The Rescuers: In the Karoo with modern-day South African heroes
In a contemporary national landscape of think tanks, talk shops, crisis committees, incentive schemes, academic theories, boardroom consultations, endless commissions of enquiry and the general yadda-yadda of non-delivery, Gift of the Givers chooses direct action above all else. They have a rescue plan for this country. It’s easy to follow and it’s already in motion.
Today, on a bleak day in the early spring of 2020, the team arrives in force at Klipplaat village in the Eastern Cape Karoo, with a full-range relief convoy: three interlink truckloads of fodder for farmers still struggling with the drought, PPE for the local clinic, 1,000 food parcels for the hungry, a drilling rig for finding water, and a massive trailer full of donated JoJo tanks to hold the precious liquid. That’s how they roll.
This is our fourth Karoo relief assignment with a Gift of the Givers squad in three years.
The Fraserburg Run
We first meet the group’s Karoo Operations Manager, Ali Sablay, in the spring of 2018 in the Northern Cape village of Fraserburg. The Gift of the Givers Foundation has brought a convoy of giant trucks loaded with donated hay bales to the beleaguered local farmers. Christians and Muslims doff their hats and pray together in the delivery yard.
One of those standing with head bowed is Jasper Maphosa Gonouya, a former traffic cop from Zimbabwe, now a truck driver for Gift of the Givers.
“African countries must work together. If South Africa collapses, that’s the end of the road for Africa. That is why we must save this country.”
Ali explains how Gift of the Givers became involved in helping with the Karoo drought. A farmer’s wife in the Sutherland district, Hester Obermeyer, asked the organisation if they had any knitting wool because women were crocheting toy sheep to sell and raise money for badly needed drought relief.
In short order, Hester was made a drought coordinator with Gift of the Givers and the foundation made the first delivery of fodder to the Sutherland district, where the collective flock of 450,000 sheep had shrunk to 30,000 and is still dwindling.
The Graaff-Reinet Water Drop
We join the group again the next year in Graaff-Reinet, when the town’s Nqweba Dam had run completely dry, the boreholes are failing and residents often have no more than a faint gurgle in their water taps.
Walking through the crowd of desperate locals, defensive municipal officials, “Gift” workers and a TV crew at the edge of the dam, we find Ali standing on his own at a distance on the cracked earth, busy on one of his two cellphones.
In the background is a green interlink truck, big as a billboard, emblazoned with the words “Gift of the Givers” and in smaller letters, “Best Among People Are Those Who Benefit Mankind”.
He introduces us to Graaff-Reinetter Corene Conradie, a former financial adviser and now full-time drought relief coordinator for Gift of the Givers.
Corene’s journey to this incredibly focused and successful organisation began in February 2018 when she found a woman in the local Umasizakhe township collapsed on the pavement. Corene took her to the town hospital, where she discovered that patients had fallen ill because of their low immunity and the contaminated municipal water. She started organising donations of clean water into the township.
That’s when she met Ali, whose job is to coordinate the supply of drinking water, drilling of boreholes, delivery of food parcels and convoys of animal fodder to the driest and most desperate towns and regions of the Karoo.
“When we hand out the water I must go with some strong guys who can help me marshall the people,” she says. An hour later, as we follow their water-laden interlink truck into the township, we find out why.
Children run behind it. Wheelbarrows emerge from yards. Drunken day-revellers reel out of taverns. People still in pyjamas at midday hasten towards us. The truck pulls up next to a yard full of chained-up pitbulls that predictably go crazy.
A rowdy, ragtag queue of anxious faces gathers. But the second they clutch their five-litre bottles of donated water, the faces are transformed into broad grins and expressions of gratitude. A mother and her young daughter pass us, bearing all the water they can carry.
“Dis jou eie water, my kind, jou eie,” says the mother. (This is your own water, my child, your very own.)
The Adelaide Farm Borehole
The Gift of the Givers has its very own magical waterman, a diviner who is also a geologist, hydrologist and paleontologist, known everywhere in the Karoo simply as “Oom Gideon”.
If you are looking for Dr Gideon Groenewald at two in the morning, he is very likely to be hovering over the planet at an altitude of 78km, courtesy of Google Earth. In the small hours, he calms his mind and quietly allows the patterns of tree growth to reveal water-holding fault lines.
