Police respond to rural water protests with bullets

Anger is growing in rural areas and small towns in the Eastern Cape at the local government’s failure to provide a regular, clean supply of water during the coronavirus epidemic. The government has bought thousands of tanks for areas that don’t have a regular supply of water, but these measures have not solved the province’s water supply problem.

In two towns, police officers opened fire on protesters as they poured filthy local water from bottles on to their hands to show their plight. Bathurst is a small town between Makhanda and Port Alfred, surrounded by pineapple farms and famous for its 16.5m pineapple structure – the world’s largest – which houses a museum. It is also the place where water is turned off for long periods at a time, forcing its impoverished and working-class residents to walk to rivers in the hope of filling their buckets.

“There is no water anywhere. Not everyone has water tanks. To access water, we have to cajole and beg someone and tell them we have no water. Covid-19 requires people to have regular access to water. How are we supposed to live in homes without water when there are people taking treatment? Secondly, this also presents problems for women because if there is no water in our areas we have to travel long distances to fetch water. Without water, there is death,” said Nomawabo Tshisa, 55, of the Rural People’s Movement in Bathurst.

The residents of Peddie, a town about 100km away on the N2 highway to East London, along with 119 of the 130 surrounding villages in the Ngqushwa Local Municipality, have not had a reliable source of water for up to 10 years, including during last year’s drought.

“Only 11 villages have active water running. We can’t comply [with lockdown] by sitting at home because we can’t sanitise and wash our hands. We have sent numerous letters and emails. No communication, just being brushed off like we are nothing,” said Athini Ngxumza, 30, from the Umtapo Centre, a 34-year-old social justice organisation founded during apartheid to fight for peace, justice and human rights.

Police respond with force 

It is because of the water shortages that these women-led movements have begun to protest regularly. On Tuesday July 7, the Umtapo movement, Fixing Ngqushwa Yethu and the founding artist of the Thandeka Stamper Art Gallery in the Durban Mission Location near Peddie decided to protest next to the N2 highway. 

They brought bottles of brown water from their taps and rivers to the protest to show the futility of washing their hands with the dirty liquid. The police arrived quickly, opening fire with rubber bullets before arresting artists Samkela Stamper, 37, and Phumeza Macwili, 40.

“We came to support the protest because we have no water or service delivery. I was supposed to do my performance but before that, the police came without any warning. They brutalised us. In fact, it started with the captain, he is the one who grabbed me first. We had not even started yet and they fired tear gas,” said Stamper, who was released an hour later and has since laid charges against the police.

Macwili, of Bira Location near Peddie, is an artist and mother to a five-month-old baby. The family has no supply of clean drinking water. “There are taps but nothing is coming out. It will come out after three months and then it is gone again,” she said.

Macwili’s wrist was bruised, cut and swollen, and had been visibly injured during her arrest. “We don’t have water and we feel like it should be a priority during the Covid-19 pandemic. We have written to the president’s office, the premier’s office, the current mayor and the previous mayor, and they are sending us from post to pillar, nothing is happening. I have to buy water from the man with donkeys in my village for me to drink.”

She said the police had dragged them on the ground and called them names after arresting them. “They said we are heartless, we are everything. They pulled us … I had to grab the police shirt and I couldn’t move, I was in pain. They didn’t care. They were swearing at us in Xhosa, saying niyasinyela [you are taking us for shits]. And then they told us they had the right to do whatever they want because we are intimidating them. Mina, I feel like I am still under the apartheid government,” Macwili said.

‘All we are asking for is life’ 

A distraught Ngxumza told the police that they had undermined the important cultural concept of respect by opening fire without first entering into a discussion with the protesters. “It is a dehumanising issue and when we try to get our voices to be heard, our rights are violated and we are abused and we are sent off like dogs. All we are asking for is life. We are asking to live,” she said.

Ngqushwa municipality mayor Sanga Maneli said, “There is no silver bullet for the issue of water. It is a crisis, a disaster that we all face, so we can’t say we will do this, we will make rain come down. There are technical issues … areas with faulty reservoirs. Our government must work with speed to ensure that we fix that. Those are the things that we can do. We will fix what is faulty and let other things be dealt with by nature.”

Tshisa says the Bathurst police have also attacked protesters.

“These are the same police who do not come when there is a break-in, the same police who do not come when someone is being murdered, the same police who do not come when someone is being raped. But during our struggle, police were always present. 

“You would wake up in the morning with police standing at your gate. They shot people with live ammunition, they shot people with rubber bullets. But we can’t go backward, we have to go forward. Power to the people,” said Tshisa.

The Rural People’s Movement says that soon residents will have no alternative but to occupy the municipal offices and force local government leaders and officials to do the work they are being paid to do. 

“We must unite. We are not going anywhere. This impacts us poor people. Even our elected leaders are not reliable. For them [the local government] to understand that we mean business, we have to lock them up in their offices, sit there with them and let them know that we have no access to water and tell them that you are not doing your jobs. In unity we have strength. As long as these conditions persist, the struggle is important,” says Tshisa.  

The Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), whose members attended the protests, said it condemned police behaviour at the Peddie and Bathurst protests. 

“Everywhere, these municipalities are failing our people. If our people decide to confront them, definitely they use killing to normalise things, like threatening activists in Grahamstown like Ayanda Kota. We have to connect more and bring our struggles together,” said UPM chairperson Tshezi Soxujwa, 22.

This article was first published on New Frame

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Anna Majavu
Anna Majavu is a trade unionist and journalist currently completing a PhD in journalism

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