One man’s steak is another man’s cow

2013-11-06 00:00

THE D409 just outside Camperdown was a muddy mess of clinging red-brown clay in September a decade or so ago. Peering through the fence line of a small thornveld farm at the end of the road, you might have noticed a herd of contented cattle grazing happily on the rich veld grass among the scattered sweet thorns and paper barks, with the imposing figure of Pauline fussing among them.

She would be seen talking softly to the matriarch, Annie, and her contemporaries, Eve, Sandy, Petal, Lulu and others, some bursting with new life, most with their offspring bouncing happily on spindly legs or tugging at engorged teats. These animals were not measured in Average Daily Gain or litres per hectare. They provided Pauline with a far deeper satisfaction, a fundamental joy of being in their presence. Annie was the iconic Jersey, her rich-red coat the hue of the flooding stream in the valley depths. She had been a gift for Robert, Pauline’s son, when he was four years old, and she responded with contentment to the 14 years of love and care attached to her status. Her productive race had been run and she was enjoying the tranquillity of retirement. The slaughterhouse was the destination of others.

Had you glanced upwards into the oppressive afternoon sky that wet spring afternoon, however, you would have noticed a large flock of kites and other aerial scavengers circling ominously over a farm just up the road. Pigs in a dilapidated piggery were dying in alarming numbers. Those not dead were limping and drooling, many on the point of death. These pigs had been fed waste from the galley of a ship docked at Maydon Wharf on the Durban harbour that had taken on provisions in Asia for the long journey down the east African seaboard.

And then the authorities moved in. First, a flurry of officials from the Department of Agriculture, then the police. Pauline saw the commotion up the road and heard the rumours. “Foot and mouth disease” was the news from the lips of neighbours and concerned friends and acquaintances. “Foot and mouth disease” confirmed the headlines on the radio, TV and in the newspapers. “The first outbreak of the exotic form of foot and mouth disease in KwaZulu-Natal since the 19th century.”

The word was carried on the voices of the masses, through gossip in bars and shebeens, in supermarket aisles and over counters at spaza shops, at stock sales, dip tanks and izimbizo. It reached Thabo in his kraal at the foot of the massif they call emKhambathini at the mouth of the Valley of a Thousand Hills and Gerrie in his humble abode on the banks of the uMlazi on the road to uMbumbulu

Police activity intensified along the D409. Road blocks were constructed and access to the farm was limited to authorities. Urgent and high-level discussion behind closed doors and in the public domain ensued. After much deliberation, the call was made. In order to limit the spread of the disease, all cloven-hoofed animals within three kilometres of the pig farm would be destroyed. In addition, there was to be severe restrictions on the movement of people and products within a 10-kilometre radius of the affected farms. This would have detrimental financial and social repercussions for all who lived and worked in the area. And already, with the first media utterances, our trading partners were closing their borders to our products, affecting industries associated with agriculture throughout the country.

By the time the culling commenced, the disease had spread to the neighbouring piggery and a Red Angus stud. A wet dawn heralded the rattle of rifle fire and when there was silence, some 800 pigs and fat Angus cows lay dead. Bulldozers and front-end loaders ripped the soft earth apart and dumped the steaming bodies into their watery graves. It was not easy. They floated.

Pauline heard the muffled pop, pop, pop and feared the worst. When the authorities did arrive, she wanted it over as quickly as possible. With a heart as heavy as the grey rain clouds gathered above, she signed the warrants of death for her entire bovine family.

The family wandered among the herd, shocked, angry and buckled with gut-twisting grief. They gave the animals extra food and put them into the best pastures. There was no further need for diligent fodder management. And then the noise started. Light aircraft, helicopters, soldiers on horseback. The army had moved in to make sure there was no movement of livestock off the farm. Eventually, Pauline departed, taking her poignant memories with her. Robert remained to oversee the massacre. The animals were herded into a small camp. Annie and a couple of the more fractious animals were tranquillised as an army sharp shooter took up his position. She stood quietly next to her master in the background as her family fell to the ground like large, coloured, overripe fruit from a tree in a gale. And when it was finally her time, Robert walked away. The day was eventually quiet.

Then the disease spread out of the quarantine area, perhaps carried on the treads of contaminated boots, within the stains of working clothes and deep inside stolen meat products. And now, beyond the sweeping gaze of authority, underneath moonlit crags in remote valleys and within the kraals of stock farms, a migration was beginning, as quick, as subtle and as persistent as the ripple of a breeze over a muddy farm dam. Cattle called Daisy and Spot and Tennis occupy a family niche more intractable than that which should be ended by a marksman’s bullet. Remuneration may compensate for commercial value, but it is no substitute for thousands of years of intimate history. Cows with such lyrical descriptions as amaqandakahwayiba (the eggs of the dikkop) and imasenezimpukane (sour milk with flies) are interwoven into the spiritual, emotional and aesthetic lives of the people of the valleys. Banknotes are a poor substitute for most. So, during the dark hours of night and at the first touch of sunlight, from kraals behind walls and through the thick, remote bush and distant clearings, stock owners concerned about their animals and unwilling to sacrifice them, quietly moved their stock away from the advancing authorities. Thabo was there in the vanguard of his small group, moving his cattle down tracks and dirt roads to relatives near Inanda and, if necessary, beyond. There was a quiet and pensive silence, broken only by the plodding metronome of the beasts and their odd bellow. Gerrie had already ordered a truck for his livestock. He had family in North West Province.

Instead of curtailing the disease, the strategy was chasing it.

Many thousands of animals lay dead when it was decided to stop the killing. Vaccine was imported and injecting the vast numbers of animals commenced. The sun came out and gradually the disease was brought under control. By the end of the year, the last clinical case was history.

For many who made their living exporting agricultural products throughout the country, this was the death knell for their businesses. And those who lived in the Midlands and surrounding districts, from mechanics to tractor franchise holders, vegetable hawkers to property moguls, abattoir workers to supermarket owners, all suffered economic hardship. Economists estimated that the mistake of the humble pig farmer had cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of rands in direct costs. Indirect costs were inestimable, as were the social and psychological effects.

Today, the tracks and paths are dry, and a pall of dust will follow the progress of the traveller. It will creep in through the tightest tailgate and coat the panniers within the canopy. Behind a little house in a desolate valley on the road to uMbumbulu, a small, derelict, outbuilding remains where once cows were milked. And in the valley, with the smoke from the evening fire coiling heavenward, Thabo might be found ambling among cows with hides the colour of the paint on an artist’s palette, thinking wistfully of times gone by.

Driving down the dusty D409 on a lazy Sunday afternoon, you might notice faint mounds and depressions now layered with thick kikuyu foggage where the soil has settled over buried bodies. At the end of the road, stop a while at a new, large, razor-wired gate guarding a small, thornveld farm. You might still see pockets of cattle grazing in pastures near the fence line. They will not heed your call and could even move away in response to your presence. The guard has changed, the family is long gone. But stand quietly and take in the rich African smells, let the sights and sounds fill your memory and, when the fading light from the setting sun is scattered through the branches of the old thorn tree, in your heart and your soul and in the whisper of the wind, they will still be there.

• We will be publishing stories by the finalists in our True Stories of KZN 2013 competition in the next few months, before announcing the winners in the last week of November.

PHILIP Kretzmann spends most of his working day with his left arm deep inside a cow. He has a love for all animals that don’t bite or kick him, but has a particularly soft spot for those with lots of stomachs.

He has been married to the love of his life for more than 30 years now, a union that has spawned two wonderful kids.

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