If a telltale sign of certain green trees emerges, he zooms in closer over the Karoo. If it still looks promising, he starts looking for access roads or flat terrain so that a borehole rig can get there.
After sunrise, he will give the coordinates to Pheello Mofokeng of Bethlehem, one of the best borehole rigmen he knows. It is Pheello (or his son Mpiyake) who will direct the drill and refine the search.
Together they have a phenomenal 98% success rate.
“You can call it luck, or wisdom, but it is also a miracle,” says Oom Gideon.
Where there are fractures or fault zones the electromagnetic field of the Earth subtly alters, he says. These faults do not always yield economically viable quantities of water. But the underground structures can often hold enough water to sustain life and make a difference above ground.
Oom Gideon says he is not a water diviner, but on a desperately dry farm where avocado and citrus trees are dying outside Post Retief between Adelaide and Fort Beaufort, he uses the forked branch of a nearby guarri bush to pinpoint the faultline.
Pheello confirms the place with the help of two wires in his hands. At the point where he steps across the hidden aquifer, the wires turn towards each other and cross. His colleague Heinrich Erasmus, also of Bethlehem, double-checks with the magnetometer.
Once again, Gift of the Givers is coming to the rescue of a town broken by years of municipal neglect, drought and the financial devastation wrought by the Covid-19 lockdown.
The body and every living thing is exquisitely sensitive to unseen forces, which is why all these methods work, says Gideon.
Now a folk hero in the eyes of many, the Oom donates his skills as a volunteer geohydrologist to Gift of the Givers.
Coming into Klipplaat
We watch the Gift of the Givers convoy arrive in early September 2020, at the eastern entrance to Klipplaat. The scene includes a set of derelict and abandoned vegetable tunnels where nothing grows except a few weeds, the plastic covering torn and flapping in the wind. Old litter is trapped by fences, scrubby plants and thorn bushes, and a line of bluegum trees hovers on the brink of life and death.
The road has a faint scar, with the remains of a burnt tyre to one side. Perhaps a service delivery protest that yielded nothing.
Once again, Gift of the Givers is coming to the rescue of a town broken by years of municipal neglect, drought and the financial devastation wrought by the Covid-19 lockdown. They are led into town by the police at a stately pace with lights flashing, past the gaunt remains of an old steam locomotive on the left.
During South Africa’s golden century of rail travel, Klipplaat was a major junction. At one stage you could hardly move for all the comings and goings of the old steam behemoths heading for Cape Town, Port Elizabeth or up to Graaff-Reinet.
This was of great benefit to the local mohair and wool farmers wanting to ship their products to market, particularly in Port Elizabeth. In fact, there was a minor ostrich boom in the area for a while, and the rail system helped that business along, too.
And when the Anglo-Boer War came along, Klipplaat was abuzz with British soldiers, quartermasters and mountains of military gear.
And should you ever meet up with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, ask her if she remembers a little Karoo railway station called Klipplaat. Remind her that, way back on a Royal Tour in 1947, when she was still a princess, she asked the local shopkeeper for a tube of toothpaste.
But all that is history today, as our convoy makes its way past the police station, the grace of its old buildings faded and in need of paint. A few children pop out of houses in their slip-slops and gowns to gape at the procession, which heads slowly to the Hotel Charles (“Home of Champions”) with its distinctive cowboy swing-doors. Inside is the famous bar with companionable bartenders under the hunting trophies on the walls.
Outside, it’s a Karoo Brueghel of local farmers and community, media and our new friends from the Karoo side of Gift of the Givers: Ali, Hester, Corene, Oom Gideon and someone we’ve only ever seen in photographs: Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of the organisation.
The Good Doctor
This extraordinary man’s story has become the stuff of legend, both locally and internationally. His latest award, made in October 2021, is that of Social Justice Champion of the Year.
Not long after he qualified as a medical doctor and was working in a private practice in Pietermaritzburg, Dr Sooliman, then 30 years old, travelled overseas and met a Sufi teacher in Istanbul, Turkey.
“My son, I’m instructing you to form an organisation. The name will be Gift of the Givers,” the teacher told him. “You will serve all people of all races, of all religions, of all colours, of all classes, of all political affiliations and of any geographical location. You will serve them unconditionally.”
Dr Sooliman and his wife Zohra began their humanitarian campaign from their home. Today, you’ll see Gift of the Givers wherever there is hunger, disaster or a need – they have even been involved in international kidnapping mediation and hostage negotiation.
