'I was left behind crying': The high, and often fatal, cost of bad politics in Nelson Mandela Bay

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Eight-year-old Chuma Mdayi's tragic death by electrocution was foreshadowed when walking on gravel roads covered by illegal electricity wiring connected to shacks on the outskirts of Despatch in the Eastern Cape.

In whatever way his death may be perceived, it’s clear Chuma won’t be the last to be electrocuted in the vast settlements of rickety-made shacks, where poverty and despair run deep.

With less than three weeks before the municipal elections, journalists Jason Felix, Malibongwe Dayimani and Aljoscha Kohlstock investigate how residents of one of the poorest areas in the province survive without the "luxuries" many take for granted. 

In between the high hills separating communities in Despatch lies the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela informal settlement.

Though it is named after one of South Africa's foremost struggle heroes, its residents find themselves in a deathtrap, and there's no escaping this life.

Part of the Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) metro, the informal settlement sprang up about four years ago and lacks all basic services.

Residents walk long distances to the communal taps, have no ablution facilities, and the main attraction is a field resembling a dumpsite.

There are, however, more than 1 000 concrete outside toilets - but most, if not all, have been damaged.

Unemployment is high, and most young people loiter around the area.

Only illegal electricity connections, running across streets and into several shacks, seem to be working.

On 12 September 2020, Chuma was electrocuted by one of the illegal wires that run over the roads.

Eight-year-old Chuma Mdayi

At the time of his death, he was a Grade 2 learner at Nomathamsanqa Primary School.

For those he left behind, danger still lurks under their feet.

His mother, Ntombizanele, is a soft-spoken woman, who believes her son would have been alive if live electric wires did not run over the gravel roads.

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Due to the shock of her son's death, she suffered a mild stroke.

At the time, she refused to see a doctor - and sleeping in the same hospital her son died was not an option.

"The stroke started attacking me every time I thought about the incident," she said.

There is an abundance of illegal electricity conne
There is an abundance of illegal electricity connections in the settlement.
Illegal electricity connections running past shack
Illegal electricity connections run deep into homes in the settlement.
Most of the concrete toilets in the settlements are damaged and stand dormant.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela informal settlement
Illegal electricity connections running past homes in the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela informal settlement near Despatch in the Eastern Cape.
Illegal electricity connections running past shack
Illegal electricity connections running past homes in the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela informal settlement near Despatch in the Eastern Cape.

Nearly four minutes into the interview, she starts weeping.

"Ever since the incident, I have been suffering in silence because I never got counselling. I started drinking. Since that day of the incident, I started struggling to sleep so much that I relied on sleeping pills and, when I ran out of sleeping pills, I started drinking alcohol, which I was selling to the public, so I can earn a living," she said, as the tears rolled down her cheeks.

"When I saw him being carried motionless on the arms of the man who rescued him, I ran away because I knew he was not going to make it. They took him, put him in a car and rushed him to hospital. I was left behind crying," she said, weeping uncontrollably.

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Nearly every gravel road in the area has electrical wires running across it.

Tracing the cables, it takes you to various points, including streetlamps.

As Ntombizanele speaks softly about her son, other children are seen walking past the wires.

"If it were not for the lack of electricity caused by the municipality's inability to help the communities, my son would still be alive today. No one cares about informal settlements dwellers," Ntombizanele said.

Thandeka Lukwe, a community leader in the same area, complained about the lack of ablution facilities.

There are no streetlights in the area. At night-time, the vast bushes around the shacks become a haven for criminals.

shacks toilets
Residents built their homes right in front of the concrete outside toilets. There are over 1000 outside toilets in the settlement, most of which have been vandalised.
The open field in the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela informal settlement is the only piece of land for children to play on.
shacks toilets
A poster of the ANC's ward 41 candidate Luyanda Lawu pasted on one of the outside toilets in the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela informal settlement.
Toneka Febani sells deep fried fish from her home in ward 55 near Motherwell.
Many residents in the settlement have cows and goats.

A night patrol group escorts residents to bushes to relieve themselves safely.

"We relieve ourselves in the bushes and we don't have refuse collection services. It gets very dark at night, so much that we have formed patrol groups to escort people walking to work early in the mornings because they cross bushy areas. Many residents get robbed here, with guns," she said.

