Corruption and fraud in the Department of Water and Sanitation, and the collapse of local governance mean taps in many towns and villages have either run dry or have undrinkable water.
A month ago we found a frog in the water truck sent to supply us with water,” says Graaff-Reinet farmer Sias Smith, in a delightful Karoo accent.
He says water is “a big problem” in the desert dorp and surrounds.
This is despite the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) providing R71.8-million in funding to the Dr Beyers Naudé Local Municipality for the Graaff-Reinet Emergency Bulk Supply Scheme.
The project, which started in 2016, is aimed at addressing water-supply challenges in the dry but beautiful Karoo town. It’s a project that could justifiably invite frightening comparisons with the department’s failed seven-year, R4-billion Giyani Bulk Water Project in Limpopo.
“Here, we get huge accounts for water but, for the past two years, the supply is sporadic,” says Smith. “We get no advance warning. They just say, ‘load shedding’. But after load shedding, it still happens.”
He says the coloured and black areas are mostly affected, “because people in the CBD have boreholes”.
Dysfunction floods the country
Smith’s story is not restricted to this historical town. The same one can be heard in Cradock, Gqeberha, Dordrecht, Port St Johns or Amatola – any town or city in the ANC heartland of the Eastern Cape and beyond. Anywhere in South Africa.
The leaked official DWS documents found in two million files shared with DM168 show similar infrastructural breakdowns throughout the country, whether a village such as Mnquma in KwaZulu-Natal – where villagers walk kilometres to collect water in a bucket – or Parys and Brandfort in the “service challenged” Free State.
Forensic auditor Bart Henderson’s investigation into fraud and corruption estimated at billions of rands at the Lepelle Northern Water board – specifically connected to the Giyani Bulk Water Project – assisted in paving the way for the eventual suspension of CEO Phineas Legodi and ultimately his (Legodi) facing criminal charges.
The project, started in 2014 and meant to provide clean water to the taps of about 55 villages in and around Giyani, essentially received “and wasted R3.2-billion”.
Dr Ndweleni Mphephu, the new board chairperson, has said the project would be completed by September, but the mostly impoverished residents of those villages still have no water.
Taking a random, less-profiled example elsewhere in Limpopo, villagers in Moutse have not had consistently running water for years. Despite the millions and billions spent, whether in Moutse or villages outside Giyani, residents still have to get their water from quarries where animals drink.
In the leaked documents made available to DM168 are details of every DWS transaction over a 10-year period relating to the Limpopo project and others, laying bare what Henderson describes as apparent “rampant corruption” in the department.
Vaal might be ‘worst in water’
Well over 100 municipalities could vie for the title of “worst in water”, but the Vaal Triangle would give the Limpopo DWS debacle a run for its money, says Mariette Liefferink of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE).
The NGO has engaged with DWS Minister Senzo Mchunu and his predecessors at a high level over the years, and Liefferink holds a microscope to DWS’s responsibilities and actions.
Much has been written about the raw sewage that makes its way into the Vaal Dam via the Vaal River. The region’s wastewater treatment works, such as Vereeniging’s Leeukuil, Rietspruit and Sebokeng, are either dysfunctional or close to it.
“We can link the disappearance of funds from Emfuleni Local Municipality to the sewage running through houses and streets and the measured poor quality of the Rietspruit, the Klip and the Vaal rivers,” says Michael Gaade, a committee member with Save the Vaal Environment (Save).
“DWS is responsible for bulk infrastructure and monitoring of the situation. New infrastructure was delayed and has never been built and the oversight never happened.”
Samson Mokoena, of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, lives in the Emfuleni area. He says residents in parts of Sebokeng and surrounding areas have experienced “the collapse of the infrastructure where we live, with [sewage] in our houses and running in our streets. We have health problems, such as skin rashes.”
Rand Water’s 2021 water quality reports show E. coli counts of almost nine million per 100ml in the Rietspruit, downstream of the Sebokeng wastewater treatment works. The regulatory (safe for humans) limit is a count of 400 per 100ml.
This can be compared with the E. coli count “crisis” in Knysna, where, at their upper limit, counts of 26,000 per 100ml have been recorded flowing into the lagoon from the densely populated areas above via the Bongani stream.
The South African Human Rights Commission (HRC), for whom Liefferink acts as a “human rights champion/monitor”, launched an inquiry into the sewage pollution of the Vaal River in September 2018.
In February 2021, the commission directed that the DWS officials in noncompliance with legislation be dismissed and the corruption be referred to the Public Protector and SAPS. It also said the DWS should develop and implement policies to deal with the water crisis in South Africa, including the contamination of the Vaal.
Among the other directives was that the DWS takes over the running of Emfuleni municipality, which includes the refurbishment of the three wastewater treatment works, 48 pump stations, and the unblocking of sewer populations.
The fact that the HRC had to direct the department to intervene is an illustration of just how bad things have gotten in the region.
