South Africa

South Africa

North West’s water contamination: A dark story of lost and ruined lives

North West’s water contamination: A dark story of lost and ruined lives

In June 2014, three babies died in Bloemhof from drinking contaminated water. It was a national tragedy. The municipal manager resigned ahead of two criminal lawsuits, the mayor was fired. The Minister of Water Affairs Edna Molewa promised swift intervention and R20 million to fix the problem. But during the same time – in fact, up until last week - more than eleven infants have died in a tiny spot on the map called Biesiesvlei, close to a slightly larger spot on the map called Sannieshof. But there is no national intervention – yet. By NIKI MOORE.

The death certificates are stark: a mere couple of forms with the pathetic details of a short life. Cause of death: dehydration and diarrhoea. Ages ranging from two months to eighteen months. And, most poignantly and disturbingly, the tiny fingerprints of the dead children.

Informal investigations uncovered eleven official baby deaths from diarrhoea in this tiny hamlet in the last three months. There could be more. A health professional working in the area kept a written record of their names and causes of death, along with the details of a number of elderly people and those made vulnerable by HIV. She declined to be interviewed as she had been threatened that she would lose her job if news of this epidemic leaked out. Anecdotes from grieving relatives, family members and employers tell of more deaths. One farmer reported that, of his workforce, one family lost eight members to sickness brought on by drinking dirty water.

The source of the dirty water is not hard to find. A company called Mafoko Brothers has been hired by the Ngaka Modiri Molema (NMM) district municipality to fill up tankers with clean water and deliver this water to thirsty residents. The first problem is that there is no trace on the NMM website of this tender being advertised, and no announcement that the tender was awarded. The second problem is that Mafoko Brothers Logistics, based in Mmabatho, has – according to the South African Companies website – never submitted accounts and is therefore not tax-compliant. It is also registered as a co-operative, which can only operate with members who share the costs and incomes. It should not be able to get government tenders.

The third problem is that the two Mafoko brothers who make up the company are alleged to be related to the Municipal Manager of Ngaka Modiri Molema, Ernest Mojaki. The fourth – and most shocking – problem is that, according to eye-witnesses and photographic evidence, the Mafoko brothers do not source their water from a clean water source as they are being paid to do. Instead, they drive their tankers to a nearby stream and fill up their tanks with river water. If the water was clean, this would only be a problem of dishonesty. But it is far more sinister than that. A few kilometres upstream from where the Mafoko brothers fill their tankers, is the Ditsobotla sewage works.

Niki water tanker

Photo: The truck belonging to the Mafoko brothers is parked in the running sewage (clearly visible in the foreground) from the township in the background while it pumps water from a nearby stream. This water is delivered to Biesiesvlei for people to drink. (Photo was taken secretly with a cell-phone camera.)

According to a Green Drop report, which monitors the quality of treated waste water that is put back in the river system, Ditsobotla sewage plant has been dysfunctional for many years and has become an active danger to health. It is pumping raw sewage, complete with solid waste, used condoms, plastic and other pollutants, directly into the river… the river from which the Mafoko brothers suck up water to deliver to Biesiesvlei for people to drink.

According to the report, “The situation in Ngaka Modiri Molema is considered critical from a regulatory view and holds high risk to public health and the environment. The risk profiles of all plants deteriorated with all 11 plants now in high to critical risk space. Five of the plants are in maximum 100% risk space which dictates that all essential systems had effectively collapsed and extensive resources and appropriate decisions will be required to lift the municipality from this detrimental state. The remainder of the six high risk plants may follow suit if rapid and firm intervention cannot be secured. These findings demand the attention of municipal management and political principles.”

This tender was handed out around 2012 by the Ngaka Modiri Molema district municipal manager Mokgele Ernest Mojaki, who is an interesting person in his own right. In 2012 he was accused by municipal worker’s union SAMWU of corruption and nepotism and maladministration, but he brushed those accusations aside, and nothing further happened.

In June 2013 the Public Protector’s office said they were investigating his municipality for irregularities, but nothing further happened. According to the report, “On other issues, several people complained about the harassment of whistle-blowers, by the Manager of the Ngaka Modiri Molema District Municipality in Mahikeng, through unfair dismissals. Further allegations of irregular appointment of staff, irregular allocation of tenders and abuse of power were levelled against the Manager. A Public Protector investigation into the same issues against the Manager concerned is underway.”

In July 2013 Mojaki was suspended by the district council for frustrating two independent enquiries into maladministration (one being the public protector’s investigation and the other being a SCOPA hearing). (See here and here.)

