04 February 2005

Karoo farmers join hands to pray for rain

Only a handful of white farmers turned up to pray for rain at a ceremony attended by Western Cape politicians and religious leaders in Piketberg on Thursday.

Piketberg is the centre of the Rooi Karoo, where an estimated 90 percent of wheat crops have failed after a second successive year of drought.

About 1 500, mostly coloured people, including schoolchildren and green-uniformed workers from a local fresh fruit co-operative, attended the service, held in the Uniting Reformed Church in the town.

The church is coincidentally the congregation of newly re-ordained cleric Allan Boesak, though he was not at Thursday's event, reportedly because of other commitments.

Addressing an audience that included provincial premier Ebrahim Rasool, Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane and representatives of organised agriculture and farmworkers, Bergrivier district municipality mayor Sanette Smit said she was disappointed that "our farm owners" were not present.

"We must go and fetch them. They have a crisis," she said.

She said afterwards that she had heard "rumours" about the reasons for the farmers' absence. However, she said: "I don't want to make negative associations that it's a racist or religious thing."

"I will really like to see more farmers here. They are the ones who are critically hit... we're all in this together, and they weren't here."

Chairperson of Agri WesCape Christo Cloete, who attended the prayer service, said he also would have liked to see more farmers there "but I don't think we must make that a point of criticism".

"If you are in big trouble it's very difficult to face the world, and I have a big understanding of that," he said.

One of the white farmers who did attend said he thought the reason for the poor turnout was that the event was badly advertised. He had heard about it at the co-op only the previous afternoon, he said.

Over 1 000 Western Cape grain farmers attended a meeting in Cape Town on Monday to protest agricultural dumping by rich exporting countries.

Koringberg farmer Andries Theron said in a moving address at Thursday's prayer service that the most used word in drought-stricken farmers' vocabulary had become "I can't".

It was a time when his fellow farmers were withdrawing from the community, he said.

"You don't go to town because you might run into the bank manager or the manager of the co-op, and then you have to say to him 'I can't pay'," he said.

"It's a time that when you pay your accounts at the end of the month, you deliberately write out the cheques wrongly, just to give you a bit of time to get money into your account.

"And when I'm finished with all that, I go to my office, my room, and there's no-one, I'm alone, and there I let the tears flow, to get rid of the frustrations, and I ask God 'where are you?'."

President of the South African Council of Churches Russel Botman said the congregation had come together to ask God to "speak to the waters".

"We come together here today to... say to the Lord, because you can do these things, one thing we know is that you want to do it, but you expect us to ask nicely for it, because we get too used to the fact that you give it....

"We will get rain, The question is just whether when we get rain, we will know what to do with it, if we will learn from our suffering."


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