Maverick Citizen


How an artist passionate about nature and biodiversity is cleaning up polluted rivers to uplift communities

How an artist passionate about nature and biodiversity is cleaning up polluted rivers to uplift communities
Willem Snyman stands amid the trash that gets trapped in the polluted Kaalspruit River where it flows through Tembisa. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Actionist Willem Snyman is an artist who has been working hard to clean up the Kaalspruit River and its tributaries for the last five years.

The banks of the river that flows past Thembisa Mall are covered in styrofoam containers that have been hauled out of catchment nets by Willem Snyman’s team of river cleaners. Last week they took out 250 tonnes of plastic that they caught as it floated down the river, an operation that cost them R10,000 from the budget of their sparsely funded project. 

As the traps must be cleaned out manually, the money goes towards the wages of a group of men from the neighbouring informal area of Tswelopele, where much of the pollution originates. These men perform the hard, dirty work of scooping out the soggy trash with nets, loading it into bags and dragging it up the steep bank to be emptied on to a temporary storage heap.

Willem passionately believes that clean water is vital to the survival of South Africa and that we can still fix the issues by educating people upstream and encouraging communities to get involved with the clean-up process. 

“Not even for cosmetic reasons, we need to get this clean for our health. Sanity will prevail. We cannot keep on polluting these river sources.”

The Kaalspruit River feeds into the Hennops and Crocodile rivers, sitting at the source of the Witwatersrand wetlands, a rich natural area of the country. For the most part, however, the beauty has been kept hidden and taken for granted.

Willem’s dream is to clean up the waterways from the ongoing torrent of plastic surging downstream. He does this using nets made buoyant with the very styrofoam they are catching. The nets are anchored to the banks and are long enough to account for the surge in the water level during the summer rains. They sit across the river at various strategic points, collecting discarded food containers and other detritus, and need to be emptied regularly due to the high volumes that they amass. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: A return to source: Saving the Witwatersrand’s ancient freshwater system to save South Africa’s rivers

At the same time, he is developing a system of floating gardens that sit across the river in boats that are also made from netting and styrofoam. They are filled with local varietals of aquatic plants that provide the habitat for the micro-organisms needed to break down pollutants. The plant roots hang in the water and clean it as it flows. The river is so polluted that it is devoid of life, and does not have the necessary means to break down foreign organisms without intervention and help.

“If one can stop it in the worst place, then there is hope. If we can have clean water here, it would make such a huge difference for the country’s biodiversity.”

Willem Snyman is an artist who has been passionate about nature all his life. Several years ago his home and studio were burnt down after he objected to a neighbouring development project. Although he had overwhelming evidence that the fire was an arson attack, he was forced to drop the charges when the neighbour filed for bankruptcy. 

Willem moved to a new home close to the Hennops River, in search of an idyllic lifestyle. But it wasn’t long before pollution started floating down the river. The water, covered in white foam, was thick with black sewerage. It was filthy and it was killing the local wildlife.

In an attempt to save the animals’ natural habitat and the local communities’ water sources, he started to organise clean-ups in the surrounding areas. This operation has expanded upriver to include locations in Kaalfontein and Thembisa. 

Over the past five years, Willem has been working on one section of the river in Thembisa with little funding but a huge passion to clean up. It’s a thankless task, but with ambition like Willem’s, nothing is impossible.

“It needs to click in the minds of the people and the government. This area needs to be preserved, it’s not that difficult or expensive … The irony is that many people here also have homes in Limpopo. And they are sending trash back down the river to their own homes; polluting the water and killing people down the river.”

One of the biggest problems now is what to do with all of the styrofoam that is pulled out of the river and 250 tonnes is a large haul that nobody wants to deal with. So Willem’s next mission is to find someone with a pyrolyser who can turn the styrofoam into biofuel. 

The long-term solution is, of course, to stop all further pollution of the river. But in the meantime, it takes people like Willem Snyman, working diligently to keep the water clean, for the rest of us to carry on as normal. DM

The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at or email [email protected]

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Actionists.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 front page

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