South Africa’s Fire Kingdom

Not long ago, in Cape Town, I watched smoke billow from the hills facing the city. The flames were so ferocious that within a half-hour the smoke could be mistaken for rain clouds. Sirens wailed and in no time helicopters were hovering in the sky, dousing the flames with some pink substance.

At Greenmarket Square in the center of the city, an old man exclaimed: “They are very quick to put out the fire when the mountain is burning, but when our shacks burn you never see them. They care about the birds and the tortoises and the antelopes more than they care about human beings.” Two flower sellers in voluminous Cape Malay robes quickly admonished him, “They’ve got to protect our proteas, old man!”

To South Africans, the protea is not just a flower. It is a symbol that is carried with pride by the national sports teams. The flower inspires awe because its sturdy shape and defiant demeanor speak of mysteries that date back 300 million years, long before humans roamed the earth. Proteas bloom mostly in the rains of the Southern Hemisphere winter and are fynbos species, a term given to the vegetation found in the southern part of the Western Cape, covering about 36,000 square miles — roughly the size of Indiana.

This region is known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, and it’s home to thousands of plant species found nowhere else in the world. Of the world’s 112 protea genera, roughly three-quarters are found only here. That is why South Africans jealously guard this area. This, after all, is the home of the artichoke-shaped King Protea, the national flower of South Africa.

But now there are signs that this ecosystem is in danger. Weather patterns are changing so much that no one knows what to expect anymore. “When we were young,” the old man in Greenmarket Square observed, “seasons came and went in a predictable rhythm. Now seasons have gone amok.”

Only a few decades ago the firefighters would not have bothered with the flames. Fires were a good thing, and had to be allowed to take their course. But in those days fires followed a predictable rhythm. They flared up in the hills every 15 years or so. It was a rhythm that served the fynbos well because the plants need fire, just as they need the winter rains. In the Cape Floral Kingdom, species store their fruit in cones that are split open by the flames; the burned plants also release seeds that are then buried by ants for food security. Not only does the heat from the fire break the seed casings and set off growth, but the ethylene and ammonia in the smoke also prompt some seeds to germinate. Without fire the fynbos would most likely become senescent and die out.

Too much fire, however, has the potential to lead to the same result. Fires in the floral kingdom are now more frequent and more ferocious. They are devastating the area by denying the fynbos the opportunity to be fruitful and multiply. And the effects are widespread. In some parts of the kingdom, the rasping notes of the sugarbird can no longer be heard. The bird, driven away by rising temperatures, is leaving the protea unpollinated.

Though the old man watching the flames seems outwardly unconcerned with the protea and the sugarbird, they have more in common than he might think. His home village, Lower Telle in the Eastern Cape, no longer gets its customary thunderous downpours. His strip of land has been parched for a long time, he told me, driving him to seek work in the city.

Like the sugarbird, he has been forced into an unfortunate migration.

Zakes Mda, a playwright and the author of the novels Cion and Black Diamond.