Sekhukhune’s five-year battle for water back in court

A Limpopo municipality has yet again been dragged to the high court for allegedly violating a 2017 order to provide five villages with a reliable supply of water. 

Villagers from the Sekhukhune district municipality have been fighting for adequate water since 2015. They are now calling for the arrest of the acting municipal manager, Molatelo Mabitsela.

But she says the court application is a “deliberate attempt to embarrass the municipality”. 

Tuesday’s court battle in Pretoria, adjudicated on papers without an oral hearing, was the latest in a saga that has spanned half a decade. 

The situation has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Without water, residents cannot wash their hands to reduce transmission of viral or bacterial diseases. 

Ariella Scher, an attorney at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, says the Sekhukhune district municipality continues to violate a 2017 court order obliging it to deliver water to villagers while it seeks a permanent solution to the water problems. 

But the water supply in the five villages — Elandskraal, Morarela, Mbuzini, Dichoeng and Tsantsabela — continues to be “intermittent at best”, she says.

Water storage tanks are filled once a week and stand empty most of the time because the water is used up almost immediately, Scher says in an affidavit.

“It is due to the protracted history of this matter and the continued violation of not only the applicants’ constitutional right to access to water, but also the existing court orders that the applicants are forced to approach this court yet again for urgent relief,” the affidavit reads.

“The dire situation in which the applicants find themselves has become exacerbated and even more pressing due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19.”

Lepelle Northern Water was contracted by the municipality to construct a new water treatment plant, which was expected to have been completed earlier this year. 

In May, the minister of human settlements, water and sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, placed Lepelle Northern under administration amid a Special Investigating Unit probe into allegations of fraud and maladministration at the state-owned entity charged with supplying bulk potable water in Limpopo. 

The Sekhukhune district municipality is no stranger to controversy. Its previous municipal manager, Norah Maseko, was suspended last year over an irregular contract for a R67-million sanitation project. 

Mabitsela is the second acting municipal manager since Maseko’s departure.

In her affidavit, Mabitsela says the court application has “nothing to do with the applicants’ right to water”. She accuses the Centre for Applied Legal Studies of using the plight of the poor people to embarrass the municipality and contends that the legal centre has failed to show how her arrest would ensure strict compliance with the court order.

She does not dispute that the 2017 court order “has not been fully complied with”. She says this failure to fully comply was not an act of bad faith. 

“Neither my predecessor nor I intended to behave contemptuously towards this court and disrespect the court. We accept that court orders must be complied with and this is without exception,” the affidavit reads. “We also accept that municipalities have a constitutional obligation to provide basic water to all persons. We do not intend to shirk this responsibility.”

Mabitsela denies that the supply of water has been intermittent. 

In her response to Mabitsela, Scher refutes this, saying that the villagers remain without a sufficient and reliable water supply. “The applicants’ constitutional rights to dignity and equality as well as their lives and well-being are imperilled by this denial.” 

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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