Gift of the Givers now has a staff of 550 worldwide, has built hospitals, both mobile and permanent, in strife-ridden spots like Bosnia and northern Syria, delivered food and water as far as Pakistan and brought succour to earthquake, hurricane and tsunami victims across the globe. Their latest trans-border work includes projects in Mozambique and Beirut, Lebanon.
But today, Dr Sooliman and a large contingent of his South African crew are here in Klipplaat, Karoo Heartland of the Eastern Cape.
They have come to help those who have fallen through the cracks of other drought-relief interventions – the smaller farmers, the emerging farmers, the ones for whom a single bale of fodder makes a real difference. One bale means that at least for two weeks a farmer won’t have to buy feed for 200 sheep, we hear later. And now, in mid-September, a fortnight’s reprieve might save you before the early summer rains.
There are no new bakkies here. No new clothes. Everyone’s shoes, socks and jackets have seen better days. But there is a quiet buzz of hope and contentment.
Everyone present forms a circle. Local farmer Nicol Matthews leads the prayers.
“Lord, thank you for sending us these people. Bless their hearts and thank you for bringing them safely here. Thank you for the mercy that you send through them, as we struggle through our fifth year of drought. Bless them and keep them. Amen.”
The Klipplaat clinic nurse who first called Gift of the Givers for help, Sister Phumla Seane, speaks. She gives thanks, especially to “Oom Gideon, who never tires”.
Dr Sooliman speaks
Then it’s Dr Sooliman’s turn to address the crowd. He steps forward and removes his mask, safely socially distant from everyone in a town that has (at the time of writing) not yet seen a single death from Covid-19. And then he delivers an incredible speech:
“I love the way farmers operate. They are saying let us save as many jobs as we can. They are making great sacrifices to keep paying and feeding their farmworkers. And Afrikaners are not people who easily put their hand out to receive. But now we are seeing more farmers asking us for food parcels. They have put their pride in their pocket because they need to survive.
“God has done this for a purpose. We need to share with one another. We stand together. I am so touched when farmers donate fodder for each other because at this moment, fodder is more important than gold. But they are giving it up for each other.
“Oom Gideon has been selfless. I know I can call him at any time of the night and he will answer. I can say to him, Oom Gideon, I need you to head off in three hours’ time. You are needed here or there, and he goes. He is the most valuable person because he is able to find water 98% of the time. I know this because I pay the bills!
“We must return to the value system that says: Every child is our child. Every mother is our mother. Every sister is our sister. Every brother is our brother.”
“We are hearing alarming things from our people on the ground. A woman in Peddie told us that her children knew the flavours of all the plants in the area because they had tried to eat them all. Yet the government sent the whole town 25 food parcels over the entire lockdown. Outside Mthatha, they tell us children are surviving on grass. Also in Mthatha, a woman told us she is trying to remove all the dogs and cats – they are being killed and eaten. We hear about people going into the veld to catch tortoises to eat.
“This is the kind of thing that happens in war zones, like Syria or Yemen, not in peacetime.
“In Graaff-Reinet, our water truck drivers and workers see children trying to lick out the last bit of jam from tins at the dump, opening every peanut butter bottle to look for scraps.
“When we arrive to help, they tell us we are the first to have responded to them. Where is government? We don’t know. People tell us they are ignored, left alone, hopeless. They say they have called for help but no one responds to them.
“We are told that the hospitals have been supplied with PPEs. But then why are the nurses and healthcare workers singing and dancing with joy when we arrive with protection for them?
“Is this a normal thing? It is not. Why is this happening? We must return to the value system that says: Every child is our child. Every mother is our mother. Every sister is our sister. Every brother is our brother. Covid showed us that we are equal no matter what race, colour and religion. It hit the most advanced economies in the world.
“It has also brought me here. We have discovered people and places in this country that are so good. Let us not only get this town back together, but also our country.”
The National Rescue Plan
Dr Sooliman knows that this kind of aid is nothing but triage, a plaster on a gaping wound. More needs to be done, because an endless supply of food parcels is not sustainable. It’s not a long-term option. He says if anything can create jobs and turn the economy around, it is agriculture.
“Reboot the economy from the bottom. People want to be self-sufficient, they want to be able to feed themselves.
