Water apartheid alive and well in Nelson Mandela Bay

Nelson Mandela Bay’s water system remains on the precipice. Dams are drying out and demand outpaces supply. Despite the intervention of minister of water and sanitation Senzo Mchunu there are new leaks on a daily basis. Despite this effort by the government, residents’ reports of leaks still go unanswered for weeks. The minister’s last-minute heroics, as they are portrayed across the media, are a day late and a dollar short. 

Unable to manage this crisis, the first order of business by the minister was to hand its administration over to the Amatola Water Board. Although the municipality is inept and corrupt, it at least has a mandate from the people of Nelson Mandela Bay. As the water board deals with the water crisis, it does so with the history of securing and prioritising water for big business — especially commercial farmers, with communities receiving only 10% percent of the water. This has been the case since the emergence of these water governing bodies in South Africa in the early 1900s. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the management and repair of Nelson Mandela Bay’s water system is grossly uneven. What we are seeing is water apartheid. 

Water apartheid

The residents of Nelson Mandela Bay are divided between two realities. In the western suburbs, middle-class residents receive uninterrupted and clean water to their taps. Communal taps stand in designated areas from Summerstrand to Walmer. There is no sense of urgency in these areas, where life continues as normal. The only sign of the crisis is the sight of the occasional borehole truck driving out of a homeowner’s property. 

In the townships, such as Motherwell, working-class residents experience intermittent water shutoffs multiple days during the week that go unannounced. When the water returns, residents complain it is dirty and unsuitable for drinking. 

In the townships, leaving the house in the morning without storing water in buckets means residents will be high and dry on returning home when there is no running water. The experience of working-class residents in Nelson Mandela Bay communicates a clear message from the municipality – their lives are not worth as much as their middle-class counterparts. 

Dry taps in Chris Hani

Forty minutes north of Nelson Mandela Bay is Chris Hani township. It is one of many working-class areas in Uitenhage. On visiting Chris Hani, you will find for 5 000 houses there is only one half-filled water tank. When you speak to residents, they will tell you their taps have been dry for six months, save for four houses. The question of how this is possible remains unanswered. Most residents survive on 1.2 litres of water a day – if they are lucky – which is supplied by a water tanker. 

For the past six months, the municipality would shut down the water system for this community without warning. This experience of abrupt water shutdowns is shared by the greater working-class townships of Uitenhage. 

In the past, the water was shut off during the day and did not return until 3am. It would remain on for two hours until it was shut off again at 5am. Today, running water no longer arrives in the early morning. Residents are woken in the night by the sound of rattling pipes from which no water appears. There has been no municipal communication to explain why working-class Uitenhage residents have had their water shut off. 

As if that was not bad enough, the water tanker that arrives each day only supplies one location in all of Uitenhage. When asked by the community why he is focusing on one area, the driver says he is actually doing them a favour because he lives there. He is only supposed to deliver water to Despatch. He explains there is no plan for trucks to deliver water to Uitenhage as the other two available trucks are meant for schools. 

In short, there are 5 000 households in Chris Hani without water and there is no municipal plan for water provision in this area. This is the situation you find in all the working-class areas of Uitenhage.

The water delivered by the water tankers is of poor quality. When we ask the driver what these trucks were used for previously, which might explain the water’s poor quality, there are no answers. The local councillor has no answers either.

Four fortunate households in the area do have water. However, this causes conflict. People desperate for water are driven to enter these properties without the owners’ consent. There is pressure on the owners to provide water for fellow community members. They must weigh the cost of the community’s ire against the astronomical water bills they are sure to receive. Why is the municipality still billing residents in this crisis? 

One of the four houses has a water leak which was reported weeks ago. It had still not been fixed at the time of publication.

Women and children in Chris Hani have their own experience of water scarcity. When there is no water, it is often the women who must take wheelbarrows and shopping trolleys to fill containers at the single tank in the area. They explain how their household chores pile up while they are taking the time to do this. It is common then for children and young men to be tasked with collecting water from the tank. 

Washing becomes challenging and people are forced to wear dirty clothes to work – if they are employed. Most people’s homes have flush toilets, for which there is not enough water, so they become smelly. 

The situation is stressful for mothers because the safety of the water cannot be trusted, forcing them to buy water to make up baby formula. 

The elderly, disabled and sick are unable to collect water. There is no formal plan in Chris Hani to collect water for these residents. 

On the other side of Uitenhage, in the middle-class areas, this crisis is a foreign issue as it remains to many in Nelson Mandela Bay. Residents in the middle-class suburbs in Uitenhage have safe running water, demonstrating the reality of water apartheid.

The Desert and the Oasis

The water crisis in Chris Hani is class-based and is representative of all the working-class areas in Uitenhage. The residents of Chris Hani are no fools. They understand why they are facing this situation. In the words of one community member, “Our only sin is being poor, black and unemployed.”  

The Nelson Mandela Bay municipality’s water system shows a sharp divide by class and race and, as we’ve seen, these divisions also run deeper between core and periphery. 

The working-class northern areas have been experiencing the worst of this crisis for months. Communities like Chris Hani have been silently facing the brunt of it for the rest of the municipality. We see here the violence contained within this municipal water system. When a middle-class resident in the suburbs, blithely unconcerned, opens their tap to wash their clothes or water their lawn, they do so at the expense of working-class people in the far reaches of the municipality. 

The little water this municipality can get together goes to feed the suburban middle-class oases scattered throughout the municipality, not to the township deserts on its periphery. This is no accident, but a conscious choice. For the municipality, people are only as important as their material worth. The value of human life is not at question but the prospect of economic gains. 

Nelson Mandela Bay municipality might avoid the worst of this crisis and it might not. But we know that, for the poorest in the municipality, it really does not matter. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Tony Martel
Tony Martel is a member of the Nelson Mandela Bay Water Crisis Committee and a PhD candidate at Nelson Mandela University.
Siyabulela Mama
Siyabulela Mama is a member of the Water Crisis Committee and a researcher at The Centre for Post-School Education and Training, Nelson Mandela University.

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