The Dunkirk evacuation during the Second World War stands as a symbol of communities uniting against adversity and stepping in when governments are unable to do it themselves or need help. But recently in South Africa, specifically on the banks of the Vaal River, we witnessed a similar gritty initiative. However, unlike the historical necessity at Dunkirk, where government resources were stretched to the limit, compelling private individuals to step in and assist, the situation on the Vaal River has a different scenario.

Here, we find ourselves grappling not with resource scarcity but with a government seemingly wasteful in its allocation of help and staggeringly ineffective in executing its basic duties. But this modern-day mini-Dunkirk on the Vaal does highlight the resilience of local communities where government has failed.

On 28 January 2024, various organisations, recreation clubs, and community members converged at the Vaal River Lodge for a substantial cleanup operation. The adversary they faced wasn’t an advancing German army, but an insidious green menace: water lettuce. As nine trucks loaded with 70 tonnes of water lettuce rolled away from the riverbanks, South Africa was once again reminded of the stark reality that is becoming the norm with each passing day: communities are leading the charge where the government fails.


The water lettuce has infested the Vaal River, jeopardising the delicate balance of its aquatic ecosystem. Despite the looming threat and the evident hindrance to navigation, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE), along with the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), remained conspicuously silent and absent on a strategy to eradicate this invasive species.

Jaco Grobbelaar, AfriForum’s Regional Head for the central region, lauded the community’s efforts, emphasising the tangible impact achieved in just four hours. “We removed a lot of water lettuce in a matter of four hours. Although 70 tonnes is a modest dent in the overall infestation, large-scale endeavours like this can contribute significantly to mitigating the damage to the ecosystem,” remarked Grobbelaar.

The Dunkirk analogy draws strength from the realisation that, much like the civilian boats that rescued stranded soldiers from the advancing German army, private boats played a pivotal role in this ecological operation. More than 50 private boats participated in the week-long operation. However, the question that lingers is why it fell upon the community to orchestrate such a massive cleanup while the government remained silent and inactive.

The government’s inertia is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. It echoes a broader trend where communities find themselves compelled to fill the void left by governmental negligence. The failure to address environmental challenges such as the water lettuce invasion not only imperils the ecosystem, but also underscores a lack of commitment to preserving the nation’s natural heritage and resources.


The comparison with Dunkirk draws attention to the critical role that communities play when faced with governmental inertia. In Dunkirk, the civilian flotilla became the unsung heroes, rescuing over 300 000 stranded soldiers. Similarly, along the Vaal, private boat owners emerged as the unsung everyday heroes, taking matters into their own hands when government departments failed to act.

This stark reality raises poignant questions about the role and responsibility of government in safeguarding the environment. While citizens should undoubtedly play a part, the primary responsibility lies with the institutions tasked with governance and protection. The Dunkirk-on-the-Vaal, while commendable in its community-driven initiative, should serve as a clarion call to demand a more proactive and accountable government.

The lack of a coherent plan from the DWS and the DFFE not only reflects poorly on their commitment to environmental stewardship but also highlights a systemic issue of bureaucratic inefficiency and apathy. Their failure to address the water lettuce invasion in a timely manner jeopardises not just the Vaal River but sets a dangerous precedent for how environmental challenges are handled across the country.

As communities rally to protect their natural resources, it is imperative for them to recognise the failures of the government. The Dunkirk-on-the-Vaal is a powerful symbol of resilience, but it should not be an excuse for the state to abdicate its responsibilities. Instead, it should be a wake-up call for political change. The battle against water lettuce may have been fought and won by the community, but the war for accountable government is still to be won, and this year’s national election has the potential to be a major battle in this regard.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend

Image: Ossewa, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Daniël Eloff is a believer, husband, father, attorney and writer.