Picture: Henk Kruger / African News Agency (ANA) – Tree entrepreneur Valentine Kagura inspects his newly planted Spekboom. South Africans are Spekboom, resilient, hardy and able to find hope in the most devastating circumstances, as in the aftermath of the violence and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng a year ago, the writer says.
By Dominic Naidoo
Last week, South Africa observed the one-year anniversary of the looting and unrest that rocked KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng to the core. Sweeping through suburbs, towns and townships, KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng descended into a hotbed of violence, which claimed over 370 lives and where looting and arson saw over R25 billion in damages of commercial and public property.
Whether it was the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma, an attempted coup on our elected government or simply the abstract poverty millions of South Africans are facing, no reason or explanation could have prepared us and the world for what was to come.
Roads, warehouses, shopping malls, factories and even tuck shops were laid to waste. My family and I sat watching the news, astonished at what I saw. It felt like we were watching a high budget movie as scenes of apocalyptic looting and violence played through our screens.
Disbelief and shock quickly became feelings of stress, anxiety and hopelessness. Malls and stores which I frequented all my life were being ravaged and destroyed. Businesses my parents visited before they had even met were now no more than empty, burnt out shells.
At first I thought, like the many protests which happen across the country, this would be quelled and calm will return within a day or two. I was wrong. After there was nothing left to steal and no structures left to burn, the food, cash and fuel shortages came. We could not buy staples like bread or milk, withdraw cash or find fuel stations that were open.
After weaving my way through tree branches, rubble, the odd burnt-out car and big burly men standing at community checkpoints, I stood in lines for groceries at the few neighbourhood stores that somehow managed to survive the onslaught. It felt surreal.
Then it happened. Social media posts switched from those of despair to those of hope. South Africans came together mere hours after the devastation to offer assistance to those in need. A local Islamic organisation handed out free loaves of bread to anyone who needed it.
Fresh produce, milk and other essentials were being shipped in from all over this beautiful country. People were being helped no matter their race, religion or background.
I grabbed a few family members, some brooms and headed out to help. Volunteers were so efficient that many areas were cleaner than they were before the looting and protests began.
People were helping to rebuild. Some shops which were looted and damaged opened up again in less than a day.
Fast-forward nine months, in April, KZN found itself struggling to stay afloat as three days of rain caused the most devastating floods the country has experienced in decades. Just as mop-up operations were gaining traction, further floods flowed through the city again in May.
But again, South Africans came together. Food aid made its way to affected areas from all corners of the county. People came together, regardless of colour or creed, to help rebuild.
My tears of sorrow and helplessness turned into tears of hope. It reminded me of how resilient South Africans can be. No matter what is thrown at us, we get back up and keep going. If I had to describe South Africans as a plant, we would no doubt be the Spekboom of the world.
As an expert explains it: “Spekboom can root from cuttings even in degraded soils which reach 70°C in summer and which receive no rain for several months on end. These rooted cuttings can then grow into mature plants over 10 to 20 years, allowing the Spekboom thicket to regenerate.”
South Africans are Spekboom. We can absorb negative experiences and grow from them. We can thrive in situations that seem hopeless. We are self-reliant and focused. We are masters at rebuilding what we have lost and conserving what we have to the best of our ability. Spekboom roots hold the soil together, create habitats for other species to live and thrive, providing food, shelter and hope. We are Spekboom. We are South African.
Like Spekboom, South Africans are also quite flexible. We are able to roll with the punches, adapting to change when needed and are multi-talented.
Spekboom can be used to increase breast milk by lactating mothers and the leaves can be used to quench thirst. Sucking on the leaves can treat exhaustion, dehydration and heatstroke.
Crushed leaves can be rubbed on blisters and corns on the feet to provide relief. The leaves can be chewed as a treatment for sore throat and mouth infections while the juice is used for soothing ailments of the skin such as pimples, rashes and insect stings. The juice is also used as an antiseptic and as a treatment for sunburn.
Dr Anthony Mills, the chief executive of C4 EcoSolutions, a consultancy group focusing on the environment and biodiversity said: “Spekboom cuttings, unlike cuttings of most other thicket species, have a high rate of survival in the dry, hot soils of degraded thicket … Spekboom is also unusual in being able to grow rapidly in both wet and dry conditions”.
“Planted in the correct area, Spekboom is indeed a miracle plant. It can root from cuttings even in degraded soils which reach 70°C in summer and which receive no rain for several months on end. These rooted cuttings can then grow into mature plants over 10 to 20 years, allowing the Spekboom thicket to regenerate.”
Yes, recently it does seem that hope for a better South Africa is fast slipping away but, like the resilient Spekboom, we will rise from the ashes and mud and we will thrive.
Naidoo is an environmental activist