Broken toilet pots, television sets, plastic bottles, tires, household waste, building rubble, clothing, fabrics and human excrement.
This was all found underneath the flowing water and long grass in the canal outside the Vygieskraal informal settlement in Athlone.
Following the recent tragedy that claimed the lives of eight-year-old Abieda Paulse and fellow resident Yusuf Kiriboto, a group of volunteers from local faith-based organisations and members of the community joined forces to clean the canal and surrounding area on Saturday 3 October.
On Thursday 9 July, Paulse fell into the canal while playing with friends. Kiriboto jumped into the water in an attempt to save her but both were drawn under by the swells.
JP Smith, the Mayco member for safety and security, confirmed at the time that fire and rescue service divers had responded to the scene to search for the two who were believed to have been swept into one of the many underground pipes and tunnels along the canal. The search was suspended later that day due to adverse weather conditions.
On Friday 10 July, police divers continued the search. Residents, who expressed their concern over the seeming lack of urgency, also joined in the search for the pair. Their bodies were found on Monday 20 and Tuesday 21 July in the Liesbeek River and the canal along Bokmakierie, respectively.
Community development worker Zelda Ann Hintsa says the tragic death of the pair and the prolonged search could have been avoided.
“In July, during Covid-19, Abieda Paulse and Yusuf Kiriboto drowned and only after two weeks, their bodies were found because of the amount of pollution in the canal. This bothered me. Usually, bodies should have surfaced much earlier but it took so long because of all the pollution,” says Hintsa.
With the initiative tying into green action week, Hintsa enlisted the help of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) and local faith institutions.
Rev Berry Behr of SAFCEI says the organisation partners with funders overseas with the aim of partnering with local multi-faith communities.
“Our focus is eco-justice but when we do this, it affects communities. We do not believe we can separate one from the other. We work with faith leaders to encourage them to use the earth teachings and theologies of stewardship to encourage their congregations and communities to take care of the environment,” she says.
Unfortunately, Paulse and Kiriboto’s deaths are not the only tragedies.
Natasha Amri, a resident of the Vygieskraal community and a volunteer, says children falling into the canal and drunk people walking along the canal are some of the many incidents that have taken place over the years.
Amri has lived in the Vygieskraal community all her life and says the canal was not always this filthy.
“I grew up here and when I was small it was very clean. We used to swim in this river and even took water from this river to wash our clothes because we did not have (access) to water that time,” she says.
“Recently, everything changed. People started dumping in the river (despite us talking to them). Because of the blockage, when it rains heavily all the homes flood. People can’t even walk to get to the next road,” she says.
Pastor Gerhard de Vries Bock of the Lutheran Church – built along the canal – says it has not only been an eye-sore, but also a health and safety hazard.
“We were flooded in 2006. The entire building was underwater because of the blockage. Sadly, most of our (vulnerable) residents are living in the informal settlement where the water is accumulating. We cannot only hold the local government responsible, we also have a role to play. This is our way to show our responsibility,” he says.
When previously asked about the state of the canals, the cost and the frequency of cleansing, the City of Cape Town did not respond. Amri says they need something done about the canals to avoid future tragedy.
Within minutes of the start of the clean-up, several bags of waste had been collected by the group, with the shocking state of the canal area calling for further interventions.
Without access to adequate equipment to get into the water to clear the caught waste, the group is now working on a way forward.
“From the Church, we have a responsibility to creation, the environment and people. We believe God not only loves his people, but he loves his creation. We are very grateful that we could partner and do this joint project. As a church, we cannot do this alone, we do not want to do this alone,” says De Vries Bock.
“We want to involve as many young people as possible in this project because we believe that having many young people involved, you can change their mentality to do good rather than bad.”
Hintsa agrees, saying the clean-up is the start of many such initiatives.
“We wanted to not only clean the canal but also show the community that the environment is very important and that they should also contribute to keeping the environment clean,” Hintsa says.
Behr says there has been a considerable improvement in resident’s attitudes toward the environment during the lockdown, with this initiative being the organisation’s first action since the lockdown started.