My Inspiration: From artist to river ranger – Helen Duigan

JOHANNESBURG — The inspirational stories are starting to fill my inbox but please email me [email protected] if you’d still like to contribute. In the piece below Helen Duigan finds inspiration in an artist, Willem Snyman, who’s swapped his time for painting to cleaning up the Hennops river in Pretoria. – Stuart Lowman

By Helen Duigan

Willem Snyman is an artist – except he has no time for painting anymore. Nick-named the River Ranger, this tall, quiet guy has walked countless kilometres along the 100 km long winding Hennops River in Pretoria in an effort to find solutions to the appallingly polluted state of the river.

In October he launched the 10-day Restoration of the Hennops River campaign. Tramping through suburbs and townships and squatter camps along the river, he and a small group of helpers identified the sources of the pollution, which leave the river black, smelly and clogged with sewerage and rubbish.

Rubbish dumping into stream in Ivory Park. Credit: Willem Snyman

Starting at Kaalfontein at the upper reaches of the river, continuing through Ivory Park and Tembisa, down to SuperSport Park in Centurion, they helped clean rubbish from the river and involved residents in planting trees to strengthen the banks.

“The tree-planting also represents the start of a river bank park for local people,” says Snyman. “Fast-growing, they will provide shade and a relaxing place to sit and are part of proving that the river can be much more than merely a rubbish bin.”

Snyman also challenged unscrupulous “developers” who sold “plots” on the rubble which is illegally dumped on the river banks, for as much as R4,000 each to people desperate for housing. “When the river floods, these people could lose everything, including their lives.” On the advice of community members, he had to leave the area in the face of threats to his life from these “developers”.

Hennops River
Community along Kaalspruit, which feeds the Hennops, cleaning up. Credit: Willem Snyman

In the Duduza section of Ivory Park, the volunteers and residents cleaned up with enthusiasm even though they had no safety equipment. “The bags and masks Ekurhuleni Waste Department promised to bring when we met at their offices the previous day did not materialise” says Willem. “With bare hands we confronted the rubbish and extended the cleaned area substantially on both sides of the stream.“

“The most numerous items were bags full of soiled Pampers – hundreds of thousands of these horrible items in the stream, all taking a thousand years to decay. They should be banned outright or made from bio-degradable materials.”

“No rubbish pick-up has ever happened here – a community of about 10,000 who all use the stream for waste disposal – a shameful state. We will pressurise Ekurhuleni for skips and regular pick-ups for this community.”

Snyman makes liberal use of litres of Effective Micro-organisms (EMs), which help to clean the water and dissolve the black sludge clogging the river.

He also challenged the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and ERWAT (East Rand Water) in Ekurhuleni to properly investigate the black tides and the waves of foam regularly coming down the river.

Hennops River foaming
Foam flowing from Hennops River near Royal Elephant Hotel Centurion West on 9 December 2018. Credit: Willem Snyman

Photos of a two-metre foam wave taken on Sunday 9 December were sent to Justice Maluleke, DWS Director of Regulation, to demand an investigation into the state of the Olifantsfontein Wastewater Treatment Works, to where the origin of the foam was traced. Maluleke dismissively claimed that these were “old photos”, a claim subsequently repeated to the media* by DWS spokesperson, Sputnik Ratau.

In the meantime Snyman had rallied a group of volunteers to drag the vast amount of rubbish collected at a bridge on West Road near SuperSport Park in Centurion from the river. Tshwane Nature Conservation also assisted with helpers, skips and trucks to cart away the rubbish, mostly plastic and styrofoam. Sadly, in less than two weeks, the same amount of rubbish had collected again at this spot.

Read also: My Inspiration: Our onnie Johan Stemmet was much more than a TV star – David Melvill

Snyman is undaunted in his passion to save the Hennops River. He has a property on its banks in the soon-to-be-proclaimed Crocodile River Reserve – not far from where the Hennops joins the Crocodile, doubling the load of sewage and rubbish running into Hartbeespoort Dam.

“Another major source of pollution comes from the messes left by informal recycling groups, the Bagerezi,” says Willem. An estimated 90,000 Bagerezi who push and pull the rickety trolleys laden with large bags of recyclables live in and work mostly from informal settlements on river banks, due to the need to wash bottles and wet cardboard.  These tend to be “free” spaces, centrally located, hidden and easily occupied.

“Few attempts have been made to formalise the Bagerezi’s function,” says Willem. “Yet they play a large role in the recycling of waste in our country, where practically no separation at source takes place.”

Read also: My Inspiration: Boksburg, Tyron and The Angel – Darren Mansfield

Two Bagerezi sites were tackled. At the first site, off Wierda Road in Centurion, the Bagerezi had already been forced to move, leaving behind great piles of rubbish on the banks and in the river, plus a huge mound of single-use plastics that are not recyclable.

At the second site, there was direct engagement with the Bagerezi community and the riverbank rubbish piles were tackled. A huge amount of trash was removed by the volunteers, assisted by the community. “A dirty but satisfying job – cleaning space to restore dignity,” remarked Willem.

“Afterwards everyone had a hearty lunch! The community made a commitment to no longer use the river bank as a rubbish bin and were given trash bags to use until a skip can be placed there. Tshwane is looking for a proper place for it.”

“Communities along the river are crying out for help and these grave health risks must be remedied – like the sewerage flowing down the streets where children play, running into the streams and stormwater pipes – and the huge piles of rubbish that are never removed.”

Snyman, a committee member of ARMOUR (Action for Responsible Management of Our Rivers) and a founder of FRESH (Fountain River Environmental Sanctuary Hennops), is tackling the pollution of the Hennops River as the foundation for a much larger vision –  a River Sanctuary that links the Hennops, Crocodile and Jukskei Rivers in greenbelt reserves, with walking trails and park areas on the river banks in residential areas and settlements.

“And linking them all,” says Willem, “clean, sparkling rivers restored to what they were many years ago.”

*Sewage Flow Clogs Hennops, Saturday Star, 15/12/2018