Our Burning Planet

PHOTO ESSAY

Urban tails — the day the mermaids came to clean up Gauteng’s Jukskei River

Urban tails — the day the mermaids came to clean up Gauteng’s Jukskei River
Mermaiding is so much more than just putting on a pretty tail. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

A group of ‘mermaids’ recently embarked on a clean-up of the Jukskei River in Gauteng, which provides a habitat for a range of plant and animal species.

It’s a Saturday morning, and despite the sweltering sun, a small group of people, young and old, are on the banks of the Jukskei River on a clean-up campaign. Headed by mermaid teacher Izelle Nair and armed with plastic bags, they pick up litter and plastic strewn along the river banks. 

The Jukskei is one of the largest rivers in South Africa. It originates near the Johannesburg city centre, flowing through the suburbs along the eastern edge of the city, and then joining the Crocodile River further downstream, ending in the Indian Ocean. 

Nair runs the Merschool in Kyalami, Johannesburg. Mermaiding is a sport that uses a monofin with a fabric tail. It has quickly gained popularity overseas and in South Africa.

Izelle Nair (right) says the mermaid is a symbol of ocean conversation. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Izelle Nair (centre) and her team on a clean-up operation. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Want to swim like a mermaid? Now you can  

Rivers play a significant role in human lives. Unfortunately, few seem aware of its importance. The evidence can be seen in tonnes of trash strewn along river banks, leaving them looking and smelling like dumpsites, and constant clean-up campaigns help to conserve rivers. 

Nair and her team cleaned a section of the Jukskei a week after a clean-up by another group. She explained: “One group on one day is not enough to clean up all the trash. We need many hands and regular clean-ups to really make a difference.” 

She says the mermaid is a symbol of ocean conservation. “Mermaiding is so much more than just putting on a pretty tail.” 

Nine-year-old Morgan Leshabane navigates his way over rocks while holding a refuse bag with litter. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Gabriella Thompson shows off the trash she collected. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Time for a quick water break before heading out to collect more trash. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Lynne McCallum (right) encourages communities to participate in clean-ups and describes her experience as being good for her soul. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Malcolm Nair with a polluted river bank in the background. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Trash in rivers and streams is more than just an eyesore, and Nair, who describes herself as loving feeling connected to the Earth and animals, used the opportunity to teach her son and several other children the importance of caring for the environment. 

“Plastic on land blows into the rivers and ends up in the ocean. It is important to stop the plastic before it ends up in the ocean.  

“[Children] see the animals suffering as their homes are being destroyed. Seeing a programme on television is one thing, but actively working to clean up the mess brings a whole new level of awareness, compassion and empathy for our planet and its creatures. 

“If we can turn plastic into a resource, people won’t litter. Perhaps one of our kids will come up with a plan one day that will change our future and solve this massive plastic waste problem.” 

Malcolm Nair walks with two bags of trash he collected on the banks of the river. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Malcolm Nair places trash into a refuse bag. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Malcolm Nair and some of the kids collect trash. Part of the group activity was teaching kids the importance of caring for the environment. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

A mermaid and merman swim in the river. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

A baby mermaid and her mom after the clean-up campaign. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

An aerial shot of the group sitting on rocks alongside the river. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Plastic entangled on tree branches along the river bank. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

At the end of the clean-up, several refuse bags filled with plastic, wet wipes, disposable nappies and other common household items were piled up, ready to be disposed of. The team then chose a spot by the river and put on their costumes. 

“I have always wanted to do a clean-up,” said Zelda Welgemoed. “This is my first one. I have a sense of satisfaction, because even if it’s only a small piece, every one piece of trash makes a difference.” A few minutes later, she lay on the rocks in her pink costume as others frolicked in the water. 

While some had reservations about jumping into the water, Gabriela Thompson was among those who took the plunge. 

“I was quite reluctant at first and in hindsight, it might not have been the best decision. But swimming in the river brought back memories of childhood. We owe it to our future children so that they may touch fresh water without being poisoned.” 

Nair hopes to increase recreational activity along the river.  

“We want to remind people what it’s like to have fun and play in the river. As a kid, this was my favourite thing to do. Today’s kids are just on their phones and we are becoming disconnected from our environment. We clean our rivers so they are safe to swim in. We do it for the next generation.” DM

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