River soldiers fight to heal the Hennops

Beneath a huddle of mealie fields in Tembisa, Willem Snyman and Sibusiso Dlomo are deep in the wetland trenches of the Kaalspruit, fighting to save the polluted Hennops River.

The two navigate a teetering mound of slippery floating plastic and polystyrene that has been caught in a huge web-like wire mesh litter trap they’ve erected. As they walk, their boots sink in the waste. But they no longer notice the stench of sewage and decay from the Kaalspruit, the most significant and dirtiest tributary of the blighted Hennops.

“It’s so beautiful to see all this waste being caught in this litter trap,” says Snyman, an artist who lives on the banks of the Hennops. “We’re in the trenches here in this frontline war. This is almost where we’re drawing the line for this trash to stop and not go downstream anymore.” 

Snyman runs the Fountain River Environmental Sanctuary Hennops (Fresh), a nonprofit that is working to restore the Hennops ecosystem. 

For more than a decade parts of the Hennops, which has been dubbed “the river of faeces”, have been turned into a toxic sludge-filled, plastic-choked mess. 

For Snyman, the enemies are the municipal wastewater treatment plants that often spill into the water system and poor waste services along the course of the Hennops. 

“This [the Kaalspruit] is probably the dirtiest stream in the country and the biggest source of pollution into the Hennops. This is where the problem starts … in a way. 

“There are very high-density informal areas on these streams that catch so much litter — nappies, plastic and styrofoam — and it all merges and comes down here into the Kaalspruit.” 

Toxic brew: Willem Snyman (erected litter traps on the Kaalspruit to stop people’s garbage from polluting the Hennops River.

When the Kaalspruit floods, it rises to double its height, unleashing an enormous torrent of waste. 

“It has torn down the nets we’ve erected,” says Snyman, “But we’re still catching a huge amount. That’s why we’ve erected 100 steel cables on this litter trap. There’s already 40 tons of styrofoam here from the previous storm.”

As Dlomo tightens the wire mesh, he feels proud. “Yes, there is a lot of rubbish that we have to deal with, but it feels good knowing we are taking care of the environment,” says the 28-year-old from Duduza, about 90km south of Tembisa.

Beneath his feet are the hundreds of tons of plastic bags and cloth in which are warren-like tunnels formed by the Kaalspruit during floods.

The litter trap cleans the water, traps sediment, slows torrential floods, mitigates erosion and restores the banks.

“The Kaalspruit has built almost around what we’ve built,” says Snyman. “It gets rid of the plastic and comes out noticeably cleaner on the other side. I can see how it’s healing and restoring itself, which is amazing. You can almost move inside the litter trap and service it through these compartments that the river has formed. It’s very economical and self-running. The only thing we need is for people to clean it. It [the trap] costs very little for the service it is providing for the country.”

Another litter trap has been installed on the Clayville tributary on the edge of the same wetland in Tembisa, in the desperate hope it will save it from imminent danger. An application is pending for high density housing covering the entire floodplain 

“We’d like to see this important wetland area protected and restored,” says Snyman.

Municipalities have failed to solve or even address the pollution problem, which they cause. 

“The only services provided are by these streams that are open waterborne and sewage systems, taking people’s garbage away for free and depositing it in the natural areas in Tshwane … and into the Limpopo River. 

“There’s so much filth and horror that goes into the Hennops — we’ve pulled so many dead animals out the river — and these streams and the Hennops saves all these places from being completely disease-ridden, but it’s all being sent downriver.”

Downriver is the Limpopo River, which arcs northeast and then east, forming part of the border with Botswana and Zimbabwe. It then joins the Luvubu River at Pafuri in the Kruger National Park and flows into Mozambique where it eventually reaches the Indian Ocean at Xai-Xai. 

Hennops Revival

When Tarryn Johnston’s 12-year-old daughter, Kyla, told her she wanted to be involved in a clean-up of the Hennops River in Pretoria last year, Johnston was initially hesitant.

The single mother, who lives a kilometre from the river, didn’t want to get dirty. “I was prissy,” she laughs.

“I met up with Willem [Snyman], and we ended up organising a clean-up. I was addicted. Hooked.”

She remembers the first clean-up, realising how urgent the situation was. “I thought: there’s no time to point fingers, to blame anyone, to scream and shout. There’s only what I can do. I can certainly make a difference. I can make people aware. Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”

Johnston started the Hennops Revival nonprofit to restore the health of the river together with the government, other nongovernmental organisations, the private sector and members of the public.

The clean-ups have so far brought 1 786 people together, who removed 19 664 bags of waste — a total of 961 735kg — in the past year.

“We’ve made such a fuss of the Hennops that nobody can ignore it any more. This is the largest river in Gauteng, and it’s the most polluted,” says Johnston.

The department of water and sanitation has joined clean-ups to remove polystyrene islands while the City of Tshwane’s mayor Randall Williams, has dirtied his hands too.

“As the mayor was being inaugurated, I was in his inbox, asking him to please come to my clean-up and he did,” says Johnston. “He came to work and pick up shit in the river physically … He’s the only person on the ground that can communicate with all the cities polluting the river.”

Tarryn Johnston and others are working to restore the river’s health, but they can’t stop the sewage — that’s municipalities and government departments’ job.

Hennops Revival pays 15 people from impoverished areas to help clean the river. The nonprofit also runs food gardens and upstream education projects. Johnston would like to expand its reach, but she needs more resources.

For Hennops Revival director, Taiya Self, the clean-ups are about replacing apathy with love. 

“People look at a problem and think: ‘What can I do? There’s no point,’ or ‘we must find the source of the pollution’ — as if there’s this magical one place. It’s poverty, it’s waste management and it’s our disconnect: that’s the source [of the pollution]. 

“When people see our participation with love, we see their minds change from ‘this is not our problem’ to community activism,” says Self.

At the Irene Farm between Johannesburg and Pretoria, Self and Johnson show how they’ve just spent five days clearing waste from the Hennops, where strips of plastic and clothes cling to trees.

“There’s so much stuff flowing down continuously. This is many layers. You think you’ll just grab some trash and it’s sorted out, but it’s like archaeological digs,” says Self.

Johnston peers into the river and says, “The water is much clearer. Before you couldn’t see these rocks.

“Sewage is a huge issue in the Hennops — the problem is upstream. If you go to Tembisa, you can’t walk 100m without another burst manhole.”

That’s where the metro cities of Ekurhuleni, Jo’burg and Tshwane meet up and, says Johnson, they need to work together to stop the pollution. 

“In the end, we’re all upstream of the ocean,” says Johnston. “Whatever we’re doing here — even though people say that we’re wasting our time, that we must go to the source — whatever we’re taking out of the river here is not going upstream, into Harties [the Hartbeesport Dam], and into the ocean. I’m happy with that.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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