About 20km from Despatch, the shiny corrugated metal sheets of another hilltop informal settlement catch the eye.

Bayland informal settlement is located next to the R75 Uitenhage Road and forms part of ward 41 of the NMB metro.

Traffic lights are out in the area due to a recent protest for better services. The charred remains of burning of tyres and damage to the road surface are visible.


For residents, the broken traffic lights and damaged road are the last of their worries.

There are no ablution facilities and residents relieve themselves in buckets and dump the faeces "when the time is right".

It appears that service delivery in the area is like waiting for the greenlight at a broken traffic intersection.

Veliswa Ngqokwe has been living in the settlement for the last four years.

"What we do is that we hire people to dig pit latrines. Many here don't have money to hire diggers, so they relieve themselves inside their homes, using buckets, and then check (if) the coast (is clear) before throwing out the faeces on vacant pieces of land. When our children play out on the streets, they are greeted by faeces. The municipality promised us toilets, but, so far, there is no time-frame regarding the construction of the toilets," she said.

She admits that many living in the area "steal" electricity, using illegal connections from the neighbourhood of Joe Slovo.

"The traffic lights on the busy road are not working because of the theft of electricity. This has also given rise to illegal distributors of this electricity, who charge us money for connecting us to the electricity meant for the township across the road. The existence of informal settlements causes theft of electricity," she said.

Nelson Mandela Bay informal settlements:

There are 132 informal settlements comprising approximately 80 000 households in the municipality. The increase in the number of informal settlements is primarily as a result of unlawful land invasions, which poses a serious threat to current and future development. During the 2019/20 financial year, the municipality relocated 573 households from stressed informal areas to serviced sites.

The national Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation introduced the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Policy as an instrument to assist with the provision of services and improvement of living conditions of all households living in informal settlements. The 76 informal settlements in the metro were assessed and categorised, using the national upgrading support programme (NUSP) tools. A total of 40 informal settlements, with an estimated 19 730 households, have been categorised.

But it's not only residents who are unhappy with service delivery in the NMB metro.

The Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber believes service delivery has deteriorated over the past decade.

Chamber CEO Denise van Huyssteen said businesses operate in a dysfunctional environment, where the basics, such as water and electricity supply, have become unreliable.

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"We face a severe water crisis, which potentially could result in parts of the city not having water supply in the coming months. On the electricity front, continued dips in electricity supply impact on the operations of manufacturers, and rising electricity costs are making Nelson Mandela an unattractive investment destination," she said.

She said the vandalism of the city's infrastructure has escalated to the extent that many of its assets are grossly neglected. 

Van Huyssteen also said:

"Cable theft, in particular, has increased to alarming levels, causing ongoing electricity outages – even to the extent that one of the city's major manufacturers was without electricity supply for 10 days."

The ANC lost control of the NMB metro in the 2016 municipal elections, and a coalition government has since governed the metro.

At the helm of this coalition is the DA, together with smaller parties, such as the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the Congress of the People.

The DA got the most votes in the metro, with 46.71%, compared with the ANC's 40.92%.

Soon after the coalition was agreed upon, the cracks started to show and it led to severe instability ever since.

Asked how the political instability of the metro affected businesses, Van Huyssteen said stability was the highest priority in order to fix the broken economy.

"Economic recovery and job creation can only happen when a stable and predictable environment is in place and which is conducive to retaining and attracting business in Nelson Mandela Bay. We, therefore, hope that good reason will prevail and actions, which are in the best interests of the city as a whole, will be taken by the incoming political regime next month."

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Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said the NMB metro would, in all likelihood, have another coalition government.

He said there were just too many weak parties, to run the council with an outright majority.

"Honestly, there is no party in Nelson Mandela Bay that has consolidated its support. This means there are further fragmentations in the city and it could lead to weaker coalitions. There are coalitions and, in those, somebody has to take at least 80% of the responsibility, and that person needs to at least have a solid base in the community it serves," he said.

In the long-term, Mathekga said South African voters should expect more fragmented coalitions.

"Fragmented politics is not a sad situation. Long-term, it will be better. It shows that democracy is working. It will be a tough realignment. Parties will become weaker, and people (independent candidates) will become stronger," he said.


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