‘She was crying out – Help me!’ – Hammanskraal residents recall years of water misery before cholera outbreak
A cholera outbreak on the outskirts of Tshwane has resulted in mounting avoidable deaths, exposing the longstanding water crisis and alleged negligence by local healthcare workers and municipal authorities. Residents of Hammanskraal, dependent on water tankers for nearly a decade, are now struggling to come to terms with the loss of loved ones from cholera – an illness linked to poor water quality and worsened by an inadequate response from healthcare facilities.
As investigations into the source of the outbreak continue, residents are demanding answers and solutions to address their prolonged struggle for clean and reliable water access.
Agrineth Baloyi lies on a mattress in her family’s home in the small suburb of Kanana in Hammanskraal, clutching a photo of her mother, Gladys.
“My mom was complaining about the water, suffering from cramps,” says Agrineth. “I was with her at Jubilee Hospital on Sunday, she was crying out: ‘Help me! Help me, I have a cramp in my body.’”
The following day Gladys died.
A few short weeks after losing her nephew and cousin in a car accident, Agrineth is now preparing to say farewell to her mother.
Gladys is one of the 21 confirmed deaths in this cholera outbreak, which has gripped the outskirts of Tshwane. Agrineth’s mother, only 46, leaves three children.
Read Daily Maverick’s coverage of the Hammanskraal cholera outbreak here
Hammanskraal residents have long suffered from poor water quality and have relied on tankers supplied by the municipality for almost a decade. The crisis has escalated and is now claiming lives. Residents also claim the situation is exacerbated by a poor response from local healthcare workers and negligence from the metro.
Gladys was one of the 63 local residents admitted to Jubilee Hospital for suspected cholera infections in the past week and a half. The family alleges she did not receive adequate care. In the suburb of Kanana outside Hammanskraal where Gladys lived, at least five people have died in the past week from apparent cholera infections, all within about two square kilometres.
The water was fine until about 10 years ago. Then it started changing colour, it would smell, and it would even stain the bucket.
Gladys’s mother, Deorah, sits outside as family members arrive at the house bearing bottles of water to prepare for her daughter’s funeral.
“They took her to the hospital on Sunday,” says Deorah. “There were no doctors there… They didn’t care of giving her the water to drink. Then how should she survive?” she says of Jubilee Hospital.
Agrineth too says the care at Jubilee was poor – that her mother lacked the strength to even hold a bottle, but that she was not given any water. “My mom was suffering from the water… she was cramping the fingers. She can’t hold the bottle to give him water, they didn’t help her.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Cholera toll in SA rises amid calls for swift action and less finger-pointing
The Department of Health said in response to Daily Maverick’s questions that it was unaware of any complaints related to care by Jubilee Hospital staff.
“The department is not aware of the reports regarding the conduct of health workers towards cholera patients at Jubilee Hospital. However, we encourage patients and family members to lodge complaints immediately,” said spokesperson Foster Mohale.
A crisis long in the making
Hammanskraal’s water is supplied by the Tshwane Municipality, with the town being downriver from the Rooiwal wastewater processing plant. The plant has long had challenges. In 2011, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) declared the area surrounding the plant and the nearby Apies river a disaster area in 2011, and allocated R11-million for upgrades and maintenance.
A further R295-million upgrade of the plant was awarded in 2019 to businessman Edwin Sodi’s Blackhead Consulting. Phase one of the refurbishment project was contracted in January 2020. The work was never completed because the city cancelled the contract in June 2022. New Tshwane mayor Cilliers Brink said at the time that only 60% of the first phase had been completed. Now the city is investigating whether a guarantee was paid by the consortium, which the city can claim back.
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Sodi, who featured prominently at the Zondo Commission hearings, has ties to the Free State asbestos scandal and is also alleged to have provided loans to high-level ANC politicians.
The source of the outbreak remains unclear. Brink has said the City performed extensive testing of tap water in the area, with no contaminants detected, and that tap water was not the source of the outbreak.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Tshwane mayor points finger at ‘network of corruption’ as cholera death toll rises to 17
Brink also said the City would invest R450-million over the next three fiscal years to upgrade the plant, with further upgrades requiring R2.5 billion planned.
In water we trust
With Tshwane’s governance changing hands constantly, there seems to have been little attention paid to the challenges of Hammanskraal until the problem became overwhelming.
“I’ve lived here for 22 years,” says Enny Chabalala, Gladys’s neighbour. “The water was fine until about 10 years ago. Then it started changing colour, it would smell, and it would even stain the bucket.”
Around the same time, in 2013, residents say the tap water quality changed, water tankers began supplying the area, and residents stopped paying municipal water bills. However, with the cholera outbreak, they have grown frustrated with the lack of communication about the reliability and quality of water supplied by these tankers.
Some residents are convinced the tankers are behind the outbreak.
They include Thabiso Mashehse, whose father Josias died after being admitted to hospital with cholera symptoms. Thabiso said his family never drank water from the tap, but always used water from the tankers supplied by the municipality.
“Each and every Wednesday he would wait for the trucks,” he says. “He went there and took the water from the truck… He was a hero to us.” DM