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Verena C still collects water from a stream after projects costing millions failed

Elinah Mahlangu, of the  impoverished Verena C village in Mpumalanga, situated along the R25 to Groblersdal, makes her second trip to the nearby dirty stream to fetch water. 

She has asked a young boy to push her wheelbarrow carrying three 20-litre plastic containers. 

Dressed in a navy-blue dress, with a red towel wrapped around her waist, a green shawl over her shoulders and a doek wrapped around her head, she uses a 1.5-litre plastic container to scoop water from the stream. 

Elina Mahlangu collects water from a spring, with the help of a young boy.

It takes about five minutes to walk to the water but Mahlangu, 63, says the distance sometimes takes its toll on her, especially on laundry days when she collects more water than usual. “Today it is better because it is not too hot; rainy days are the worst.”

She has asked the boy to push the wheelbarrow because he only attends school on certain days. This is a relief for Mahlangu because she would have had to wait for school to be out before fetching water.

At the stream, another woman is accompanied by two small children. She, too, is there to collect water.

Washed clothes hang on the fence, drying in the slight breeze. 

Mahlangu asks the boy to offload the containers while she looks for a cleaner spot in the stream. Some parts have clear water and others have a dirty, greenish look so she has to scoop carefully. 

“The animals must be grazing somewhere because they are usually here around this time,” she said.

Mahlangu complains that her health is no longer what it used to be; she is tired of the trips but has no option but to collect water from the stream.

After years of sharing their source of water with their livestock, an unofficial understanding has been formed where residents fetch water in the early hours of the morning or later in the evening, to avoid a stampede and to also ensure that the water does not have animal urine and faeces in it. 

But even that sense of cleanliness is marred by people who sometimes bathe in the stream and dump disposable nappies and uncollected rubbish nearby.

‘What choice do we have?’

Not having a clean, reliable source of water is something the majority of Verena C’s residents find inhumane and unacceptable. 

Villagers come to collect water from a spring in an open field. The water often gets contaminated when animals come to drink or when pollution flows into the spring. Photo Delwyn Verasamy

“What choice do we have?” asked Mahlangu as she scooped the water.

“I fetch water from this place at least twice a day. We use it for washing and cleaning, but we are also sometimes forced to drink it because the JoJo tank provided by the municipality hardly ever has water for the entire community.”

Mahlangu and many like her fear for their health.

“With Covid-19, we have been told to keep washing our hands regularly but how can we do that when we don’t have clean water? Children are even at more risk because, unlike us, they just drink the water without thinking about the risk it poses to their health.”

After years of unfulfilled promises and incomplete water supply projects costing R1.98-billion between 2016 and 2020, Verena C’s residents, who live in the Thembisile Hani local municipality, are exploring alternatives that will see them enjoying the right to access clean and safe water.

‘Human rights violation’

The council — led by iKosi Phillip Mahlangu, leader of the AmaNdebele Ndzundza Kawule Traditional Council — and a coalition of rural residents of Verena C, Wolvenkop, Langkloof, Swartkops farm and the surrounding farming communities, numbering about 10 000 households, have written a letter  to the South African Human Rights Commission, through the #NotInMyName campaign, asking it to intervene in the water crisis. 

iKosi Phillip Mahlangu, leader of the AmaNdebele Ndzundza Kawule Traditional Council, and other people have asked the Human Rights Commission for help.

The coalition stated that people are surviving on water supplied in tanks that is hardly sufficient to respond to their sanitation needs. 

“Our people still live with little to even no access to water and sanitation. It is therefore our contention that this human rights violation is deepening not only in Verena but across South Africa,” they wrote. 

“We, therefore, call on the Human Rights Commission of South Africa to intervene — not only in Chief Skosana’s homestead — but rather an intervention that seeks to address a water crisis for communities that are still living in poverty.” 

The human rights commissioner in Mpumalanga, Eric Mokonyama, said the HRC had received the complaint and was in the final stages of compiling a final report into the municipality’s failure to supply water.

Mokonyama did not know when the final report would be released but said that in the preliminary findings it was found that the municipality was in “tatters”. 

He added that criminal charges had been instituted against the municipal manager in 2019 for failing to respond to allegations levelled against him by residents.

The department of water and sanitation had not responded to the Mail & Guardian regarding its role in the R70-million plans to supply water to the Nkangala district municipality from the Loskop Dam.

‘Vandalised, non-functional’

Responding to questions about the municipality’s failure to deliver water to residents, the municipality’s assistant communications manager, Simphiwe Mokako, said no project was left incomplete without valid technical reasons.

She said vandalism has had a dire effect on the borehole revival project for the 2016-17 financial year.

A water tank makes a weekly delivery of water to the community. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

“These two projects were completed and handed over to the municipality for operations. However, when they were supposed to be operated by the municipality to augment the water supply from the City of Tshwane, the solar panels were found to be vandalised and non-functional.”

Mokako added that Verena C had one operational borehole, which was being pumped using a generator and an Eskom connection box had also been installed.

“We are not giving up on our mandate to deliver the services and have put plans in place aimed at achieving our targets in the form of supply of water through our very own source [Bundu Weir] and [the] Moloto Groundwater scheme; the aim is to augment the supply from Rand Water and City of Tshwane while working towards kick-starting the much anticipated Loskop project, she said.

The JoJo tank that Mahlangu spoke of was installed by the municipality to service about 4 000 residents in Verena C. The municipality had installed steel water tanks in 2017 but those have not been working since they were put up. 

On the list of other failed and abandoned efforts to supply running water was the 1996 project, in which pipes were installed so that every household would have a tap in the yard. 

But those were never connected to a water supply. All that remains are taps that have never had a single drop of water come out of them.

“We don’t know what running tap water looks like in our community,” said iKosi Mahlangu. 

“The municipality told us that the reason why some of these projects failed is that there was not enough pressure coming from the reservoirs that are close by. 

“Some of the boreholes are operational but we need more of them to be revived so that we can have enough water supply in the communities while the issue of taps is being worked on,.” 

One intervention that is working — even though unsatisfactorily according to some residents — is the tankers that deliver water on a weekly basis. Introduced in 2019, the 42 trucks from 27 contractors cost the municipality an average of R2.8-million a month, according to the municipality.

When the M&G visited Verena C, a truck came to deliver water — to the surprise of most residents. Some residents said the truck had not come to their part of the village for at least four weeks.  

Annah Mahlangu earns a living by selling water to the village’s residents. The water is from a borehole sunk by Amos Makuwa in his yard. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Other residents have started profiting from those who need someone to fetch the water for them. 

And one resident, Amos Makuwa, has installed a borehole in his yard. For R1, a resident walks away with a 20-litre bucket filled with water from the JoJo tank that collects water pumped up from the borehole. 

The money made from the sales pays for the electricity required to keep the pump operating and also helps with the Makuwa household’s needs.

Makuwa said it would cost at least R50 000 to install a borehole, an amount that most households would not be able to afford.

This article was funded by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen Zivik programme. The views in this article do not necessarily represent those of the funders

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Marcia Zali
Marcia Zali is an award winning journalist

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