Wednesday morning, 13 June 2012, finds me driving through to the clinic of the Cart Horse Protection Association in the light industrial area of Epping 2 on the Cape Flats. I am off to do my first formal interview(s) for the online feature writing course I told you all about in my previous post, and a swarm of butterflies is doing a little dance in my stomach.
As per our course convenor’s instructions, I’ve even borrowed a little recording device, and I have 4 pages of questions lined up, in case the conversation flags or I go blank with nervousness. This journalism thing is rather nerve-wracking.
In the end, I do not use the recorder, because putting it down on the table or holding it in the air between us while I speak to the friendly people there strikes me as far too intimidating. It seems to threaten: “Every word you say can and will be used against you as evidence in a court of law.” Not: “I really want to get the facts straight, and I’m looking for some pithy quotes to use to illustrate the story, and I want to listen to what you say instead of trying to keep legible notes.” Which is what I’d really like it to say.
So, cryptic scribbled notes – and reliance on my memory – it will have to be.
When I arrive at 92 Bofors Circle, Epping 2, a number of horses and carts are lining up inside the yard, waiting their turn for Diana Truter, Senior Inspector and in charge of their Veterinary and Rehabilitation Unit, to assess their animals, and for Ashley Deelman and his two assistant farriers to fit a new set of shoes. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, the clinic is open to the carties and their horses. They can also purchase feed – oathay and lucerne – from the store.
One of the horses outside is playing up, pulling at the lead and rearing up high. It is trying to get away from Diana, who is approaching it with a syringe. Can’t say I blame it – those are big syringes! A concerted effort eventually gets the horse settled down, and Diana quickly inserts the needle into a fleshy part of its neck. Yow!
A young guy wearing a beanie and warm winter jacket approaches me, politely asking, “Can I help you?”
Clearly, I am sticking out as a stranger in this environment. I quickly introduce myself, explain that I am here to see Megan White, their fundraising manager, and we shake hands. He has a firm, confident handshake, and a ready smile.
“I’m Carl,” he says.
Ah, I recognise him from the photo on the CHPA website: “Reception and Admin?”
“Yep, that’s me.”
The CHPA runs a website and a Facebook page; both are updated frequently and promptly, which I find wonderful. Both sites are a fabulous source of up-to-date information, which is hugely helpful for my research.
Megan arrives, we greet each other, and then dodge between the waiting horses to enter the main building. It looks like a converted warehouse – high ceilings, corrugated iron sheeting, a large open space in the middle. Three stalls with generous piles of wood shavings on the floor – two stalls next to each other on the right, one stall in the corner on the left, hidden by a horsebox – are ready to accommodate emergency cases. The offices and meeting rooms are housed in a row of partitioned pre-fab structures along two sides of the warehouse.
The interview goes really well, and I make copious notes.
Megan has been part of the CHPA since 1998, having joined three years after it was first established in 1995, in response to the appalling living and working conditions of the working cart horses of the Cape Flats. Things have improved significantly since then – but there is still room for improvement. There are still problems with carties who abuse the horses, who overload the carts, who drive recklessly, and who cause trouble. There is also a constant turn-over of carties, with drivers disappearing and new ones appearing, so training and education is an ongoing job. The best way of weeding out these ‘bad apples’ from the industry is to regulate it more effectively – a time-consuming process that involves reams of paperwork, but that is nonetheless tremendously important.
As a result, the CHPA keeps a detailed register – which contains far more than just names and contact details. Every time the horses, their owners or their drivers come into the Epping Clinic, every time they attend one of the mobile clinics, and every time the inspectors go out to the different stable yards, right across the Cape Flats, the details are recorded. They document when a horse has come in for a new set of shoes, when it has received an injection or a vaccination, and when it has been de-wormed. They conduct regular inspections of all the stable yards, and keep diligent notes of every transgression that is reported, every warning that is issued, and every horse that is confiscated and sent to the R&R to recover, or given up for adoption, or put to sleep.
Over the years, the CHPA has seen a gradual decrease in the number of working cart horses. In May 2012, there were 239 working horses on their register; these are mainly used to transport scrap, building rubble or garden refuse from suburban homes. They have about 100 so-called ‘primary health care’ horses who also receive treatment and services from the CHPA. In addition, 6 horses are used for fruit and vegetable selling, 16 are retired, 7 are in training, and 84 are too young to work (i.e. they are younger than 3 years old). They have about 100 owners in their system; many of these have stable yards, with some owning a couple of horses, and not just one. These horses are usually rented out to drivers, although the owners also work with them.
The CHPA only operates in the larger Cape Town area, as that is where the cart horses are primarily located. They have established a committee of working horse owners, who are willing to act as area representatives, and, when necessary, to function as liaisons between the owners, the drivers and the CHPA. The areas they represent are Bonteheuwel, Netreg, Kalksteenfontein, Valhalla Park, Philippi and Sweet Home Farm, Heinz Park and Philippi East, Uitsig, Hanover Park, Delft, and Freedom Farm and Symphony Way – all in the lower-income areas of the Cape Flats.
