It’s dead still at The Pont on the bank of the Umtamvuna River that separates the Eastern Cape from KwaZulu-Natal. It’s just after midday, but the holiday resort, one of the oldest in the Port Edward area, is empty, save for an older couple sipping cocktails in deck chairs while they watch the river flow by.
The rowboat with an outboard motor, which ferries workers from the Eastern Cape side of the river in the mornings and afternoons, is moored alongside the speedboats that drag screaming tourists on tubes along the river. The bright blue cruise boat is also tied up, for good reason: there’s nobody at the resort.
The Pont, like the rest of the lower South Coast from Southbroom to Port Edward, has taken a thumping, from a business perspective, as a result of the latest water outage. Since April 23 more than 175 000 folk in the coastal towns and in the villages inland have been without water, apparently after a piece of metal was washed into the pump that draws water from the Umtamvuna and distributes it to the people who depend on the river for their water supply.
We’re whipped — and thirsty — from two days of driving around the countryside watching people battling to get water to stay alive, so we’ve stopped at The Pont for a cold drink and a bit of a break.
It’s a weird thing. Unlike the locals, we’ve had plenty of water to drink since we got here. The interior of the office car is littered with empties but, strangely, we’re still constantly thirsty.
It’s been a tough couple of days, but nothing near as tough as what the people who live here have been through, day after day, not only since the pump at the Umtamvuna water works went down, but for the past three — and in some cases four — months.
At Qombe, Gcilima, Busi Mboyisa and her mother Thandekile have been without water for three months. They’ve been reduced to fetching water from an old borehole about 1.5km away that has been used for cattle and crops since the Ugu district municipality put in standpipes a decade ago.
Their problems didn’t start now. The family put in their own tap and a link to the municipal tap in 2017, rather than walk the 200m to the nearest public standpipe. The water supply promptly dried up, with the family suffering a very dry December, followed by more outages last year.
At the Umtamvuna water works gospel music is blasting from the workers’ houses across the road from the plant. Nosipho Khuzwayo, a policewoman from KwaMphelelwa, has turned the family Toyota Tazz into a water wagon, using her off days to collect 150 litres for her eight-member family. The water has to last them until her next off day, so the family washes in river water.
Khuzwayo is understandably angry. Like the Mboyisa family, she’s been without water for months and is a serial victim of non-delivery by Ugu. Like the Mboyisas, she puts aside her anger and resentment and takes time from her labour to talk about her plight. Tired of silence and half-answers from the municipality, she vents. For a minute we’re like social workers, providing Khuzwayo with some outlet for her frustration, her sense of betrayal.
At the roadside near KwaXolo we meet Mr Not Allowed, a council tanker driver, who, like every other official we approached in our three days at Ugu, isn’t too happy to see us. It takes two days of phone calls and an intervention from a senior official in another municipality to get the Ugu spokesperson to answer his phone, so … back to Mr Not Allowed.
Mr Not Allowed — we asked him his name, but he was not allowed to tell us it — is, we are told, not allowed to allow us to take pictures, not allowed to tell us how many runs he does a day, not allowed to look at us without written permission from his bosses.
We head back to Gcilima, hit the clinic, which locals tell us has been without water for three months. At the clinic, the senior person on duty — who we get to see after about 45 minutes in the waiting room — turns out to be Mr Not Allowed’s twin sister.
She gives us the, “sorry, talk to head office”, and gets as far away from us as she can, as if we have the swine flu or Ebola.
We move to the local primary school. The principal is a nice enough cat, only too happy to talk to us, but there is, of course, one problem. The principal, like every other civil servant, is not allowed to talk to us.
We hit the road, defeated, like the 175 000 waterless residents of Ugu, victims of the Ugu district municipality’s policy of not allowed.