FAILING THE PEOPLE, PART ONE
Life along a Free State’s ‘road of death’ – where a flood of sewage water leaves locals sick and hopeless
The South African Human Rights Commission is mulling urgent court action to compel the Free State government to immediately relocate Nyakallong residents whose homes are awash in sewage water.
Life is unbearable for dozens of residents of the small town of Nyakallong in Allanridge in the Free State. Their homes are drenched in sewage water, with a strong stench, causing them to fall ill. Every time it rains they are left anxious, angry and hopeless.
Daily Maverick visited the area which is about 32km from the province’s second-largest town, Welkom. It falls under one of five Lejweleputswa district municipalities – the Matjhabeng Local Municipality.
The municipality is one of many struggling in the province, according to the Auditor-General’s 2021/22 report which raised concerns about the municipality’s debt exceeding its assets by R8.4-billion.
Read more in Daily Maverick: AG slams failing Free State municipalities after no clean audit in 5 years
The stench is so bad that residents have to keep their doors and windows locked all day, every day. Their homes are mere metres from R30 road, also known as the “road of death”, south of Allanridge. This is the only road available for them to get to town.
The road often gets flooded with water from a dam just beneath it. In 2022, the road claimed 15 lives in three months. It also made headlines after an Intercape bus with 83 passengers became trapped in a body of water in February 2023. No injuries were reported. Later that day, a truck, a sedan and a Range Rover were reportedly caught in the flooding according to local reports.
In December 2022 it was reported that the road would be fixed at a cost of R22-million. During our visit, work on the road was still under way despite expectations that it would be completed earlier.
We are forced to lock him inside the house because we are afraid he’ll run around and step on faeces.
Ntombizonke Leseke is one of many residents who are unemployed and relies on her husband to put food on the table. For many years she had a small vegetable garden behind her house with cabbages and carrots, among others, which she would sometimes sell to neighbours to make a living.
But she can’t do that anymore because contaminated water has filled part of the yard, decreasing its size significantly.
When Leseke, her husband and two children arrived here in 2010 they had no history of illness but have since been diagnosed with sinus problems.
“The smell is unbearable and there is no way to evade it. It is slightly better when we keep the windows and doors closed every day,” she says.
Sewage water everywhere
Leseke’s troubles echo those of Mosele Katu, except that in the latter’s home the sewage water runs throughout the yard. One walks with caution to avoid stepping in the contaminated water that starts at her gate.
She has been in the area since 1989.
According to her, the water suddenly started filling up in May 2021. This was exacerbated by heavy rains in September.
The vocal Katu said that after attempts to get answers about the source of the water, a local councillor said it was coming from a nearby mine. Daily Maverick was taken to the councillor’s house, but he was not home. It is worth mentioning that his home too was awash with foul water.
For years Katu looked forward to raising her children and grandchildren in the family home, but her hopes have been dashed. “I have never thought that one day it would be like this.”
“We are no longer happy for the rain which is known to be a blessing from God… in fact, we pray it doesn’t rain.”
As she spoke, a young child watched from behind a locked burglar door. Katu said he was her grandchild. “We are forced to lock him inside the house because we are afraid he’ll run around and step on faeces.”
Leseke said that while she is able to control her two children’s movements, sometimes it is beyond her control.
“I think it is by the grace of God that no child has died from this water so far,” she said.
Each time it rains, some residents pray while some sit anxiously, feeling hopeless.
“We are no longer happy for the rain which is known to be a blessing from God. We don’t want it; in fact we pray it doesn’t rain, because things will get worse for us,” she said.
The plight of another resident, Tshidi Lamela, is slightly worse. A neighbour had to move to relatives, leaving a home destroyed by water. Yet another neighbour was forced to abandon their home, which was flooded inside and outside.
With her home being next to the two ruined houses, Lamela said: “I am scared. But what can I do?
“I cannot sleep when it rains because I think one day the water will come inside the house like they did with my neighbours, and I might get swept away because I am old.”
Unlike her neighbours she cannot afford to relocate nor does she have extended family.
Loss of culture
The three residents’ biggest concern now is death, since they would have to hire venues, which they cannot afford, or ask those not affected to open their homes for memorials and funeral services, which is taboo in most black communities.
Lamela’s neighbour could not be buried at home because contaminated water had filled the entire house.
Other events have been affected too. “We’ve had to cancel parties, unveiling ceremonies and everything else because you cannot have people come over in a place like this,” said Katu.
Promises, promises, promises
None of the three residents had information about the source of the water beyond the promises from officials, who visited the area in 2022, that they would be moved to temporary accommodation.
“They have been coming here with fancy cars, even MaNtombela (former premier Sisi Ntombela) came and promised us things until she was removed. We have never heard anything from the new premier.”
Urgent court bid
Daily Maverick approached the South African Human Rights Commission’s provincial manager, Thabang Kheswa, about the plight of the Nyakallong residents.
Kheswa said the commission was aware of the problem but not that it had become worse.
“That sounds a bit urgent. We might have to approach the high court on an urgent basis while we are looking at other options.”
The commission is one of a few institutions that can litigate on behalf of the people. It is able to enforce its reports through court orders when it feels its recommendations are not followed up.
Kheswa added that they were aware of other problems in the province.
The commission was planning a provincial investigative inquiry in the first quarter of the year, when municipalities would be called to testify about problems in their jurisdiction. The commission had over the years produced investigative reports on the long-standing issues, including the water crisis, but nothing had changed.
The metro [Mangaung] is a mess. The national government has intervened but we don’t see any improvement,” he said.
Lejweleputswa District Municipality mayor Veronica Ntakumbana confirmed that the water at the residents’ homes had become contaminated and that a plan had been put in place to move them to a different area. However, they were “stubborn”.
Ntakumbana said she had been to the area twice since taking up the position in 2021.
“We have approached the people there. What is difficult when you think about moving people from one area to another area, you know very well that our people have that [stubbornness] of saying ‘I grew up here’.
“The first phase of that area was to move them because that area is in water… the houses are already sinking in water, the water that is there is not ordinary, it is water with acid, the area is sinking down.
“We wanted to have an alternative place for the people, but people themselves are not interested in being moved – that is the crisis we are sitting with,” she said.
However, all the residents Daily Maverick spoke to had no knowledge of the information from the mayor.
Crime and water cuts
Among other issues, residents struggle with are crime and water scarcity. According to Katu, crime is rampant, mostly at night, and a lack of functional street lights makes things worse.
“We don’t walk around at night because it’s too dark and it’s easy for the young boys to chase and rob us. But even in our yards, they get in and take whatever they can find in order to go sell at a scrapyard.”
“We are not safe at all,” said Katu.
The residents also expressed dismay with water cuts which have been occurring for more than four years – between 10 and 15 hours at a time.
Leseke said: “The water can be cut from 10pm to 10am the next day, it’s a normal thing for us, now.”
Asked how they survived, she said: “We are used to it now.”
DA councillor Igor Scheurkogel lamented that R45.4-million in unspent infrastructure grants had been sent back to National Treasury.
“Yet, the municipality’s infrastructure has deteriorated to such an extent that water losses have gone up from 22% in 2019 to 56% every year. This is a loss of water to the value of R324-million per year, while communities are left without water for weeks on end,” he said.
“There is no shortage of funds to maintain municipal infrastructure. The ANC is incapable of governing the municipality and the daily water problems are a direct result of the ANC’s incompetence.” DM
Watch out for publication of Part Two of this series, where we take a deeper dive into the state of affairs of the Lejweleputswa District Municipality.