In September 2010, the CHPA began to issue number plates for each of the working cart horses on their register. Each horse has a unique number, which corresponds to the number on the database. When members of the public call the CHPA about a specific horse, they can immediately access all the information on the system. Things are complicated by the fact that some horses have the same names and/or alternative names – so the unique number on the registration plate, as well as a general description of the horse (small grey pony, or large bay horse), is very important too, because sometimes drivers change horses without changing the registration plate.
Why does an urban area like Cape Town even have cart horses?
There is a long history of working horses in Cape Town, going back to long before the forced removals from District Six. At that time, there were many horse carts, delivering fruit and vegetables, transporting the district nurse and the doctor to the sick, and even drawing hearses to the cemeteries. They used to take great pride in building nice carts, with good harnesses, and looking after the horses. When the people were forced to move out to the Cape Flats, they took the horses with them.
Over the years, the related trades – harness making, cart building, farriery – have been dying out, leading to a shortage of these skills, which is why the CHPA has been focusing their efforts on training people. Ashley, the farrier, for instance, now has two young apprentices, Chadwin and Lincoln, who are learning on-the-job.
Now, the horses are mainly used in the scrap metal industry, and only a handful are used to transport fruit and vegetables around the suburbs.
The scrap metal industry, unfortunately, has a rather seedy reputation – with theft of copper pipes, metal fittings, electricity cables, and in fact any kind of wiring being a serious problem throughout the country. Heavy metal drain covers often disappear from our streets – leaving deep gaping holes behind that can be fatal for pedestrians, vehicles, cyclists – and horses. Our brass postbox plate was stolen from our outside wall some time back, together with numerous others in our street, and we have still not replaced it because it would no doubt be stolen again (needless to say, reporting it to Pinelands SAPS had zilch effect). Residents regularly report that exposed water pipes are torn off, outside brass taps are stolen, and metallic (or even fake-metallic) house-number plates are pried off walls. The damage and inconvenience such theft causes, as well as the replacement and repair costs, add to pervasive feelings of frustration and outrage.
Such blatant thievery – and the fact that the carties are often seen transporting scrap metal, and peering into yards over garden fences – does not endear them to the public. Neither is their often flagrant disregard for the rules of the road – failing to stop at stop signs, going straight through red traffic lights, and simply halting at the roadside and blocking the traffic – and then responding rudely and aggressively when approached by the public. Fortunately, not all carties behave like this.
As my interview ends, an emergency call comes in to Diana, whose cellphone has the most unusual ringtone I have ever heard – a braying donkey! The first time I hear it, I turn around, looking all over for a donkey!
A horse is in trouble, and Diana is galvanised into action.
“Reggie, do you want to go along?” asks Megan, as Diana rushes over to her grey bakkie, which is already hooked up to the spacious horsebox with the distinctive logo of the Cart Horse Protection Association painted on its side.
“Yes, definitely!” I grab my stuff and climb into the passenger seat.
“It’ll be a baptism by fire,” chuckles Megan jokingly (I hope), “but don’t worry” – she must have seen the fleeting look of alarm on my face – “you’ll be quite safe, as long as you’re inside this vehicle.” She closes the side door firmly, and waves us off.
Diana switches on the warning siren – it’s the first time I’ve sat in a car with an emergency siren like this! And let me tell you, it is LOUD! And it really gets the adrenaline flowing! The siren changes from a howl to a rapid parp-parp-parp to an ear-splitting wail and back again, which makes communication in the front cab of the bakkie rather difficult. But I don’t mind sitting in silence: Diana needs to keep her wits about her, focusing on reaching the sick horse as quickly – and safely – as she can.
She tells me that the emergency call had come from an anxious cart horse owner. His horse had been pulling a cart in the Philippi area, when the driver had noticed her slowing down, sweating and shivering, until she simply stopped and refused to take another step. Instead of yelling at her and forcing her to move, her driver had realised that something was seriously wrong with her, and so he had unhitched her from the cart, immediately notifying the owner, the area representative – and Diana.
Although she hasn’t yet seen the horse, Diana knows from the description that this is an emergency, which is why we are now speeding southwards along Valhalla Drive and Duinefontein Road, past suburbs like Gugulethu on the one side, Manenberg on the other, crossing Klipfontein Road and Lansdowne Road further to the east than I have ever done before. We are driving through neighbourhoods I would never have ventured into on my own – for good reason. These areas are synonymous with social problems, unemployment, poverty, gangsterism, violence, alcohol abuse, drug abuse…
We slow down as we near each intersection, traffic light and pedestrian crossing, Diana’s head swivelling from side to side, making sure that the other drivers have heard the wailing siren and are indeed giving way. Pedestrians at the roadside watch our approach, some acknowledging the bakkie with a friendly wave, clearly recognising it as a familiar sight. Diana has had more than 9 years of experience of driving this vehicle through these neighbourhoods.
