Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Bongani Khumalo has hit the perfect rhythm. His axe bites into the dry, yellow trunk of a once tall tree. His khaki chinos, sneakers and grey hoodie allow for easy movement. The bits of wood go into a white sack. This fetches R20 from people in Botleng who cannot afford electricity for cooking.
The ground beneath his sneakers is forgiving, spongy — a product of drying, sewage-clogged earth. His work has cleared a patch of open space in an area otherwise overwhelmed by green growth. A cellphone lying on the ground plays music as he swings away. It’s too loud, though necessarily so because of the coal trucks gearing down to get up the hill on the N12 next to where he’s working.
On a warm afternoon, Khumalo’s surroundings make you think that Botleng, the Sesotho name for this hill in Mpumalanga, is a place of beauty. Birds hop about, chirping warnings at any potential intruders threatening their nests. Ladybirds feed on aphids in the vegetation.
Half a kilometre away, on the other side of this wetland, sewage flows downhill past the Botleng wastewater treatment plant. The plant, despite its R60-million upgrade, is overgrown. Weeds push up between the paved brick road inside the plant. The machinery is idle. Silent. The most active features are the whirlwinds of plastic bags that are whipped up and away from the now defunct municipal bag recycling plant.
The treatment plant should be treating the waste that is making the ground around Khumalo so spongy. The pipeline that should carry this waste forms a solid boundary to the wetland around him. Raised above the wetland on rusted metal struts, it is the solid end of a half-circle. The RDP homes of Botleng cluster around its other sides. Packed tightly together, there is no space in Botleng for anything green or for parks and places to play. Instead, children go to the sewage-clogged wetland to kick a football and play hide-and-seek.
“Dis kak,” says Khumalo. Speaking in a mix of Afrikaans and isiZulu, he starts the conversation cordially and ends up in a rage. His entire body reflects his anger. His hands pump the air and his head pivots violently back and forth. Nothing is being done about the sewage, he says, despite promises to the contrary. He expects those promises to be resurrected because elections are to be held next year. A quarter of a century will have passed since apartheid ended. Khumalo says time has changed little.
Those promises are included in the 2015 plans to fix the problem. R72-million is being spent on sewage in Botleng and Delmas, including the black pipelines in the wetland. The cement pressure boxes placed every 30m in the wetland are the cause of the pollution — cracks wider than a fat finger spread across their cement foundations. When the sewage flows, these cracks spew raw waste.
On this afternoon, they are dry. A mother, wearing a yellow ANC shirt with the smiling face of former president Jacob Zuma on the front, picks up her toddler and puts her on one of the cement boxes. This stops her from running away while her mother chats to friends.
The municipality and water department did not respond to questions.