/ 1 February 2024

South Africa treads water over municipal budgets and crumbling sanitation infrastructure

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Flooded with filth: Rivers of sewage flow from a marsh in Scotts Farm, Makhanda. (Lucas Nowicki)
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One of the consistent mantras when the government is tackled on crumbling infrastructure is: “There isn’t enough money.”

Here in Makhanda, some of us have been tracking funding for one water plant, allocated since 2010. When I last checked, the accumulated funding commitments added up to about R700  million — more than enough to fix all of Makana local municipality’s water and sanitation problems.

Water is the most obvious infrastructure problem. Everyone needs water and if you open the tap and nothing comes out — or it emits industrial sludge — you notice. There are problems such as bacterial contamination that are less obvious but nonetheless everyone sees the problem in some form.

Sewerage is different — unless you are close to a running sewer leak or, worse still, downstream of one.

Makhanda is a microcosm of South Africa. It is sufficiently compact that you can start at City Hall and in a few minutes, depending what direction you set out, end up in either the poorest or wealthiest part of town.

So a few anecdotes from Makhanda are representative of the country as a whole.

I occasionally take part in a weekend clean-up programme called River Rescue, started by the redoubtable Helen Holleman. The programme aims not only to clean up local waterways, but to raise environmental awareness.

These clean-ups are not fun. The stench can be overwhelming, and the filth dumped in the environment commingled with sewage has to be experienced to be believed. Most of the older locals treat these events with indifference; the majority of the volunteers are young. 

At one particularly foul site, I asked a girl what she dreamed of. Her answer: “A park.” I have never felt so helpless and unhelpful. Our small clean-up that filled a few skips would never do that. All we could do is show we cared. Older people had obviously lost hope. Already, still early in the day, the drinking was well under way.

Leaking sewers are part of every-day reality. Particularly where the poor live, because the government simply does not care about the poor, except when they can be corralled for voting.

A granny lives downstream of a leaking sewer. Her house is flooded with filth. A group of residents hear about her plight and visit. They are impressed by the dignity and fortitude with which she handles an awful situation. 

A few days later, they hear that the local ANC councillor has paid her a visit. You would think a profuse apology would be in order. But no. He craps on her from a dizzy height for embarrassing the government by talking to outsiders.

An informal settlement has bucket toilets. The municipality, despite many broken promises to eradicate bucket toilets, has stopped collecting the contents. The residents have a leaking sewer in the neighbourhood and out of desperation dump their buckets in the river of sewage.

I could go on and on, but the clear issue is: there is a systemic problem.

Why do sewer lines frequently clog, and hence leak? Part of it is inappropriate waste being flushed. But if that was the only issue, sewer leaks would not be so frequent.

The biggest problem is at the end of the line, where sewerage works are over capacity or in other ways dysfunctional. If effluent can’t flow without impediment to the end of the line, pressure will build up and result is spillage.

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Flooded with filth: Rivers of sewage flow from a marsh in Scotts Farm, Makhanda. The marsh itself (above) has been created by overflowing drains. (Lucas Nowicki)

How bad is it?

One measure of sewerage plant failure is downstream microbiological contamination. In the government’s 2022 National State of Water Report, only 14% of water services authorities achieved 89% compliance, the threshold for being considered excellent. Some 20% of these authorities around the country had no data, not a recipe for confidence. 

Microbiological compliance is based on measuring E. coli or faecal coliforms (a broad group of bacteria that includes E. coli), bacteria that should be eliminated from the waste stream. Healthy animals (and people) have coliforms in their gut but some can be harmful. Sewerage plants should eliminate all harmful bacteria before they release water. If they fail this test, it could indicate that the plant is running over capacity, leading to leaks upstream.

All of this is the routine that many of our people live through day in and day out. Every now and then a real disaster such as a cholera outbreak hits the news. But that is the exception (though it could become scarily widespread, the way things are).

Why is it acceptable for people to live under such conditions? It is as if our people do not have constitutional protections of the right “to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing” (S24(a)).

Corruption Watch’s 2020 Money Down the Drain report provides a sobering survey of the scale of the problem in both the water and sanitation areas.

Because water and sanitation are such essential services, they attract massive funding and massive funding attracts massive fraud.

Corruption Watch recommends a range of measures to reverse corruption in this sector, including designating the area as an “island of integrity”, with an anti-corruption forum that would direct reports of corruption to the agency best able to deal with them. Another proposal is to end impunity — which in effect means that adverse findings of the auditor general should actually have an effect.

They propose further measures. But none of this matters if we have a government that does not care —unless people stand up for their rights.

Let us take just one example: making audits stick. The key legislation — the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA) and Public Audit Act (PAA) — have provisions for recovering fruitless, wasteful or irregular expenditure from those responsible.

The auditor general’s office has powers under the latest PAA that took effect in 2019 to issue Certificates of Debt if such expenditure is discovered, consistent with the requirements of PFMA or MFMA. How many such certificates of debt have been issued? I am not aware of one. Yet my own Makana municipality has had years when there have been more than 90 items in the audit disclaimer.

Taking a cue from the Corruption Watch report, what we need is tight monitoring of a few critical sectors such as water and sanitation, and ensuring that those responsible for corruption or wasteful expenditure (often the same thing) are held to account. They should be forced to pay the money back and face criminal prosecution if there is outright theft or fraud.

The problem is: how to get all this enforced? Again, the Corruption Watch report provides a pointer: anti-corruption forums. If the government does not form them, there is nothing to stop civil society from doing so. Such a forum may not have the weight of state power, but it can put pressure on state institutions. It can feed evidence to the Special Investigating Unit, it can launch legal actions against state entities that manifestly fail in their duties and it can create political pressure to force the government to act in the best interests of the residents (sometimes called “doing their job”).

Why does all this matter?

Because it is the poor and the vulnerable who are harmed the most. Those with more money can buy their way out of the problem, or have more political power to force problems to be fixed in their home patch.

If we feel for the granny whose home was flooded with sewage, the child who dreamed of a park or the shack dwellers whose bucket toilets feed a leaking sewer, we can and should demand better of the government. And if it does not perform we need to form civic movements that will force it to deliver.