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‘We want change’ — Vhembe residents weigh up electoral choices amid battle for basic services

‘We want change’ — Vhembe residents weigh up electoral choices amid battle for basic services
A woman collects water for her family from the Levubu River, just outside of Dakari Village in Vhembe, Limpopo. (Photo: Julia Evans)

In the northeastern corner of South Africa, nestled in rolling green hills between the borders of Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Venda — also known as Vhembe — is rich in culture. However, its communities face significant challenges, from service delivery to nepotism.

“We feel that all parties are the same. They just want our votes. And then after getting our votes, they disappear,” said Muvhango Mphilo, a teacher from Vhembe, in Limpopo.

As the general election draws closer, Daily Maverick visited towns in the northeastern corner of Limpopo to get a sense of the issues residents face ahead of the 29 May poll.

Daily Maverick’s first stop was Vuwani, a small town in the Vhembe District of Limpopo, which made headlines in 2016 after the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB) moved 30 villages in the town from Makhado Municipality to the then newly formed Collins Chabane Municipality.

Dissatisfied with the move, residents embarked on a four-month protest, which resulted in arson, the vandalism of at least 30 schools, the destruction of public infrastructure and the disruption of service delivery. The protests also resulted in a stayaway during the 2016 local elections led by the Pro-Makhado Task Team.

Nelta Ngobeni invested money in VBS Mutual Bank through her stokvel. Now she sells fresh vegetables and atchar in Vuwani, Limpopo. (Photo: Julia Evans)

The prolonged standoff resulted in the town and the surrounding villages failing to receive municipal services. Sitting at her fruit and vegetable stall in the parking lot of the local shopping centre — the only one for at least 40km — Nelta Ngobeni recalled how uncollected garbage was strewn in the streets and sewage spills went unattended for years as a result of the demarcation dispute.

Eight years later, the dispute over being forced to join the Collins Chabane Local Municipality may be a distant memory and service delivery may have resumed in some areas of the town, but the fight for basic services continues.

‘We don’t even have toilets’

“Here in Vuwani, we don’t have roads or water. We have to go down to the river just to collect water. We don’t even have toilets in our houses. We don’t even have long drops. We have to go into the bushes and we risk being bitten by snakes just to relieve ourselves,” Ngobeni said.

Ngobeni believes that the community’s struggles are a direct result of being merged into the Collins Chabane Municipality in 2016. And even though the Vuwani Service Delivery Task Team was formed in 2020 to deal with the consequences of the 2016 violent protest, the community still does not have access to basic services. 

“Ever since they told us that the municipality was changing, things have not been going right here. Things are not progressing at all,” Ngobeni said. “We want things to change here but we don’t know that they will change even if we vote.”

Two women carry firewood to their home in the Vhembe district of Limpopo. (Photo: Julia Evans)

While Ngobeni acknowledged that the ruling ANC had not brought about change in Vuwani and several other towns in the Vhembe district, she feared that voting for another party would result in a loss of social grants.

“The ANC has to help us. They need to change and reform the way they do things. If we vote for new people they will take our grants. So what can we do? How will we survive if this happens?” Ngobeni asked.

Vuwani is one of the most impoverished and poorly serviced towns in the Vhembe district of Limpopo. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Mulaifa Muthadzwi (23), who moved to Vuwani from Thohoyandou in 2019, said he was hopeful that the elections would bring about change for the community of Vuwani. There are still many protests in the town because of the lack of service delivery.

“There are always strikes here. You see that the main road is new, but there are already potholes because people are always striking because there is no service.”  

Muthadzwi said very few houses in Vuwani and the surrounding villages had running water. “People have to go down to the river or buy water.”

He said, “Obviously I am going to vote. If we don’t vote it means that we don’t want change. For us to get change we must go and vote.” 

