The Mpitsi family home in Ikhutseng in the Northern Cape is the one that their neighbours are talking about. “Come see this house,” urges a local resident, pointing to a squat, nondescript building. “It’s really bad.”
It is. The house is encircled by a sea of overflowing sewage, coated with slimy pea-green algae.
But after years of living like this, Tiny Mpitsi seems resigned to her family’s grim fate. “It’s been like this for so long,” she shrugs with a sad smile. “We went to the [Magareng local] municipality many times but they did nothing so we are used to this situation. I don’t think we will ever get help.”
Sign up for our free daily elections email
The unemployed 21-year-old expertly hops across a makeshift “bridge” fashioned by her father — a rudimentary pathway of large stones — that allows the family to get to their front door without sinking in the mess.
To keep her three-year-old son safe, Mpitsi takes him to his father’s nearby home as often as she can. “It’s better for him there than it is here.”
There is no electricity so she cooks on an open fire outside. “It really stinks. You can’t eat nicely and never feel clean.”
‘Nobody cares about us here’
The sewage crisis in the township in the platteland dorp of Warrenton runs far and deep. Streams of foul, murky water snake through houses and barren yards, oozing in patches of open land.
A look of disgust passes over Naomi Mongale’s face like a heavy cloud as she shows how sewage is seeping into her pin-neat, crumbling home in Ikhutseng. “Everything is wet,” she says, gesturing to her sodden wall. “It’s worse when it rains because then it floods into our houses. When it’s hot, it stinks because the drains are vrot.”
According to the non-financial census of municipalities conducted by Statistics South Africa, in 2019 the municipality serviced 7 363 solid waste management units. However only 6 524 units were serviced for sewerage and sanitation.
The 67-year-old Mongale is adamant she won’t vote in next month’s municipal elections. “How many years have we voted and this is how we live,” she seethes. “Nobody cares about us here.”
In the previous local government elections only 59% of the residents in the municipality voted. The ANC took 60% of those votes followed by the Democratic Alliance with 18%.
The voter turnout in the municipality took a 12% drop from the 2014 national elections. And the support for the ANC was also down by 8%.
Moved by the plight of these residents, Warrenton local Gerda Hayward sobs quietly. “I can’t believe that people are forced to live like this,” she says.
A few kilometres away, Hayward inspects the dysfunctional Magareng sewage plant, which stands idle and virtually deserted.
“This plant hasn’t worked for years,” says one of the two workers on site, who can’t be named. “We come to work but there is nothing to do.”
He watches as a truck, which services the town’s septic tanks, dumps raw sewage into the plant’s festering, non-functional dams. “The sewage just overflows from here and goes into the veld, then to the Vaal river.”
Empty taps in Warrenton
There’s no water in her taps again but Grace Jacobs doesn’t seem surprised. Instead, she is prepared. She keeps her bath half-filled — to flush the toilet.
Though the municipality has stated in the non-financial census that it supplies water to 5 968 units inside yards and 1 750 taps less than 200m away from the home, no water in the taps is a regular occurrence.
“See how dirty this water is?” asks Jacobs. “That’s how it comes out of the taps. It’s like modder [mud]. There’s always these little goggatjies in it. When I do the washing, I have to scrub the machine because it’s vuil from this water.”
The mother of two has lived in Warrenvale for 20 years and has long ago given up hope for a better life. The faded T-shirt of former president Jacob Zuma she is wearing is “only good enough to sleep in”.
“Our biggest problem is the water. We are struggling without water for days and sometimes, months. What can you do without water? Nothing.”
Jacobs shuffles to her kitchen, her body bent by three strokes, to her large collection of water containers. “I boil this water for us to cook and drink with but it makes us sick. Sometimes, my sons miss school because of runny stomachs. It’s like their bodies are damaged inside. But we don’t have a choice.”
The JoJo tank on the street is bone dry. “We don’t have a municipality in Warrenton. If we complain, nothing happens. That’s why I’m not voting. We vote for people who promise they will help us but they don’t. Here in the platteland, no one does anything for us.”
‘I’m living in the 19th century’
Hayward tells how not too long ago, Warrenton was a town to be proud of. “My mother always told us that Warrenton was the most beautiful town, better than Jan Kempdorp and Hartswater.
“Now, sewage is running all over, going underneath the N12, through people’s houses and into the Vaal river. It’s even on the way to the hospital.”
She and her husband, Peter — both former police officers — invested their pensions into their guesthouse and tell how the municipal neglect is hurting their business. “Our guests ask us, ‘How do you stay in this town?’ That’s when you realise this is your town, that we must be proud of this place, but we are not.
Across the town, potholes are gouged into the roads like open sores. “The biggest problem is that the municipality doesn’t see Warrenton for the jewel it is. We’re on the N12 and the R18 and we’re on the banks of the Vaal river.
“But they’re not looking after the town. It’s dirty, we go hours without electricity, especially on weekends, and there are places where people have gone without water for years. If they get water, it’s so dirty I wouldn’t dare drink it.”
In recent months, the bubbly and feisty Hayward has become a champion for dejected local residents. She and Peter have now joined the Patriotic Alliance “to have a bigger voice” to fight for the community.
Hayward’s phone pings. It’s the local WhatsApp group: a flurry of messages pour in, many about the water woes. One reads: “I’m so bloody tired of carrying water in buckets just to keep the toilet clean. It feels like I’m living in the 19th century and not in 2021 when water is a human right.”
For Helena Losper, the Haywards’ weekly deliveries of borehole water have become a lifeline. “There’s been no water in my taps for one year and nine months,” the frail 79-year-old says.
