Trapped by a weir, the green waters of the Boesmans River swirl in a mess of foamy bubbles and dirty twigs. The water is the source for the Mpumalanga town of Carolina’s water plant, but in a grove of trees beside the river more buildings and machinery are appearing by the week. The plant’s new red paint is in tune with the upbeat message given by the municipality and the government that the water in the town is now safe to drink.
But in the dusty streets of the town and its township, Silobela, people beg to differ. They are not drinking the water and say they have no proof that it is clean. In each yard, taps are surrounded by piles of containers waiting to be filled for domestic chores, not to quench residents’ thirst.
Eric Sithole’s tap has a small leak and the pooled water stinks of sewage. Sheltering from the biting wind in the thick jacket he got for his night job as a security guard, he said service delivery was nonexistent: “This municipality is fucking kak.”
His woes go back to 2000 when he put his name down on the waiting list for a reconstruction and development programme house. He is still waiting. His current home was knocked down when a tornado hit Silobela and its ruins lie next to the new one he built for his wife and five children.
“I was there when [Edna] Molewa [the minister of water and environmental affairs] promised that this would be fixed. And I was there when we protested because the water they gave us was dirty. People were shot and others had broken legs, but I am not afraid. We are tired of these people … these politicians,” he said, clenching and unclenching his fists.
He gets his water from the local mosque, which was the main source of water when the Mail & Guardian visited in February. Little has changed since then. Throughout the spider web of streets around its raised Jojo water tank people are in the various stages of getting water. Each household has some sort of wheelbarrow and some specially welded versions boast a greater carrying capacity than the normal ones.
Now the road outside the mosque is muddy. The three hosepipes hanging over its wall, tied shut with wire when they are not in use, all have leaks. The deep culverts on the edge of the tar road form a formidable barrier and one man with a limp and one working arm needs help to get his wheelbarrow past them to the mosque.
The mosque’s water is used for cooking and drinking, as well as for washing white clothes that turn dark if washed in tap water. People say the clothes that are washed in tap water smell bad and become hard over time. Any food cooked in the water tastes sour, like old meat.
Plants are also struggling. Flooding his intricate garden with tap water, Lazarus Mndawe said the water quality had improved in the past week. His plants look a little bit healthier now, but he still will not drink the water.
“The municipality always promises that next week things will be okay. Even when the children in my family’s family were getting rashes from the water, they said it would get better,” he said.
Good for business
Like most people, he does not know what the situation is regarding the water. He has heard Molewa on radio and television saying that the water is better, but he does not believe it.
Jan Bezuidenhout, the owner of water company JanAqua, said January and February were good for business. But when the Jojos came and people started drilling their own boreholes – more than 20 have been sunk, each costing up to R30 000 – it tapered off. Now he is cleaning the dirty municipal supply.
“It is still not clean,” he said. “On Friday I tested the water and it is still the same as before.” Using an electrolyser, he said the water turned black when it should go brown.
A simple taste test is also inconclusive. Although the water is clear and tastes normal at first, it smells like bleach and leaves a sandy aftertaste.
In another part of Silobela, far from the mosque and in a street without a Jojo, Power Mndebele said the residents have had a problem with the municipality for years. He is head of the local residents group on whose behalf the municipality and the government were taken to court. “People are still complaining about the water, but the municipality keeps misleading us and telling us different things,” he said.
With the contestation of last week’s court order compelling the municipality to provide water by that Friday, he said all their efforts to get service delivery had been frustrated. “The commitment to give a better life for all has not happened.”
Next to him, Wilfred Mdawe said he checked the Jojos every day. “There are times when they can be empty for five days. And if you tell a councillor, it takes three days to get them filled,” he said.
The fault lay with those who got the contracts to supply the water without having the capacity to deliver, he said. A group of locals gathered around him, responding to people’s shouts of “media”, nod their heads and murmur in agreement at this.
Standing outside the municipal offices with her young son, Berdina Janse van Rensburg said she took the minister’s words at face value and used tap water to cook supper last Friday. That night, her whole family had stomach problems and now she is back to using borehole water sourced from a neighbour.
In the municipal buildings, just off Carolina’s one main street, Wonder Shabangu is confident that the water is fine. A manager in the office of the executive mayor, he shows his water bottle, filled with what he says is tap water. Then he drinks from it.
“We have been handling an unfortunate incident that was not of the municipality’s making and we are winning the battle. Now, as per the results from the different laboratories, our water is clean,” he said.
And although he claimed the water was now safe to drink, he said the Jojos and water tankers would remain while the municipality got people back to using tap water.
Water outages, which people say leave their area without water for hours each day, were the result of the upgrading of the town’s ancient asbestos water pipes to new PVC ones, he said. And regarding claims of sickness from the water, Shabangu said: “They need to bring forth the medical report saying they are sick because of the water.”
Other locals said the water plant had never been sufficient. The Blue Drop report released by water affairs last year indicated that its optimum capacity was 2.2 megalitres a day, whereas the town needs at least five megalitres.
And it was scathing of Carolina and the Chief Albert Luthuli district municipality in which it is located. “The key challenges faced by the assessment team were the unacceptable attitude by the water and sanitation manager and lack of documented proof to verify assertions made.”
It also issued a warning “to all residents and visitors to the area not to consume the tap water without taking appropriate measures to improve the drinking water quality”. This was prior to the current crisis.
On announcing that the water was safe to drink, Molewa used the report to remind the municipality that its problems were long known and it needed to do more to ensure safe water provision.
For now, the situation remains muddied.