The following day, he was re-instated. Nothing further happened. In September 2013 he laid a complaint against the Sowetan newspaper for printing a story that accused him of reckless overspending. The ombudsman found that the story was substantially correct. Nothing further happened.

A leaked internal financial report on the municipality stated that Ngaka Modiri Molema district municipality was in such a poor state “that it must be placed in an intensive care unit”.

The report further states that the NMM district municipality was, in the last financial year, responsible for more than a billion rand of unauthorised and irregular expenditure. No, that is not an error: more than a BILLION rand. An engineering company that was contracted to monitor and manage the district’s sewage system has not been paid since 2012. On 4 July this year the MEC for Local Government in North West, Collen Maine, announced plans to place the NMM district municipality under administration.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases confirmed that they were investigating the outbreaks of possible water-related deaths in the district, but were extremely coy about revealing any details.

They were acting on a report in March from a member of the public that eight children in Biesiesvlei under the age of two had died. They investigated via telephonic interviews, but did not visit the village. They concluded that the deaths were not linked or due to the same causes.

The North West Department of Health, through their spokesman Tebogo Lekgethwane, could only say that the Department had been alerted by the Department of Water Affairs and that they were investigating the issue. They would, he said, be able to issue a report after investigating all the facts.

So it looks as if the government of the North West is aware that something is seriously wrong in the Ngaka Modiri Molema district municipality. But what are they going to do about it? It’s not as if the total collapse of the municipality should come as a surprise.

As far back as 2005, Sannieshof resident Carin Visser garnered national attention when she took on the job of single-handedly bringing her town back from the brink of collapse. She encouraged the residents of Sannieshof to withhold their rates and use that money to fix the most desperate and urgent problems. It was a short-term strategy of desperation, and the jury is still out as to whether is was actually legal or not, but it got Carin an invitation to join the DA and adopt the portfolio of water and sanitation in the province. It’s a losing battle, however.

“Every day I write letters and forward petitions to the local government about water shortages, water pollution, untreated sewage, leaking pipes, crumbling infrastructure, lack of maintenance. I talk about businesses closing down through lack of water. I tell them that jobs are being lost through lack of water. I warn them about the environmental damage of all this pollution. I tell them that people are getting sick from polluted water. I direct questions about these things to the legislature. I get ignored.”

And the warnings continued to be ignored until anger boiled over. Earlier this year there were riots in nearby Christiana and Bloemhof over poor service delivery, most notably dirty water. More than 500 people were admitted to clinics with water-related illnesses, and three babies died. The reaction was swift: national interventions, the firing of the mayor, the resignation of the municipal manager, two criminal cases, and the promise of R20 million to fix the problem. But according to Bloemhof DA councilor Ignatius Snyman, the interventions amounted to nothing.

“Nothing has changed or improved,” he says. “They are trucking in water but not planning anything long term. The officials will move onto other jobs. The R20 million will either be stolen or wasted.”

Bloemhof mayor Moeder Makodi, who was fired, did not have to mourn her job very long: she was reported to have taken up a high-pay, low-visibility job in the provincial government’s tourism department.

And despite the fact that the Water Act states that any official responsible for polluted water is guilty of a criminal offence, it has been left up to citizen pressure groups Afriforum and the Centre for Environmental Rights to bring criminal charges against former Bloemhof municipal manager Andrew Makuapane. The very government that is supposed to conduct the checks and balances against errant employees, has done nothing.

The Tswaing district that encompasses Biesiesvlei was placed under administration in 2011. The intervention collapsed. Nothing improved, nothing changed.

North West provincial spokesman Sam Mokaila said that the Minister of Water Affairs, Nomvula Mokonyane, paid a visit to the NMM district on Sunday 6 July, to deal specifically with the problems of water and sanitation.

“This week she will announce a package of interventions to deal with this situation,” he said.

So, Water Affairs is finally on the case. And – to deduce from Friday’s announcement by NW MEC for Local Government Collen Maine – the province is also finally on the case. The tragedy is that people had to die in order for the government to take notice. Another tragedy is that other interventions have proved to achieve nothing. There has been, up till now, no political will really to change anything, or hold anyone to account.

Maybe the politicians have a Plan B. Their Plan As have not worked very well so far. DM

Main photo: A honeysucker discharges raw sewage directly into the Harts River near the N14 highway just outside Sannieshof. (Photo was taken secretly with a cell-phone camera.)


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