Henderson says R36.4-million was spent on the Leeuwkuil wastewater treatment plant – from a total of R323-million allocated to municipalities in the Vaal catchment area – to address the sewage pollution of the Vaal River in 2016/2017.
“The sums mentioned were clearly deemed irregular expenditure. This is intervention capital. What in God’s name have the municipalities that have got their [wastewater treatment works] into such parlous state been doing? Budgeting? Spending? On maintaining their infrastructure? Nothing?”
Contaminated water on crops
North of Pretoria, former Roodewal wastewater treatment plant manager Corrie Snyman told DM168 late last year about the broken infrastructure inside the plant.
He said water contaminated with effluent was being used by nearby farmers to irrigate crops and slake the thirst of their cattle.
Now, he says: “If anything, the problem has got worse.”
Alexandra east bank resident Busisiwe Tyala, while helping in an NGO-sponsored clean-up of Johannesburg’s Jukskei River in October last year, told DM168 that “people use the river as a bin – there are no skips, no bins”.
Tyala also spoke of an eight-year-old child who was killed after playing with an exposed, illegal electricity connection lying next to the river. Anecdotes from around the country confirm that Tyala’s experiences are not unique.
Suburbs south of Johannesburg, Africa’s financial capital, have experienced their own frequent water disruptions.
Governance has collapsed largely at the local government level, as problems at Mpumalanga’s Lekwa Local Municipality in Standerton demonstrate.
“Water and sanitation have not been a priority for several decades now and here we are!” says Benoît le Roy of the South African Water Chamber.
An engineer with 40 years of experience in water and sewage infrastructure in the private and public sectors, Le Roy told News24 in September last year that “infrastructure in most parts of the country is close to 100 years old”.
He confirmed to DM168 that maintenance and replacement have been absent in the past three decades, adding that Maluti-a-Phofung in the Free State, Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, Johannesburg and Emfuleni municipalities in Gauteng are all in very poor condition in regard to water infrastructure. This, he says, is typical of about 150 municipalities around SA.
“In South Africa, water is not treated by the government as a priority, resulting in water leakage reaching over 30%, with total and/or occasional collapse of water supply in many areas and towns,” Le Roy says.
In an interview with DM168, Mchunu said: “We cannot control the municipalities.”
This statement offers a reminder that dealings with local government in South Africa can be likened to a parent’s relationship with a rebellious child. Although local municipalities are subordinate to state authority, they nevertheless act independently of control by the state authority.
Mchunu has, however, proved that the DWS can – and has – issued Section 63 investigations against a number of water boards and municipalities for not fulfilling their mandates.
Section 63 investigations determine whether it is necessary for direct provincial or national intervention and whether there are grounds for placing an entity under administration. The Amatola Water Board, which was dissolved last week, is a refreshing case in point.
Politics before the people
Who the DWS chooses to act against, as with the 65 senior department officials implicated in irregular (not wasteful) expenditure, and if such decisions are related to ANC factional battles, is a separate-yet-connected matter. Such power struggles have resulted in the absence of effective day-to-day governing.
Liefferink indicates what many in the water sector voice in private: that the ruling ANC was more focused on winning back lost votes in the 2021 municipal elections than on governing the country.
“The engagements by Minister Mchunu and the proposed interventions … focused on local opportunities for employment and not the issues raised by environmental NGOs.”
Liefferink refers to the intervention plan for the Emfuleni Local Municipality, which, she says, primarily addresses procurement and local labour employment opportunities and has a limited focus on environmental challenges.
She adds: “Issues raised by NGOs pertaining to the protection and restoration of ecological infrastructure and water resource quality – and the promulgation of aggressive restrictions in the legislation – in this regard are viewed as secondary [to winning votes].”
The legalities involved in ensuring proper water management take time, lots of it, and cost significant amounts of money.
Liefferink says that participating in various DWS “task teams, steering committees, advisory committees, and forums” requires “significant financial investment”, for both herself and the NGOs that have been established simply to protect South Africans’ constitutional right to clean water.
The water activist says questions she put to Mchunu in October 2021, “following his engagements with herself and civil society”, still await a response.
Mchunu told DM168 that Liefferink and any others with relevant water concerns were welcome to call him.
Two kinds of water
“There are two kinds of water,” says Karoo farmer Smith. “The bottled water for the middle class and those who can afford to buy it. Then you have the municipal water running through one’s tap, which changes from brownish to greenish, dependent on the day.”
Le Roy says he sees promise in the public affirmation of the country’s failings by the DWS minister.
Mchunu has permanently appointed Dr Sean Phlilips as director-general – someone who is, Le Roy pointedly says, “also an engineer”. He says senior people have been in acting positions for over a decade, “resulting in uncertainty and no continuity or hope in the ministry”.
Le Roy says recently released Green Drop reports – last published in 2013 – demonstrate the extent of the decline. It is important that the issues are no longer kept from the public.
He speaks of a “radical policy change” to enable the necessary turnaround.
“The only remaining part of the puzzle to resolve is that of dysfunctional municipalities.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Spar, Checkers, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.