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IN PICTURES | Protest action for water, the unintended flint which led to damaging farm fires

23 October 2020 - 06:39 By Kgaugelo Masweneng
Hertzogville farmers have lost hundreds of livestock following a field fire, started by protesting informal settlement dwellers.
Hertzogville farmers have lost hundreds of livestock following a field fire, started by protesting informal settlement dwellers.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi/The Sunday Times

While the community of Malebogo informal settlement, Hertzogville, is responsible for fires that have ripped through Free State farmlands this week, they did not do it on purpose. This is according to police and to farmers TimesLIVE met with on Thursday.  

They said that the disgruntled community members staged violent protests on the R708 road between Hertzogville and Christiana, particularly over a lack of water provision around midday on Sunday.  

Jannes de Jager, community safety coordinator at Hertzogville, said the police requested help from the farmers around the area to put the fire.

“People started protesting and burned tires, tanks and other things. I was there helping calm the situation but at the time it was in the hands of the police. The wind was strong at that time, where they burned one of the tires, the wind picked it up and threw it at about 20-metres from the spot.  

“That’s when the fire that spread about 40-kilometres started,” De Jager said.  

He said the protest was the actual spark that set alight the hectares of fields.

“They were complaining about no water and municipal levies. It's just unfortunate that it became something so dramatic. They were about 200 protesters,” De Jager said.  

Police spokesperson Col Thandi Mbambo confirmed the link between the fire and the community protest.  

She said preliminary investigation revealed that about 30,000 hectares of land was not spared by this inferno.  

“About 16 farmers were still trying to extinguish the fire on Monday. However, it was difficult for them as they dealt with heavy smoke inhalation which required assistance of extra authorities such as Emergency Medical Services and Fire Brigade.

The situation in Malebogo is still calm but tense. The nine suspects aged between 19 and 49 were arrested for public violence, malicious damage to property. They damaged four Jojo water communal tanks,” Mbambo said.  

On Monday six people were arrested in Hertzogville for public violence and malicious damage to property. This number added to the 11 that were arrested on Sunday for the same offence. Together with the 11 they appeared in Hertzogville Magistrate's Court on Tuesday.  

They were all granted R1,000 bail each though some, about seven of them, could not afford it and had to remain in custody pending their next court appearance on  November 5.

Hertzogville Agri opened a case of arson in addition to the cases of public violence and malicious damage to property that were opened.

We’re supposed to take care of them, it feels like we failed them
Caren de Bruyn, Free State farmer

Caren de Bruyn, a farmer in the area said not only did the fire burn the fields and the cows, it burned the time and effort she spent on her cattle.  

“All the farmers around here have gone through a lot this week. I even helped a neighbour who I found next to the road standing with shooting a struggling cow. If you have to do that on a Monday morning before you have breakfast, it's just not good. The eyes are burned but it's still alive, it's not the thing to do.

“We’re supposed to take care of them, it feels like we failed them. There are too many factions, thinking of it makes you tired. People are not happy about the service delivery from the municipalities and I understand that because they don’t even have clean water to drink, and that’s a basic human right. They started protesting and it affected people who had nothing to do with the problems they have with the mayor,” De Bruyn said.

The South African Parastatal and Tertiary Institutions Union (Saptu) has added to the call for support to the agricultural community.  

“The farmers in these areas already had to suffer through a terrible drought, and now they have to deal with fires destroying grazing, animals and homes,” says adv Ben van der Walt, the general secretary of Saptu.  Van der Walt is calling on the government to declare the fire-stricken districts to disaster areas and to support the farmers, workers and families affected.

“Even though our members aren’t directly affected, we realize that the destruction of agricultural products has an impact on the whole agricultural community, as well as every link in the value chain.  

“It is heartening to see how other farmers, organizations and individuals are reaching out and sending truckloads of feed and other necessary items to the affected farms.” he added.