A Sewer Runs Through It — trout, barbel and the microcosm of state failure in the Cradle of Humankind
For over 20 years, I have fished the dams at Brookwood Trout Farm in the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site. This family-run business can no longer stock trout because the collapse of the Mogale City sewage treatment facility has fouled the Blaaubankspruit. Trout are an indicator species, and the swiftness of the ecosystem collapse — with dire consequences for small businesses in the area — is also indicative of the consequences of state failure.
You can literally smell the reek of state failure in the Cradle of Humankind these days.
The Blaaubankspruit, which flows past the famed Sterkfontein Caves and through Brookwood, has been fouled with sewage by the collapse of the Percy Stewart Wastewater Treatment Works. Untreated or poorly treated sewage is pouring into the Blougatspruit river, which flows into the Blaaubankspruit and Crocodile rivers.
This calamity has been widely reported on, and yet the stream has gone from bad to worse with nothing seemingly being done about it — despite the shame of despoiling a World Heritage Site in such a literally shitty manner.
“We … wish to dispel the negative perceptions of a total disregard for the effects of effluent spillage into the World Heritage Site and remain committed to working alongside key partners such as national government, private sector, affected residents and all other interest and pressure groups in ensuring a permanent resolve to the issues at hand,” Mogale City said in a recent statement in which it effectively washed its hands of any responsibility.
If that is the case, there are no results to show for it as far as I can tell from my last two visits to the area.
In August, I fished for trout in Brookwood’s dams as per usual, though owner David Bain warned me then of his mounting fears about the state of the stream. The indigenous small-scale and large-scale yellowfish — technically difficult species to fish, which I have also pursued on those waters — had seemingly vanished.
That was the harbinger of a wider collapse.
For a range of reasons, I did not fish Brookwood in September or October as I normally would, but planned a trip on Friday, 3 November, and sent Bain a WhatsApp message in advance.
“Not worth it for you to come through, there is so much sewage in the river that I don’t even have trout in the dams at the moment,” he replied. “We are no longer a trout farm. But if you want to barbel bash dam 3 is now full up we put in 200 barbel in dam 3 and 120 carp in dam 2.”
There has been much debate about the presence of trout in South African waters, as the various species are not native to this region.
But trout are what biologists call an “indicator species” — if trout thrive, it indicates that the water the fish inhabit is clean and well-oxygenated.
Barbel and carp, by contrast, can thrive in far dirtier waters. I know this because I target barbel on fly in the Braamfontein Spruit in Johannesburg, a heavily polluted stream that nonetheless at times has pools that teem with the species. In a sign of hope, that is an illustration of how aquatic ecosystems can recover — a few years ago it was virtually lifeless.
Read more in Daily Maverick: A River Runs Through April: This Angler has the Covid-19 lockdown Trout and Barbel Blues
So I visited Brookwood that day and threw a fly for barbel — unsuccessfully — for a while. A couple of guys were having luck catching big carp on bait in another dam (carp and barbel are caught for sport and released).
I then ambled down to the stream.
Just months before, I had seen a giant kingfisher and monitor lizard there, as well as an elusive yellowfish. A family of otters had also established themselves in the stream.
Devoid of life
A lone sacred ibis — tellingly, a species often seen at dump sites — rose as I approached the bank of a stream that was now lifeless. No frogs, no freshwater crabs, no kingfishers, or any rise from a yellowfish — no life whatsoever in water that was now an ominous shade of dark grey.
In August, trout could survive in the dams, which rely on this water source. In the space of a couple of months, there had been a complete ecosystem collapse, though one long in the making.
Bain took me for a drive to a spot further upstream, where the reek assaulted my nostrils.
We then went to a small Mogale City treatment plant near the Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital. It is at the end of a dirt road near a squatter camp whose residents have to endure the foul stench of state failure.
The rusted railing of a staircase could be seen through the open door of the squat brick structure. The stairs were concealed from view beneath a layer of putrid black liquid. A security guard was on a lonely vigil there, with only a bandana to protect his nostrils from the malodour of his workplace.
There was not much to steal anyway. Much of the remaining infrastructure was stripped or in a state of decay.
And so a sewer now runs through the Cradle of Humankind, a withering testimony to state failure. The ANC has been mostly in charge of the municipality for the past couple of decades (the DA had a minority government from 2021 until it was ousted by an ANC/EFF coalition earlier this year, and it held the mayor’s seat from 2016-2017), and the ANC runs Gauteng. So the ANC, in typical fashion, owns this mess.
The swiftness of the ecosystem collapse over the past few months has been eye-opening. For me it’s personal, but it goes far beyond the loss of trout waters where I introduced several of my friends to the art of fly fishing over the years.
Aside from the threat to fish, birds and other wildlife, it is clearly a serious public health hazard. And it is damaging to small businesses and the tourism industry in the area.
This is state failure in a microcosm and, like state failure, there is a build-up of crap and then suddenly, collapse. But the ripple effects will continue their toxic journey downstream. DM