Just over a week has passed since Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal descended into a hotbed of violence that claimed over 370 lives and where looting and arson saw over R20 billion damages of commercial 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.
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I watched the news, astonished at what I saw. 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 no more. Then the food, cash and fuel shortages came. We could not buy staples like bread or milk, withdraw cash or find open fuel stations. Panic set in. How long will this last?
After weaving my way through tree branches, rubble and the odd burned-out car, I stood in lines for groceries at the few neighbourhood stores that somehow managed to survive the onslaught. It felt apocalyptic, 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.
Once it was safe to do so, scores of volunteers organised clean-ups of affected areas.
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. Even as I write this, people are helping to rebuild. Some shops which were looted and damaged opened up again in less than a day.
This gave me hope and 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 Spekbooms 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 Spekbooms. 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.
MORE ABOUT SPEKBOOMS
According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute(SANBI), the humble succulent (Portulacaria afra) carries many names, Porkbush or Elephant's Food in English; Spekboom or Olifantskos in Afrikaans; iNtelezi, isiDondwane, isAmbilane, iNdibili, isiCococo in isiZulu.
The common name, Spekboom, is Afrikaans and directly translates to “bacon tree”. Some believe the name was given to the plant because of how similar the leaves are to that of a pig, plump, round and sturdy. SANBI further states that Spekboom has various uses; the leaves can be eaten raw and have a sour or tart flavour. Spekboom has also been indicated as a soil binder for preventing soil erosion in arid areas making it vital for habitat conservation and restoration.
Traditional uses include the increase of 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.”
According to Dr Donovan Kirkwood, curator of the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden, “in its natural habitat, Spekboom is an important element in maintaining huge natural carbon stores. Degrading, overgrazing or clearing of this habitat, historically or now, results in the release of that carbon store as both soil organic matter and plant biomass decomposes. In terms of actively reducing emissions, that habitat must be conserved… it’s a key ecological element of these systems, and a valuable food source to browsing mammals”.
The good doctor added “Spekboom is a fantastic, tough, easy to grow, attractive water-wise plant for the garden, available horticulturally in a range of forms from ground cover to tall shrubs – it’s a great choice for gardens anywhere”.