A woman collects water for her family from the Levubu River, just outside of Dakari Village in Vhembe, Limpopo. (Photo: Julia Evans)

A woman collects water from the Levubu River, just outside of Dakari Village in Vhembe, Limpopo. Here, in the Collins Chabane Local Municipality, only 18,8% of residents have access to piped water in their dwellings. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Daily Maverick passed a river where a woman was collecting water in 20-litre containers. The woman, who asked not to be named, said the polluted river was the only source of water for many people in the surrounding villages.

While we were talking to the woman, an elderly man approached. Though he refused to give his name, he said the woman could not afford to buy water in town and, had to collect water from the river.

“The water is not clean but what else can we do? We don’t have water in our pipes. Sometimes our children get sick, but I try to clean the water by boiling it,” the woman said. 

The man said he would vote for the DA in the upcoming elections.

When asked why, he said: “I put my trust in the ANC for many years, but look, now I am forced to walk every day to get water at a dirty river where cows and donkeys drink from because of the ANC.” 

Back in town, 36-year-old Beauty Ndou, who was born in Vuwani and still lives in the same village, Tshino, felt differently. 

“I will vote for the party that will make sure I have something to eat and that’s the ANC. Since the ANC has been providing for us for such a long time, we can’t just abandon them just because of a few bad people in the party. I will always support the ANC, I trust them, I will always wear my yellow shirt,” Ndou said.

Louis Trichardt — the junction

Next, Daily Maverick went to Louis Trichardt, another town in the Vhembe District.

Muvhango Mphilo is a maths and physics teacher at Tshikota Secondary School in Louis Trichardt and is also the chairperson of the Makhado Park Civic Association.   

Mphilo drove with us across Louis Trichardt. He said access to water was a challenge for his community. But the issue that was close to his heart and where he brought us, was the junction of Kingfisher Street and the busy N1, where accidents occur frequently. 

People from surrounding villages and Makhado Park who need to get to work, as well as most learners going to Makhado Comprehensive Secondary School, have to cross this road to get into the town, and there are frequent accidents because of the high speed of the traffic on the N1.

There is a 60 km/h sign on the N1 at the entrance to Louis Trichardt, but few abide by it.

The state of a car after trying to cross the N1 in Makhado Park on 12 May 2024. (Photo: Muvhango Mphilo)

Residents have been asking the Makhado Municipality for years to tar Kingfisher Street, and implement proper hazard and traffic control on the N1 so that cars can safely cross. (Photo: Julia Evans)

The community’s efforts to address this issue date back to 2000, involving negotiations with the municipality, the Department of Transport, and the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral). However, progress has been stymied by road ownership issues and budget constraints. 

Sanral’s only contribution was a stop sign on the dirt track leading out of Kingfisher Street in 2010.

“Even if you write them a letter, they will not respond. That’s why we think that if they’re failing us now, we’ll have to go straight to the President,” Mphilo said. He has forwarded his complaints to the Limpopo Department of Transport and  Community Safety, but received no response. 

The Department of Roads and Transport has said that the issue is supposed to be addressed by the Makhado Local Municipality and Sanral, but nothing has happened.

Mphilo said, “To be honest, they are not listening to us … even if you write them a letter, they will not respond. That’s why we think that if they’re failing us now, we’ll have to go straight to the President.”

Muvhango Mphilo is a teacher at Tshikota Secondary School in Louis Trichardt, and chairperson of the Makhodo Park Civil Association. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Unemployment and water woes

Nepotism and unemployment are evident in Louis Trichardt. Mphilo said, “Nowadays, our kids are no longer being employed. Only the relatives of those who are working in the municipality or those who are belonging to a stronger political party.”

Mulanga Lambani (33), who lives in Makhado Park, echoed what Mphilo said. He said he was disappointed by how the government had ruled in the last 30 years and felt that the majority in SA had not enjoyed the freedoms that are supposed to come with democracy.

