Parched village in Mabeskraal hung out to dry

The village of Mabeskraal in North West province has had no running water for close to two years. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The village of Mabeskraal in North West province has had no running water for close to two years. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Wheelbarrow tracks wind along the sandy side roads of ­Mabeskraal. There are darker tracks where water has spilt on to the light brown earth. The North West village of about 10000 people near the Botswana border does not have any water, so people spend a large part of their day finding water and bringing it home.

The large yards and homes are split between those who have green JoJo water tanks on raised platforms, and those with lines of multicoloured water containers waiting to be filled.
The favourite place for these is under the acacias and mopane trees that dot the community. Still bare from winter, the trees stand tall: there is no scarcity of water under the rocky earth.

"It is not right for people to be buying water when the area is so rich with water," says Reverend Mzimkhulu Tshabalala. He moved here in January to take over the Methodist church, and had no water for the first four months. An old water pump with faded green paint sits in the middle of the church's yard, but after 25 years it had creaked into retirement.

He called the municipality constantly, asking when the taps around the village and in people's yards would have water. One of the communal water sources sits outside the gate of the church, its two taps dried up and taped shut. The same scene is repeated across the village, with many of the cement basins now being used as surfaces for colourful graffiti. None of them have water.

"I thought I would get a stroke with the stress from trying to get water," Tshabalala says.

The church's only solution was to sink a borehole with an electric pump at a cost of R40 000. Now he has water to cook with and to give to parishioners on busy Sundays.

"Boreholes are damn expensive. How are the poor people in the community supposed to afford that? Water is key. Nothing can exist without water."

With the temperature nudging the high 30s, he offers his visitors a jug of borehole water. It tastes pure and has none of the additives that tinge city water.

"During National Party rule, there was water here. When the ANC came, there was no water. It makes no sense," he says, before excusing himself to attend to other visitors.

'We are suffering'
A trek up the steep hill above the church reveals a large cement reservoir with a fence around it. On the plains below lie the community's farms, mainly maize and morogo, but now lying dormant. The cluster of mountains that form the Pilanesberg Game Reserve rise in the distance, and dust from platinum mining operations rises even further away.

The reservoir's outlet pipe is silent, with no gurgle or hiss of moving water. The only sound comes from dry branches creaking in the wind, and the hum of the cellphone tower nearby: people can make calls, but they can't drink water.

Cobwebs on the manhole cover and an old gecko skeleton show that nobody has come to turn the big red valve inside that regulates the flow of water.  

While following the pipe back down the hill, an old man comes to his fence to see what is happening. "We are suffering" is all he says before walking back to his chickens.

At the local funeral home, the lack of municipal water meant that a borehole also had to be drilled here. A container of warm water and a single glass on a table inside the door greet customers in the small lobby. Each one in turn pours a glass to douse their thirst.

"We have no problems here thanks to the borehole, but at home we do suffer," says Minky Segona, the director.

For funerals, the home supplies bottled water, but at home she relies on her brothers to fetch water for the family. She has a tap at home, but it dried up last year.

"It's a ­disaster," Segona says.

The houses near the funeral home all have taps in their yards. But the earth around them is dry, and footfalls raise a small cloud of brown dust. The earth is parched. Although homeowners are eager to talk about their water woes, they shy away from being named or having their photographs taken. They do not want to be seen to be questioning the authorities.

One of them, a gogo in her early 80s, has just hung her washing on the line. When asked about water, she brandishes a white five-litre bucket, shaking it for emphasis. "How can you do washing and rinse with this little water?"

She then sits down for a chat in Setswana on her small porch, its white walls and polished red floor fading with age and cracking in the heat. She has lived in Mabeskraal her entire life, and things have never been this hard. "The ANC has a lot of promises, but in the rural areas we see nothing. Now they tell us a half loaf is better than no bread."

She waves a pink clothes peg for emphasis as she speaks.

The tap in her yard was built when the village was still located in the homeland of Bophuthatswana. The reservoir was built at the same time. "Lucas Mangope [its president] gave us these taps and he gave us water. We never ran short. Now we have no water."

The earth in her yard is also cracking in the heat. It has been a long time since it rained in Mabeskraal.  

"I don't even remember the last time," she says, before waving goodbye from her seat on the porch.

Further down the dirt road, Slala Mabote is moving around his yard on two bright-blue crutches. They contrast with the faded green of his jersey and a worn pink cap. The 79-year-old lost his leg last year, and now both he and his wife, who is also disabled, are on crutches.

A line of yellow and blue containers of all sizes stands empty next to his half-built grey cement home. He has lived here for 20 years and used to have a working tap. Now he has to wait for the sporadic appearance of a municipal water truck. "When the water truck comes and there is nobody around, we cannot get there before it leaves."

He now pays younger neighbours to fetch water for him. They charge R35 to do so, with a large drum of water costing an extra R60 to fill. A smaller 25-litre bucket costs R2.50 to fill. But this all depends on which borehole-owning household the neighbours go to. His neighbour said he spent up to R200 a month buying water. Without any permanent work, there are months when he does not have enough money for water. "Then we ­suffer." This is a turn of phrase repeated by almost every villager.

He also does not want to be named, but says: "How come people that have money are able to have water and we, who have nothing, cannot get water. We are meant to have ­service delivery."

None of the people the Mail & Guardian meets knows why there is no water. There are vague rumours that a water pipe burst, but that was early last year and they have not had water since. Even before that, the supply was erratic at best, they say.     

Treatment plant
A visit to the tribal offices proves fruitless. The brand-new building gets water from a green JoJo tank. Inside the air-conditioned offices, staff say the chief is away, but he does not deal with the water problem.

"That is handled by the councillor," one says. They talk vaguely about some damage to a water pipe, and say they think it will be fixed by the end of September.

They also give a cellphone number for councillor Nkatu Nkotsoe, but he does not respond to attempts to get hold of him.

The Constitution is clear on access to water. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that explicitly makes it a right. The department of water affairs has taken that to mean that each person has a right to 25 litres of free water a day, or 6 000 litres per household per month. This supply cannot be interrupted for more than seven consecutive days in a year. The nearest water supply should also be no further than 200m away from a person's home.  

This was tested legally in Carolina in Mpumalanga last year when the town ran out of water after its treatment plant collapsed. The municipality said it was supplying trucks of water, but the town's residents took it to court, saying the water supply was haphazard. The judge said the water supply had to be consistent and meet constitutional requirements.

This is not the case in Mabeskraal, but the community has silently gone about creating a new water economy that favours those who have the money and resources to drill. Those who do not have to pay to get access to a right that is guaranteed them by the Constitution.

Sipho Kings