We are driving south towards the area known as Philippi, and a place with the delightful name of Sweet Home Farm. We zigzag across farmland, and I am astounded to see dairy farms and vegetable farms spread out on the low-lying flat land here, in the middle of the sprawling urban metropolis of Cape Town. I’d heard of Philippi, but I had never been here before, and I had not realised how much of it was farmland!
Just after we turn from Varkens Vlei Road into Olieboom Road, an Agrimark warehouse appears on our right side – and we immediately spot a group of people clustering around a chestnut horse, which has been unhitched from its cart. They wave us down, and Diana swings into a u-turn, parking the horse trailer so that it is close to the horse.
The horse, a beautiful chestnut mare with a white blaze down the front of its face, is standing at the side of the road, almost rigid, shaking and sweating profusely. Diana immediately feels the hindquarters – they are as hard as rock. In their normal state, muscles naturally have some give, but these are completely solid. She diagnoses azoturia or ‘Monday Morning Disease’. The illness is apparently caused by feeding the horse high-quality carbohydrates as grains or pellets, but then not working the horse and leaving it to stand for a couple of days. When there is then a sudden increase in workload, the muscles can literally seize up. It is excrutiatingly painful for the horse, and can cause serious long-term damage if not treated correctly.
Summoning up my Afrikaans, I ask a woman standing near the horse with a young child on her hip, what the horse’s name is: “Dis Molly,” she says, looking at me shyly from underneath her knitted pink cap.
The men help to load Molly into the horsebox, and they close up.
“Let’s go! I need to get her back to the clinic for treatment urgently.”
I leap back into the bakkie, and off we go. The way back to the clinic takes much longer, because Diana is driving deliberately slowly. She is very much aware of the horse in the trailer, and that Molly is in a lot of pain at the moment. Every rough movement, every rushed acceleration, every sharp braking, will cause her more pain.
When we reach the clinic, Molly is backed – slowly, haltingly, painfully – out of the horse box, and taken inside one of the stalls. She gets a couple of injections – Brave girl, she doesn’t protest! – and a bucket of fresh water to drink. Later, Diana will transport her to the Recovery and Rehabilitation Centre at Firlands, between Somerset West and Gordon’s Bay, where she will stay until she has fully recovered.
On our slow drive back to the clinic, I get a chance to ask Diana a bit more about her work for the CHPA.
Diana is passionately committed to protecting and ensuring the well-being of all the working cart horses in the Cape Town area. Their plight gets her fired up and motivated to continue working in challenging and sometimes dangerous conditions: “If you help the horses, you help the people,” she declares.
They have tried to build up a relationship of trust with the owners and the drivers. It has taken time, and needs willingness from both sides, but they are learning that the CHPA has the best interest of the horses at heart. Diana says, “I am on call 24 hours a day, every day. The carties and the owners all know that they can phone me, day or night, if there is an emergency and their horse gets sick, and I will come.”
This is quite a commitment, particularly now that Diana is on her own – the second inspector, Karin Bothma, has recently left the Association. They do sometimes call in a vet, particularly if a horse has been injured in a motor vehicle accident or if there is a serious medical emergency – but most of the time, Diana does all the work on her own, following the advice and instructions of the vet when it comes to the use of specific medication and methods of treatment.
I ask how safe it is for them to work in these areas. She says that they are sometimes called to an emergency for a horse that is sick, but then the person says, ”Oh, you can’t come now, the gangs are shooting.” So they have to wait, and then the person calls back to say, “Okay, they’ve stopped shooting, it’s quiet again, you can come now.” Crazy! She remarks casually, “We even had meetings with the gangs, we wanted to make sure we could operate in these areas. We spoke to the different gangs – separately, of course, not at the same time!” We laugh.
But despite these precautions, and despite the positive relationships built up over the years in the cart horse industry, and even with community members supporting their work, violent confrontations are always a possibility. At times, particularly after hours, they wait for a police escort to accompany them into some areas.
And yet, this does not deter them.
Since those initial interviews at the CHPA offices, I have paid several more visits to the Clinic. And I soon realise that Diana, Megan, Carl and the rest of the team have their hands full, acting – depending on the needs of the situation – as nurturing mother-figures and protective father-figures, as compassionate counsellors and inspired teachers, as helpful guides and exemplary mentors, and as strict school principals and stern policemen.
They offer practical advice to those who knock on their doors with questions, sternly reprimand those who show a lack of respect for their horses and their fellow road users, field countless calls from the public, process reams of paperwork, and upload photos and updates to their Website and their Facebook page faster than you can say, “Cart Horses Rock”.
And that, incidentally, is also the logo on their new range of colourful t-shirts – one of which I now also wear with pride.
Throughout all of it, their main motivation – and one they make clear, again and again – is to ensure the wellbeing of the horses: to protect the working cart horses of Cape Town. And while these animals continue to be on our roads, I for one am grateful that such dedicated individuals exist. They deserve our support.