“When we do get water, it comes in dribs and drabs. You struggle to bath, to wash dishes, cook and flush the toilet. When you phone the municipality, they don’t answer or they say they’re working on the problem.”
Major health risks
Trenches, which run like cracks through the earth, have been deliberately dug in parts of Warrenton to divert sewage into the Vaal river, including at one new upmarket development.
“Some of the fish have sores,” says Hayward, glancing at the crusts of sewage floating on the Vaal river.
Too many towns along the Vaal dump their raw or poorly treated sewage into the Vaal, including Warrenton, adds Peter. “It’s a major health risk. Livestock is drinking this water, then the farmer delivers the meat to the market and we’re buying that meat. Am I actually eating the guy around the corner’s poo? What water will South Africans drink in the future if we carry on like this?”
In a nearby low-lying suburb, Elizabeth Pool and her neighbours share the same story: how sewage in these trenches, mixed with rainwater, floods their homes when it rains. “It’s disgusting to live like this,” Pool says. “You can’t even open your windows at night because of the stench.”
A town worth saving
While major retailers abandoned the town years ago, local residents are pinning their hopes on the R150-million Magareng shopping centre — to create jobs and inject cash into the ailing local economy. The project has been delayed by leaking water pipes that create “dams” on site, according to Hayward, and are supposed to be moved.
It’s in this area where Lena Pitso says her six-year-old granddaughter, Mosimanegape, drowned in July. “She and her twin brother went to swim in the open water there. I was called and told I must come, that my granddaughter is dead. My heart is sore but there is nothing I can do to make it right,” says Pitso, stoically, her hands folded neatly in her lap.
While the town’s problems seem overwhelming, the Haywards have decided to “fight” for Warrenton. “Which town in South Africa is not worth saving?” Peter asks. “If you’re willing to write off one town, you can write off the province and the country … You’ve got to save each and every town, whether it’s Warrenton, Kimberley or Thohoyandou.”
Hayward is now collecting more residents’ statements about the water shortages — she is already armed with 400 — and has drone footage of the sewage spills. The plan is to pursue a criminal case against the municipality. “It can’t go on like this,” she says, resolutely. “This is one fight I hope we’re going to win.”
The government’s response
Sputnik Ratau, spokesperson for the department of water and sanitation, says during the last inspection of Magareng’s wastewater treatment works in 2020, the plant was “functioning relatively well”, with wastewater treated to an acceptable standard for discharge.
“There are often leaks, blockages and pump station breakdowns on the sewer reticulation system, with discharges to the environment, residences, water courses and the Vaal river.
When pump stations fail, sewer is discharged from the pump station or manholes as the sewer is pushed back,” he says.
The Ikhutseng main sewer pump station motor and soft starter have been out of operation since December 2020. “This led to a pushback of sewage into the manholes, resulting in sewage spills because sewage could not be pumped from the pump station to the wastewater treatment works.”
A new pump was installed in February 2021 and a new pump and soft starter were installed in March 2021. “If telephonic corrections fail, physical inspections are done and notices and directives are issued to compel the municipality to rectify,” Ratau says, adding there is funding planned to upgrade one pump station.
Ratau says internal reticulation of water is poor, there is a shortage of storage and certain areas do not receive water. “During 2020, there were 21 water tanks and two trucks made available to the municipality to place at strategic areas to make water available to the community.”
The Warrenton wastewater treatment works is “facing a myriad of challenges” daily, says Thapelo Jacobs, the spokesperson for the Magareng local municipality. These are mainly attributed to the inadequate capacity of the plant, incorrect design, wrong location of the plant, vandalism of existing infrastructure and the municipality’s limited financial resources.
The facility has reached its design lifespan and the major processing units are old. “It needs total redesign of the process flow and replacement of the units. All these activities require huge financial resources, which the municipality does not have.”
The magnitude of these challenges and the municipality’s financial position means it is “unable to correct all these issues at once”. But the municipality, Jacobs says, is “not folding our arms and doing nothing”. During the 2020-21 financial year, it refurbished several key components, but these were immediately vandalised after installation.
“Vandalism and theft of municipal property is a major problem. Magareng municipality has no financial capability to replace major processing units and equipment when vandalism and theft occur.”
It is in the process of appointing a service provider to assess the efficacy and options for relocating the works and to critically assess the realignment and rerouting of the bulk sanitation pipelines. This will be used as a business case to motivate and source funding from sector departments and other institutions, such as the Development Bank of South Africa.
The Warrenton water treatment works is being upgraded to the tune of R90-million — this is being funded by the department of water and sanitation and this upgrade is at 65% to completion. “This project will assist the municipality to provide water adequately at reasonable pressures, correct quantities and quality.”
Between April 2020 and March 2021, Jacobs says the department provided emergency water tankers as part of its drought relief project and with the overall impact of Covid-19. “The department installed 10 000-litre water tanks across the municipality; these tanks were filled periodically by them.”
This was funded through the department’s budget. “The municipality was oblivious to the cost implications and the contractual obligations the department had with the water tanker service providers. The department withdrew the water tanker services, citing a depleted budget. The municipality was left exposed as it has no budget for this function. The municipality has no funds to fill the tanks. We have embarked on projects that address water shortages.”
On little Mosimanegape’s drowning, Jacobs says the incident occurred at an area adjacent to the shopping complex land. “The drowning is not as a result of a leakage. Nonetheless, all precautionary measures will be undertaken to ensure all the applicable safety measures are complied with during construction.”