Guest Column

Where people thirst, is government legitimate?

2016-10-07 05:51

Mandi Smallhorne

This is what it all narrows down to...all the lying, the corruption, the incompetence, in national, provincial and local government: a group of little children, barefoot in the red dust, running as fast as their legs can carry them, tumbling onto the back of a bakkie carrying an odd assortment of plastic bottles. The bottles are filled with water, now tepid from the long drive in the sun, but the children grab them, unscrew the tops and start slukking urgently, so great is their thirst.

Why are there children in our country so desperate for water?

It’s not the drought. The 1 000-plus residents of Syferbult are not in some far-flung unserved rural region; they are among the 17 000-odd residents of Ward 36 of the Rustenburg Municipality, one of the fastest-growing medium-sized cities in South Africa.

Water: no greater need, save air to breathe.

While urbanites argue the feasibility of free tertiary education, the most basic of human rights is being denied to some South Africans.

The tale is difficult to follow to its source; the road is rocky with vested interests, fearful people and political clamour. But this story is emblematic of what happens in a country where there is a leadership vacuum, where the concerns of most top leadership have been pared down to simple self-interest. They have lost sight of the real needs of real people as a result.

There’s a reason people use the saying, “The fish rots from the head”; it speaks a simple truth. Wherever such leadership exists, in corporates, organisations, departments or governments, it leeches through until it reaches the most local level.

And at that level, the people being affected are the poorest, the most vulnerable, the voiceless.

Like Syferbult.

On 23 September, Cora Bailey (of Community Led Animal Welfare which visits Syferbult monthly) was informed that no water tankers had arrived in this community for three weeks. For three weeks, the 1000-plus residents had been without any water. (And they weren’t alone; independent councillor Bosa Ledwaba had phone calls from several other Rustenburg wards experiencing problems with access to water.)

Syferbult is just inside the border of North West Province, not far from Magaliesburg and almost halfway between Roodepoort, where I live, and Rustenburg. It started life as an informal settlement roughly a decade ago, as people sought work from farmers in the area. About a hundred or so men in the community still get seasonal work for maybe two to four months of the year; other residents survive on whatever grants are available. (Unlike their councillor, who likely earns upwards of R260 000 a year. Syferbult is represented by long-term councillor Pogiso Tsinyeane, whose face still gazes down from some faded election posters next to the road; he has hung on to his salary-paying position here, although it seems to have been a close-run thing: at one point in the local elections, the EFF claimed to be winning this ward)  

It’s a collection of shacks of corrugated iron, surrounding a dirt provincial road. No electricity; no sanitation; no water.

Oh, there are two smart unused water towers, and taps everywhere in Syferbult, but water does not flow from them. I have been variously told this is due to:

The circuit breaker was broken so the pump wouldn’t work;

The municipality owes Eskom an unpaid electricity bill;

Cable theft, which is "all sorted now" (this was a response from someone the Mayor’s office put me on to; few Rustenburg people are prepared to get on a full-names basis with a journalist, unfortunately). If this is the case, I wonder why the water still hasn’t started to flow, about ten days on?

Rustenburg is therefore charged with the responsibility of sending water via ten thousand litre tankers, twice a week.

Two rented houses back onto Syferbult, both equipped with boreholes. Not infrequently, the tankers don’t arrive (water has been at issue since 2011, to my knowledge – when the councillor was selling water from a borehole he had here). When that happens, the house tenants sell water to residents for between R1 and R2 a "scoop", which could net as much as 20 litres. That’s enough for me, in suburbia, to drink and cook for a day, plus have a shower or sponge bath, but no washing of clothes, flushing of loos or watering of veggies. It doesn’t sound expensive, but it is if you’re coping on a grant of under R1 000 to feed and clothe a household.

So the children don’t go to school (the school is about an hour’s walk away, and the teachers reprimand them for being dirty).

What chance do these kids have of even finishing matric, let alone getting some sort of tertiary qualification that would equip them to earn and haul themselves out of the dire circumstances into which they were born?

Bailey called me on hearing the news; I’ve been to Syferbult with her, pursuing other stories, so I know the community. At first simply as a concerned citizen, I started calling the municipality, the Mayor’s office, Water and Sanitation; I put out a call on Facebook which galvanised some connected friends into action. Meanwhile Bailey and some CLAW volunteers gathered hundreds of 2l and 5l bottles and filled them at a borehole they had access to in Johannesburg.

On Saturday, September 24 they made the hour-long trip with two bakkie-loads of water, which disappeared before the drivers had a chance to stretch their legs.

The rash of queries triggered some response at municipal level. I was told tankers had been dispatched; and later on Saturday, one tanker did arrive. 10 000 litres: that’s under 10 litres per person.

The residents had to cope with that for a couple of days, when another 10 000l tanker arrived. A week later another pitched. Since then – five days – zero. Nada. Zilch.

The councillor invited me to a community meeting on Sunday 2 October; then he sent people to tell residents the meeting was off. I wasn’t in on this secret, though, so I did the fruitless trek. When I queried him on his no-show by text, he responded:

“The advice I got was that if there’s media involved in my meeting than I can’t proceed with meeting because there’s media office in the office of the executive Mayor so any media-related issues should be discussed through office of the executive Mayor so please contact Mr Matebesi…” [sic]

Perhaps they’ve all been distracted by the stuff going on in the municipality. The Speaker, Sheila Mabale-Huma, stepped down after the DA questioned the legitimacy of her election; and the ANC Mayor Mpho Khunou resigned (the party was sure he’d be re-elected at a special council meeting to be held on Friday 7 October 2016).  This might explain why I’ve had no response to questions posed to Mr Matebesi. Or councillor Tsinyeane.

Meanwhile, the people of Syferbult dehydrate under the pitiless cloudless skies.

The voiceless.

The heirs of apartheid geography, architecture and infrastructure, which we as a country have not done enough to change (corporates, government, black and white citizens, we’re all at fault). The people for whom Chris Hani, Ruth First and Steve Biko struggled and suffered and died.

The people betrayed.

The children betrayed.

Is a government (local or national) that does not provide its people with the most basic of human needs and rights still a legitimate government?

Should there not be a mechanism to impeach such a government wholesale?

Justice. Where is the justice in this? We should all be loud in our anger that those little children are running after bottles of water, like refugees in their own country.

Remember what ancient historian Thucydides said, 2400 years ago: “There will be justice in Athens when those who are not injured are as outraged as those who are.”

If we want justice in South Africa – for all of us – then all of us need to be outraged about Syferbult and the hundreds of other voiceless, ignored, abandoned communities around South Africa.

Speak out for them.

Tweet @GovernmentZA #Water4Syferbult.

Or email

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