a construction project. He dreams of becoming a full-time farmer but cannot risk buying cows during the drought. He said the January rain has made no discernible difference.
Sentwa owns five cows at the moment. “I lost a pregnant cow in 2019,” he says. “They need more food than just this dry grass. She was weak and got stuck in the mud. We tried to pull her out but we had to slaughter her,” he says, explaining that when the small dams in the area dry out, a thick layer of mud remains that can only be removed by a bulldozer, which the village doesn’t have.
The municipality has allegedly threatened to install prepaid water devices if residents keep irrigating even tiny vegetable plots with tap water. “We have no choice, we must water because we have to eat,” Sentwa says. Waiting for the municipality’s next move has been stressful for the villagers.
Permaculture farmer Goodman Bhacela, 70, has two small plots of land on which he grows mielies, spinach, onions, cabbage, potatoes, beetroot, lettuce, pears, apples, guavas and prickly pears, as well as marijuana and several other medicinal herbs. Bhacela makes and sells natural medicine and keeps goats, chickens and pigs.
Recently, he caught a tortoise in a nearby forest whose dung he uses in his remedies. He is very upbeat and looks younger than his years. “I don’t go to the clinic,” he says. “My clinic is right here,” he adds, pointing to his vegetable plot.
But Bhacela’s vegetables have not thrived in the drought. He says this is because he watered them with tap water, which he claims is too acidic for the plants. There is a small dam 1km away, supplied by a spring. But it is impossible for Bhacela to get this water up the steep hill to his land.
“Government needs to install a pipe from that dam, or a borehole here,” he says. “The tap water is not right. We must have water from the ground or the sky.”
On 11 November 2019, the provincial government announced that it would allocate R74 million for drought relief – mainly to cover the cost of emergency cattle feed – to be shared between commercial and emerging farmers.
But, Mwahla says, “we are still waiting for government to deliver the feed. But by the look of things delivered to our neighbours, it will not be enough.”
A river about 2km from the village is still running. Ngqwele residents don’t use this water because the river is too far away to transport enough of it to make a difference to the village’s grasslands or vegetable gardens.
Sentwa wants to plough the communal land next to the river and establish a vegetable garden there that could be irrigated with river water and would benefit the whole village. But to do this, he will need a bulldozer.
Consequences for retailers
Black Farmers Association of South Africa (Bfasa) president Lennox Mtshagi, 49, says the government has failed small-scale farmers dismally. “Village farmers plan to sell five cows every Christmas to those who come home and want to slaughter cows for cultural reasons. When their cows have already died from drought, small farmers can’t put something on the table in December.”
Mtshagi says there is enough communal land, and sometimes a river, in the villages for farmers to turn to vegetable farming in times of drought. But the problem is that the big retail supermarket chains refuse to buy these vegetables, preferring to buy from commercial farmers, he adds.
Bfasa plans to call the retailers to a meeting in February. If they don’t agree to buy vegetables from small-scale farmers, Mtshagi says, they will be asked to remove their shops from the townships.
“We are threatening straight that if they don’t buy from us, Pick n Pay and others must take their shops out of our townships. We will make sure they remove their shops from the townships because they need to support our people. The retailers come with a bad attitude. That red tape must be removed,” says Mtshagi.