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Misery on tap in Limpopo — ‘I have spent my whole life struggling to get water’

Misery on tap in Limpopo — ‘I have spent my whole life struggling to get water’
Women roll a drum filled with water down a street in Marulaneng after queuing for more than 12 hours to fill up. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

The daily lives of residents in rural Limpopo are centred on getting water to their homes.

Limpopo resident Raisibe Selema stood up at a ministerial imbizo and asked Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu and his delegation to donate all the bottled water on the table in front of them to her so that she could take it home to use for cooking because she had no water.

Mchunu and his deputy, David Mahlobo, were in Lebowakgomo, about 45km southeast of Polokwane, to inspect the progress being made in the refurbishment and upgrade of the Olifantspoort and Ebenezer water supply scheme.

“Since I was born in 1979, water has been a nightmare in our village of Marulaneng. We spend the whole day crowded around one borehole battling to get water. Our bodies ache from pushing around drums of water every day,” Selema said in an interview after the event.

“I left my mother and young children at home without water so I could come here and tell the minister our problems. That is why I asked them to give us this water they are drinking here – because we are thirsty, we have no water and we have been waiting forever.”

She recalled a time when residents dug wells in the bush and waited for hours to fill containers. “If germs truly kill, we would not be alive today because we have been drinking dirty water from wells and broken pipes all our lives.”

Her village falls under the Lepelle-Nkumpi Local Municipality, one of the areas hardest hit by water shortages. The municipality is predominantly rural and has a population of about 234,000, and about 95% of its land falls under traditional authorities. It also has high levels of poverty.

I’m old now and I still don’t know what it is like to have clean running water in my home.

At the imbizo, residents took turns to express their frustration about taps that are always dry, water tanks that have stood empty for years, and broken promises.

Matshidiso Malapela, who lives in Ga-Molapo, said her village had water intermittently in communal taps, but early last year these dried up and have not had water since.

“We are buying water every day. A drum [200 litres] costs R40, but people are unemployed and poor. They don’t have the money to pay for water every day,” said Malapela.

Limpopo water

Selina Lekgau collects water from a broken tap in Marulaneng after spending the night waiting for water from a leaking pipe to fill up a hole. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

She added that the residents had asked the municipality for trucks to deliver water as a temporary measure while plans were being made for a permanent solution.

“People are angry. They swear at us when we go to their homes to canvass for votes. They want to know when they are going to have water,” said Malapela, who is a member of the South African National Civics Organisation, which is campaigning for the ANC.

In Marulaneng, Selema’s mother, Ramadimetja Selema (83), expressed frustration over the water issues, pointing at the 200l containers lined up against the fence. She supports a family of five with her old age pension, now R2,280, of which she spends R240 on buying water. It never lasts until her next grant is paid.

“I’m old now and I still don’t know what it is like to have clean running water in my home. I have spent my whole life struggling to get water,” she said.

In April 1994, Ramadimetja was one of the millions of South Africans who cast their votes in the country’s first democratic elections. She was hoping it would help to bring water into her home.

But three decades later, the only change she has seen is the electrification of her home and being able to get a monthly state pension. The taps in her village remain dry.

“I’m still going to vote. I can’t give up because we are pleading for water. We should vote,” Ramadimetja said.

At intersections in the wide, sandy streets of Marulaneng, women gather in groups near dozens of the big blue drums that have become part of the villagers’ daily life. They spend hours, even during the night, waiting for the communal taps to run so that they can fill up the drums. Everywhere, women, young people and small children spend the better part of their days rolling the heavy drums along the streets.

Children have no time to play or study because they are always in search of water.

Selina Lekgau spent the night at a spot where one of the water pipes is broken and water drips painfully slowly into a ditch dug by the residents. She scoops the water into a bucket using a small container, waiting until the brown dirt has sunk to the bottom before pouring it into one of the big drums.

“It takes me three hours to fill up one drum. I have been here since last evening. We wait here and we are not safe from criminals. When we see shadows in the night, we hide. But there is nothing we can do because if we don’t come here we won’t have water,” said Lekgau, who grew up in Marulaneng and also has no recollection of a time when the residents had water.

Tsoro Mangwale, the chairperson of a residents’ water committee in the village, said two projects had been undertaken previously to provide infrastructure in the form of bulk water pipes and a reservoir.

Limpopo water

Even the children spend the batter part of their day rolling heavy drums of water along the streets of Marulaneng. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

Limpopo water

Ramadimetja Selema and her daughter Raesibe spend part of the elderly woman’s old age pension to buy water every month. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

“The projects were completed but we have not seen a difference. People here live searching for water. When children return from school, they go to search for water so their parents can go home and cook. Children have no time to play or study because they are always in search of water,” said Mangwale.

During a visit to the area in August last year, Mchunu read the riot act to officials working on the Olifantspoort and Ebenezer upgrade project, saying they should take their work seriously and revise plans to implement and come up with workable solutions that will address the problems.

The project entails the refurbishment and upgrading of ageing water infrastructure to meet the current water demands of the increasing population. Last year, the Department of Water and Sanitation said that phase 1A of the project included the refurbishment of the water scheme to provide 114 million litres per day by October this year, which would be increased to 144 million litres per day by 2026, depending on funding.

At the imbizo, Mchunu admitted that the government had not delivered. “What we are doing here, we’re doing something that should have been done some 10 years ago,” he said.

He promised that 15 boreholes and pumps in the area would be refurbished or replaced, and pleaded for more patience from the residents, who had been bused to the gathering held in a marquee on a dusty field.

“We just want to say to you, we understand when you say you need water and you need to have water urgently. We know that you’ve been very patient and we appreciate your patience. And we’re asking for more [patience] because of where we are now. 

“We’ll accomplish it. There’s nothing that we will leave unfinished. We will finish at the time that we say we will finish,” Mchunu said.

But some residents remained sceptical, dismissing the imbizo as a ploy to campaign for votes for the ANC ahead of the 29 May general elections. “I don’t think there will be a difference [afterwards]. We have been voting for a long time. Each time there’s an election, promises are made, but after that they forget about us,” Mangwale said. Mukurukuru Media/DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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