Drought: The Material Immaterial

Eckard Smuts, Postdoctoral Researcher in English at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, reflects on how the current southern African drought asks us to reframe our environmental thinking.

Fixing the number is not an easy matter. One media report claims that it is the worst drought in South Africa “in thirty years”;[1] another mentions 1992 as the previous benchmark.[2] The title of a third piece announces, rather puzzlingly, that the current lack of rainfall comes in the wake of the “third driest season in 80 years”.[3] A story in Al Jazeera summons 1982 as the former driest season. That piece goes on to present the thoughts of Lennox Mabaso, a spokesperson for the local government in Kwazulu-Natal (one of the worst hit areas), who reveals, simply but effectively, that the dams are at an “all-time low”, and that we are indeed in the midst of an “epic drought”.[4]

The South African Weather Service appears to have picked up on the media’s difficulty in ascertaining the comparative severity of the drought. In a report that presents the annual total rainfall in South Africa since 1904, they affirm (in bold – in a subheading, in fact) that “2015 was indeed a very dry year in South Africa”. [5] It gets worse: at 403mm of precipitation, 2015 was the single driest year over the “full 112-year period” (the yearly average is 608mm). It is not clear why “the full period” should begin 112 years ago. One imagines that earlier rainfall records for large swathes of the country are rather spotty. Nevertheless, 112 years is a substantial period of time, one against which fluctuations of a few years this way or that in various media reports seem to diminish in importance. The numbers – unsettled, wavering – conspire to tell us what we already know: it is very dry.

Comparative rainfall statistics is, however, not the only numerical paradigm along which the drought pipes its forbidding tune. Food, and the vast amounts of food that will have to be imported this year (5.67 million tonnes of grain is a conservative estimate)[6] – and more precisely, the cost of these imports (R14 billion for maize, a staple grain in South Africa)[7] as a figure in a fiscal budget that is already buckling under the strain of a number of industrial, political and socio-economic crises over the past year – means that the drought has begun to weave its sombre incantations over a whole different set of numbers, namely the numbers expected at the polling booth in the upcoming municipal elections (“Weather presents political challenge to ruling ANC”, reads a subtitle in one article)[8]. Agricultural doom prophets have gone as far as comparing the pending food shortage in South Africa to the conditions that preceded the regime-toppling events of the Arab Spring.[9] (Is that a fair comparison? Difficult to say – most likely not. Things never do seem to ramify quite as catastrophically here as everyone expects them to.)

What is clear is that behind the swirl of numbers – the lists and statistics that attempt to map out and ratify this slow-moving, diffuse yet fearsomely implacable climatic event – there lurks a sense of the abysmal: a panicky premonition that some kind of standing order between society and the environment has been withdrawn, or that the collective bill for our climate debt has arrived, and there is nowhere left to shift the “unpaid costs”[10] (“It’s like a person in the distance. We can see him coming towards us,” says Hambaseni Mncube, a stricken farmer from Kwazulu-Natal, about the effects of the drought).[11] A drought is an insubstantial, drawn-out event (or precisely a non-event: drought is, among other things, another name for when it does not rain). It does not announce itself with a flash or a bang. Instead, it makes itself known through a series of diffuse effects that shift and ripple through the various systems that have evolved to accommodate our interactions with the world. These shifts and ripples accumulate, of course, into consequences of massive devastation and personal tragedy (more numbers: 1 353 980 cattle, 308 573 sheep and 969 275 goats in the Eastern Cape are said to be “rendered vulnerable” because of the drought;[12] in the Free State, a cattle farmer committed suicide one day before the first rain of the season)[13]. And that is precisely why drought is, I think, a suitable metaphor for our environmental thinking: it forces us to grapple with the relationship between systemic dysfunction and tangible suffering in the immediate world of things.


It does not seem possible enough water can ever again fall to damp or even to cool this parched and cracked earth and to fill these moats of burning sand. Optimism suggests it is only the great tidal swing of nature exemplified; that we are at the lowest point of the periphery, and that from now onwards it must rise steadily to better things. But at the back of one’s mind remains the pessimistic conviction, apparently borne out by every fact observed, that the oscillations of the pendulum are gradually lessening round the dead point.

These words were written by the South African poet and prolific amateur naturalist Eugène Marais somewhere near the start of the twentieth century, based on his observations of the effects of extreme drought in Waterberg, an area in the far north of the country.[14] If they are true, then we have by now graduated to somewhere well beyond the “dead point”: we are living, as it were, in a new, arid reality. We can stop worrying about the kind of world we will bequeath to the next generation, because we are already living in it. It is not clear yet what the full implications of the drought will be for the millions of South Africans who are already struggling to afford food.[15] It is probably time, however, to accept that our environmental thinking needs to adapt itself to what is called elsewhere on this site the “new normal.” The challenge for the humanities, I think, is to figure out what that means.


BY Eckard Smuts, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Stellenbosch


[1] “South Africa grapples with worst drought in thirty years,” BBC Africa, November 30, 2015

[2] “First it was electricity, now water,” Mail & Guardian, November 1, 2015.

[3] “SA drought follows third-driest season in 80 years,” Moneyweb, November 10, 2015.

[4] “South Africa in midst of ‘epic drought’,” Al Jazeera, November 4, 2015.

[5] De Jager, Elsa. “South Africa – Annual Total Rainfall.” South African Weather Service, January 13, 2016.

[6] Willemse, Strydom and Venter. “Implications of the lingering 2015 drought on the economy, agricultural markets, food processors, input suppliers and the consumer.” December 11, 2015.

[7] “Report: Fighting the Great South African Drought”, Daily Maverick, February 23, 2016.

[8] “SA drought follows third-driest season in 80 years”, Moneyweb, November 10, 2015.

[9] “Farmers bear brunt of South Africa’s severe drought: ‘All we can do is pray’”, The Guardian, November 17, 2015.

[10] I am borrowing rather freely here from Canavan, Klarr and Vu’s fascinating re-interpretation of the idea of “ecological debt” along the lines of K. William Kapp’s notion of capitalism as a system of “unpaid costs” in their introduction to Polygraph 22: Ecology and Ideology (see pp3-5).

[11] Hornby, D. and Vanderhagen, Y. “After the Drought: The rains have come to Msinga, but the devastation still remains. ” Daily Maverick, February 25, 2016.

[12] “Op-Ed: SA Government’s numbers game”, Daily Maverick, February 8, 2016.

[13] “Drought: Farmer commits suicide a day before rain falls”, www.news24.com (http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/drought-farmer-commits-suicide-a-day-before-rain-falls-20160101)

[14] Marais, E.N. “Notes on Some Effects of Extreme Drought in Waterberg.” Versamelde Werke Deel 2. Ed. Leon Rousseau. J.L. van Schaik: Pretoria, 1984. p1217.

[15]In 2012, the general household survey found that 14-million South Africans did not know where their next meal was coming from. Another 15-million were on the verge of this, and were one shock away from not having food,” writes Sipho Kings in the Mail & Guardian (“Full horror of drought emerges,” January 16, 2016).