“Start with farmworkers. They help supply the food that the country needs. You help secure the farm, the employees, crops and livestock, you are putting money into the pockets of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers. They will shop and bank. They will send their children to school.
“The farmers need equipment, they need supplies, they grow the food we all need, far cheaper than it would cost to import. It all starts on farms.”
Dr Sooliman and Ops Manager Ali find “anchors” in each district, local people who will talk directly with their community and find out what the needs are.
Among Farmers Again
Dr Sooliman’s “anchor” in Klipplaat, Sister Phumla Seane, came here two years ago. She was born and raised in nearby Graaff-Reinet.
“But I was surprised when I came here,” she says. “It was the middle of the drought. There was utter desperation. I thought, how can anyone live here? My challenge was that the problems ran deeper than wounds or blood pressure problems. Healing was needed on the inside.
“Every patient was hungry, and they would pour their heart out to me. Many of them were malnourished, high or drunk. I realised they were mostly just trying to numb the pain of going to sleep without food. I came to realise that preventative medicine starts with trying to feed them. Many pills need to be taken with food, otherwise they can erode the stomach lining and then you have worse problems. Or people get dizzy.
“And then Covid came on top of everything else. But Covid also gave me the strength to ask for help. Gift of the Givers responded in such a huge way. I have never known anyone who can be so kind, who sees people as humans. Because I’m dealing with souls here, not just bodies.”
Sister Phumla has especially warm feelings towards the local farming community.
“It was the farmers and the Graaff-Reinet community that sent me off to get a tertiary education in primary healthcare and then a business degree at Stellenbosch University,” she tells us.
“Now here I am among farmers again, and even through the drought, they make sure I am fed. They bring me organic eggs, honey and bread.”
Hester Obermeyer, the “Sutherland Anchor”, clad in a puffer jacket and dark glasses, is buzzing the hotel grounds around with coffee.
She gestures to the trucks – Mother Truckers and Hendrik van Wyk Vervoer.
“The trucks here are all angels in drought relief. Naude Pienaar, a farmer from the North West (Agri-NW) has done more for the farmers of the Karoo than anyone. He organised these loads. One from Hartbeesfontein, one from Klerksdorp, one from Gerdau and Makwassie.
“Mother Truckers gives us one free loaded trip anywhere in the country, once a month. So does Hendrik van Wyk. The farmers donate fodder, and then Gift of the Givers pays for the diesel.
“It all starts with a phone call. And the farmers around here know me. I come from the Willowmore area. That’s where I was born.
“The way we allocate the bales is based on a system we worked out in Sutherland. How many hectares is the farm? How many animals on it? Then we know how to allocate – five bales for this one, three for that one, two for that one.”
Through the most draining and worst days of drought since 2018, even when she and her family realised they had to give up their safety nets of insurance and medical aid, she kept getting fodder, food and water to the farmers in need. That’s the calibre of South Africans drawn to work with Gift of the Givers.
Reviving the School Borehole
At the nearby Brandovale Primary School, amid desolation and the litter that indicates hopelessness, is a drilling rig that sticks up like a steeple, holding the truck pegged above the earth.
Nearby is a huge compressor. There is Oom Gideon, with his cowboy hat and green Gift T-shirt. He and Mphiyakhe Mofokeng power up the rig. Mysterious parts move and suddenly a grey-water geyser fountains up in the school yard next to a heap of detritus and the derelict sports markings on an unplayable piece of asphalt.
They measure the output with a 20-litre bucket to calculate how many litres per hour it will yield. For principal Cedric Jacobs, it will make a real difference for the school. There are 419 pupils here from Grade R to 7, and often the school gets no water through the taps for washing or flushing, let alone drinking. Then they have to send the children home.
When did it last rain here in Klipplaat? Principal Jacobs looks blank, thinks for a few seconds, then confesses:
“I really can’t remember.”
Finding the Money
Financing these Gift of the Givers ventures here and abroad is a massive undertaking. Large corporate donations have, however, been flowing in of late.
“That’s relatively new for us,” says Dr Sooliman. “Until now, it has been almost exclusively individuals from South Africa supporting our various missions. The people of this country remain one of the most generous on Earth.” DM/ML/MC
To find out more, visit Gift of the Givers.
This is an extract chapter from Karoo Roads by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. Both Karoo Roads and Karoo Roads II can be ordered from Julienne at [email protected]
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