Rats and floods: Just part of life along the Jukskei River

Despite the misery it brings every rainy season, inhabitants of the Setjwetla informal settlement continue to live along the edge of a river.

The informal settlement lies a few metres away from the Jukskei River in Alexandra that swallows residents' belongings every time it swells in heavy rain. The river runs right through the middle of the Johannesburg township.

The Jukskei River begins its journey in Ellis Park, making its way through the city, before joining the Crocodile River outside Lanseria. The Crocodile River then makes its way to the Hartebeespoort Dam.

Jukskei River

 Setjwetla informal settlement in Alexandra, along the banks of the Jukskei river. (Ntwaagae Seleka)

It is heavily polluted, with raw and untreated waste flowing into it on a daily basis. Cholera-causing bacteria have occasionally been found in the water. Tons of waste - such as plastic, metal and rubber - flow down the Jukskei annually.

The banks are prone to bursting, especially in summer when rainfalls are the heaviest for the year regionally. This often leads to tragedy, such as the case of 3-year-old Everite Chauke whose body was found in the river in Buccleuch, north of Johannesburg, in November 2016. She had died after she was swept away in flash floods.

READ: Toddler's body found in Jukskei River

To reach some of the residents’ homes, it takes a matter of skill to walk along the edges of the river. Along the path, lies human excrement and dumped food.

Jukskei River

  Pollution along the banks of the Jukskei river in Alexandra. (Ntwaagae Seleka) 

Here, people share their living quarters with massive rats. The rodents show no fear of the residents as they scavenge among the food that has been thrown out.  

"Those rats are part of us, although they make us sick. They don’t fear humans at all. You must see them in the evening when they come out of their holes. I assume that we have thousands and thousands of them here," Zane Mukhari.

"They sometimes enter our shacks and sit next to us. They are part of our lives. The only thing missing from them is that they can’t speak; if they could they would chat with us," he said.

Mukhari, 28, hails from Giyani in Limpopo. He arrived in the area three years ago, looking for work. He has already been a victim of the Jukskei River.

"The disaster welcomed me in the area. This river baptised me as a newcomer. I lost all my belongings, including materials I used to erect my shack. I am worried that, since we are in the rainy season, the river will do what is known best, which is to swallow my belongings again," he said.

READ: 'How we were attacked by the river'

Mukhari has no other alternative place to which he can relocate. He is forced to cook his food in a fire just a metre above the foul-smelling river, and washes his clothes there as well.

Jukskei RiverZane Mukhari washes his clothes just above the banks of the Jukskei river. (Ntwaagae Seleka)

"I have nowhere to go. Whenever it rains, my shack is flooded with water. Worse is that, when it rains at night, I go out with my neighbours for safety because we don’t want to be swept away with the water," he said.

Jukskei River

 Zane Mukhari's shack near the edge of the Jukseki river. (Ntwaagae Seleka) 

His neighbour Kleintjie Hlungwane lost his shack in 2017, during heavy rains in the area.

Hlungwane, 30, who is also from Giyani, has been living in Setjwetla for two years now.

"Rats here are huge, they penetrate our shacks from underground. They can grow big too. They even crawl on top of us when we are sleeping. They carry parasites with them, because once they visit your house, you will see parasites running on your body, leaving you itching with sores.

"Life is tough here. We are waiting for another disaster to happen. We are all aware of what this river does to us during summer, but we have nowhere to hibernate to when it rains. Apart from battling with rats, we fight with both crawling and flying insect day and night, because of the things dumped on the river.

"People here don’t care. They dump everything in the river. What is worse is that some adults relieve themselves unashamedly in broad day light in the river," he said.

READ: Public Works denies polluting Hartbeespoort Dam

A step away from Hlungwani’s shack lives Sakhile Phukene, 20, with her one-month-old daughter Khensani.

Phekene arrived in Setjwetla a few years ago with her boyfriend who has since returned home to Tzaneen, Limpopo.

She is lying on a bed which rests on a pile of bricks to prevent the rats from reaching it. Baby Khensani peacefully sleeps on her mother’s chest.

Her shack is just half a metre away from the river.

"I have no other alternative place to go. I am unemployed and survive on handouts since I lost my job as a cleaner in Sandton earlier this year. Last week, rats bit my daughter, leaving her with sores. I didn’t have a repellent spray to chase them away.

"People dump their food and other things I can’t mention right on the wall of my shack, leaving us with a heavy stench. At night it is a problem because some boys once entered and robbed me of my phone."

She says Setjwetla is a disaster.

"We have no option but to stay here. Maybe things will change for the better," she said. 

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