A community at risk of being swallowed by hazardous, neglected sinkholes in Khutsong
As the national government prepares to declare Khutsong in Gauteng a national disaster area, due to mushrooming large sinkholes, it is nearly impossible for children to run around freely and some streets are cordoned off to prevent motorists from being swallowed.
Some residents of the Merafong Municipality, some 75 kilometres from Johannesburg, say the sinkholes have been a headache for more than 12 years, with local governments making promises to fix them year on year.
“I feel like the government is waiting for someone to die first…” this was a sentiment expressed by Johan Thabethe, who shared his frustration with the mushrooming sinkholes with Daily Maverick.
Thabethe recalled how he was among those who eagerly cast their votes in the 2021 elections with the hope of seeing the government act swiftly on the sinkholes which have been in place for more than a decade.
Prior to the local elections, MEC for housing Lebogang Maile and Premier Panyaza Lesufi had visited the area, promising to address the issue. But they have still not been attended to, and in fact have widened as a result of leaking sewage pipes which caused wet soil, and the community being built on high-risk dolomite land, according to the residents.
Thabeth appeared to regret having cast his vote, accusing the government of abandoning the community.
“These sinkholes are really a problem, they are everywhere. I feel like the government doesn’t care about us, because we vote every time but nothing works. We feel like the government only wants to act when someone has died, we are really pleading for assistance.”
Another resident, Neo Rampou, a mother of two, echoed his sentiments, further raising concern around children’s inability to take necessary precaution if and when playing around the sinkholes.
“I don’t feel well about this part here, because I am a parent. One day our kids will be playing and mistakenly kill each other. I really wish the government could assist us.”
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Resident Elon Mulantwa spoke to us with hesitation. “Our municipality has abandoned these sinkholes for a long time. We have been with these open sinkholes for about 12 years, they are a danger to the society and community at large.
Mulantwa said the community felt abandoned and this was made worse by constant rain during the summer season, with the sinkholes widening.
Community leaders told Daily Maverick that their cries had seemingly fallen on deaf ears, and their latest attempt, in March, was to sign a petition to the provincial government to immediately act on the sinkholes.
They said some of the residents who were severely affected when the sinkholes appeared in Sompane Drive, one of the big roads in the township, were moved to different temporary shelters.
Some opted to remain, however, citing the lack of space and privacy in the temporary shelters as they had big families.
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Visiting the area two weeks ago, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi declared Khutsong a national disaster area.
“We are waiting for national government to also declare it as such, meaning Gauteng and national government will avail a budget in order to get expertise in dealing with the challenges in the area.
Lesufi acknowledged the frustration of the residents, particularly on promises made by the provincial government for several years.
“We have spoken, it’s enough and now is the time to act. We are coming to consult you on our plans. The Gauteng government must act and act with speed,” he said.
Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Head of Department Darion Barclay said the department was aware of the damage caused by the sinkholes on the roads, and the problems of the sewerage systems in the area.
“This has severely damaged internal water supply pipes to Khutsong extensions and sewer pipe networks, which drain via outfall sewers to the Khutsong Wastewater Treatment Plant.”
Former ActionSA chairperson Bongani Baloyi visited the area last month after a sinkhole formed at Relebogile Secondary School and damaged the foundation of the school, rendering it unusable in some places and posing a hazard for pupils playing in the area.
Baloyi at the time promised the party would apply pressure on the municipality to urgently address the situation and assist those affected by electricity and sewerage-system outages due to the growing sinkholes.
“It cannot be that it takes a government more than four years to respond to the plight of our people, and ActionSA will do everything possible to ensure that the situation is resolved once and for all,” he said.
Delivering his maiden state of the province address last month, Lesufi also acknowledged that the township is one of the province’s areas of concern.
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“If we do not act, this community will be swallowed by sinkholes. I want to take this opportunity to thank Mzamo Bogatsu, a young man who risked his life to save an old man from the sinkhole at Ward 8, Khutsong,” he said.
While national government was due to declare the area a disaster, Lesufi announced the following measures:
- Establishing a permanent Emergency Disaster Site;
- Early detection of sinkholes;
- Provision of psychosocial support to affected families;
- Running a public campaign about dangers of sinkholes; and
- Urging communities in dangerous areas to migrate within a reasonable time to areas made available. DM