“The rate of unemployment is still too high, and we, as the youth, are not working,” he said. “Even if you open a company and apply for a tender, they won’t give it to you because you are not politically connected, and they won’t be able to eat from it. We are lost; we don’t even know where to go or where to start.”

He said the government needed to create a database of unemployed young people that describes their skills and create job opportunities tailored to those skills.

He described the struggle of living without a regular water supply: “Imagine being raised having access to water every day, and now it takes two to four weeks to get water. Eish, it’s really tough.”  

When he moved to the township 24 years ago, access to water was not an issue. Over time, however, the situation deteriorated. The municipality eventually dug a communal borehole at a school, which many residents now rely on for water. 

“We have to walk there to fetch water,” Lambani said. “Some people push wheelbarrows, others just carry the containers with their hands. The people who have cars are lucky enough to be able to drive there.” 

A 37-year-old Makhado Park resident, who asked not to be named, told us that there hadn’t been consistent access to water for years. “If the water comes back, it will be maybe for a day or two, and then it will disappear again,” she said. 

“If I can give an example, in a year, we would only receive water for four days the entire year. I don’t remember when we last had proper water. And after years of not having water, they send us bills. They say we owe the municipality R500,000, R300,000, but we have never received water.” 

At least 18.6% of children in the Collins Chabane Local Municipality have no schooling. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Learners discouraged

Joseph Makhoshi, who is now retired, used to teach at Patrick Ramaano Secondary School in Louis Trichardt. He said poor service delivery in Louis Trichardt, “makes life very difficult, and sometimes it discourages … learners. 

“You can feel for them that they’ll be trying their best to work as hard as they can. But distractions, when they come through lack of services, make life very difficult.”  

He said that when political parties were campaigning, they gave children in his community drinks, T-shirts and food.  

“But after the elections, those kids are dumped. Because those people who are using them, at the end, they dump them without giving them jobs, then I feel pity for those kids, because they just pass [matric] but there are no employment opportunities in our province.”  

The ANC won the vote in the Collins Chabane Local Municipality in the last national elections, with a majority of 86.87% of the votes. (Photo: Julia Evans)

‘Voting here, it was in our blood’ 

As the 2024 elections approach, disillusionment with political parties is evident.

“Voting here, initially, it was in our blood,” Mphilo said. “As a chairperson, I would go house to house, saying to residents, ‘Let’s go and vote.’ But now I’m discouraged. I’ll let everybody use their own discretion and caution when voting — because if I say, ‘Go and vote for this organisation’, when there is no development, then they will come to me.” 

He said the Makhado Park Civic Association no longer invited political parties to address members because, “We feel that all parties are the same. They just want our votes. And then after getting our votes, they disappear.” 

Lambani said, “The issues we are facing are making me think twice about which party I am going to vote for. I’m definitely going to vote according to the statistics and which party will best address employment and the water issue.” 

Makhoshi said, “There’s no chance for us to sit back and relax. I’m going to vote. I’m just hoping that maybe one day things will change for the better. I believe people learn by mistakes.” 

The 37-year-old Makhado Park resident who asked not to be named said that she thought the many problems in Louis Trichardt would cause many to not vote. 

“Even if people don’t vote, somebody is going to win and the situation might just get worse,” she reflected. “But if we decide to vote it might also just stay the same. I honestly don’t know what to do. Should I go vote? Should I abstain? Should I just let them rule us as they please?    

“These political parties are all the same, they will all fail us. Look at the ANC and EFF, remember Julius Malema is from the ANC. These people are friends, they are just making a show when they are fighting but they are chowing money together. 

“I’ve been voting for years, but I think this time, my vote won’t make a difference. Even if I do vote, I don’t think I would vote for a new party; I might just vote for the previous party. These people are the same anyway. Everybody is hungry for money. They all only think about their stomachs and not us.” DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024: On the road

Daily Maverick’s Election 2024 coverage is supported, in part, with funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and vehicles supplied by Ford.


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