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Cholera in Hammanskraal – SA government must pay and be accountable

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Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

The South African government and the City of Tshwane must face a class action for the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal and surrounds, which is the result of a decade-long water contamination problem. Officials can no longer be allowed to look the other way.

The Hammanskraal cholera outbreak might not be comparable to one of the worst cholera outbreaks in recent history, which occurred in Yemen in the Middle East, but it must be a national concern.

Hammanskraal has been experiencing a significant water-related health emergency for 10 years, which unfortunately has never received the attention it deserves. Issues with water quality in Hammanskraal have been widely reported and may have landed in the hands of leaders who have their heads deeply buried in the sand, like the proverbial ostrich.

Now, years later, vulnerable people are losing their lives and experiencing health complications owing to water that is not properly treated, resulting in what appears to be a rapid spread of cholera throughout Hammanskraal and possibly many neighbouring areas. The Hammanskraal water crisis should be treated as a national emergency as well as a humanitarian and human rights crisis.

Our incompetence as a country to take seriously the issue of water is now affecting the most vulnerable and previously disadvantaged. To wash hands with which water? Another opportunity has now presented itself for the so-called business people and quasi-entrepreneurs to roll out water tanks and trucks to the affected community and get rich quick. A Covid-19 PPE-like opportunity to milk the national coffers has just presented itself. Hopefully, the talked-about delivery of water tanks and trucks to Hammanskraal will be with the 24/7 involvement of the government to coordinate the supply and delivery with relevant stakeholders.

I am no water expert nor a medical doctor. However, monitoring of water quality as these tanks and trucks descend on Hammanskraal is crucial. Regular water-quality testing is needed to ensure that the delivered water meets safety standards.

Human rights violation

Those in government with a constant flow of clean water do not know what being deprived of safe drinking water feels like and smells like. It smells and feels like death. When in leadership you need not be the brightest bulb on the chandelier to know that contaminated water supply exposes thousands of residents, including children, to severe health problems, particularly in developing children. For Hammanskraal residents, this has caused the outbreak of cholera.

What has happened to the residents of Hammanskraal is a human rights violation under South African law, the Constitution and in international law. In South Africa, the Constitution includes a provision stating that everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water. Internationally, the UN has recognised the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a fundamental human right. In 2010, the UN General Assembly through Resolution 64/292 (which South Africa voted in favour of) explicitly acknowledged this right, emphasising the importance of access to safe drinking water and sanitation for the realisation of all human rights.

The UN expressed “alarm that 1.5 million children under five years old died each year as a result of water- and sanitation-related diseases, acknowledging that safe, clean drinking water and sanitation were integral to the realization of all human rights”. On the other hand, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) provides guidance on the content and scope of the right to water. This right, according to the CESCR, includes the right to water availability, accessibility, quality, acceptability and affordability, for personal and domestic use. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights recognises the right to a satisfactory environment as encompassing access to clean and safe water

The question of accountability

It is easy to talk about laws and policies on specific matters of public interest and lament how the public is affected, with less focus on implementation and accountability. Where is our South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC)? What has the commission done or achieved as a deliverable for the people of Hammanskraal since the last time it got directly or indirectly involved in the issue of water safety in this area? The SAHRC in 2019 declared that the water in Hammanskraal was unfit for human consumption after the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s independent sample analysis. In fact, the water contamination in Hammanskraal has been going on for more than 10 years.

“For 10 years now we have been complaining about this dirty water but we are told the water is drinkable,” said one resident during the SAHRC investigation. Unfortunately for the residents of Hammanskraal, nobody wants to shoulder the responsibility and be accountable.

Interestingly, in September 2021 the SAHRC expressed fresh concerns about the safety of water supplied to residents of Hammanskraal while political parties governing the City of Tshwane, or rather misgoverning the City of Tshwane, are blaming each other instead of correcting the situation. The DA at the time as the new management of the City of Tshwane blamed the failure to provide safe drinking water and sanitation on the previous ANC administration. It will come as no surprise when the ANC counter-blames the DA for the current crisis. The blame-shifting game continues at the expense of service delivery.

Every member of the public must be outraged at this. Where is environmental justice? Where is our government in the face of neglected infrastructure in marginalised communities? It did not have to come to the outbreak of cholera and the water contamination crisis in Hammanskraal to take seriously the devastating consequences of inadequate access to clean water and sanitation.

The sad reality is that South Africa, with the rest of the international community, “is far from being on track to uphold its commitment to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030, as per Sustainable Development Goal 6.1 and 6.2” as pointed out by the UN during the 2020 anniversary of recognition water and sanitation as a human right.

The Canadian example

As I conclude, in my view the current Hammanskraal contaminated water crisis that has resulted in at least 10 deaths, must never go unpunished and without accountability. This is now the time, once and for all, for those in the legal fraternity and interested in public interest litigation, to help the residents of Hammanskraal in a class action against the government and the City of Tshwane for resultant death, the public health crisis they are now facing, and for pain and suffering.

Lives were at stake more than 13 years ago and they continue to be at stake today.

If it can be done in other jurisdictions such as Canada, which has greatly influenced the provisions of our Bill of Rights, why not in South Africa?

For example, in 2021 the Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Curve Lake First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation brought a national class action litigation against the Attorney General of Canada for failing to address prolonged drinking-water challenges on First Nations reserves across Canada.

In the main, it was alleged that Canada had breached its obligations to First Nations and their members by failing to ensure that reserve communities had clean water; that Canada had been negligent, breached its fiduciary duties, breached the honour of the Crown and breached various rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Government of Canada agreed in July 2021 to settle this class action for about $8-billion, which was later made a court order. A new class action by the First Nations was lodged in September 2022 and on 14 March 2023 the Canadian Federal Court issued a Certification Order for another class action by the First Nations related to safe drinking water in First Nations communities.

The Canadian First Nations communities have shown that with persistence and determination the governing authority can be held responsible for failing to provide safe drinking water. The same determination and persistence can be shown against our government for the communities of Hammanskraal. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    There have been countless cases against the government, police and others with no real effect, except that tax payers’ money is spent paying costs and compensation. Until individuals ars held responsible, namely, made financially liable, fired with no benefits and criminally charged, nothing will change. Canadian government officials may have a sense of shame, ours don’t.

  • Lee Randall says:

    Having just driven down Oxford Road in Rosebank, where raw sewerage is emerging from a manhole on the northbound side just after the Riviera Road intersection, I’m concerned that this sewerage is running – dozens of litres per minute or more – straight into a stormwater drain. When I tried to report it urgently to Joburg Water, the endless wait time from Joburg Connect meant that I instead sent an SMS – and who knows if that will get a response? The leak has already been going for some time, as evidenced by the typical sewerage residue in the gutters for several hundred metres before the stormwater drain. Especially when there’s a cholera/diarrhoea outbreak, surely Joburg Water should have an urgent sewerage leak reporting mechanism? Local government entities are fond of blaming communities (see for instance a Jan 2021 item on the City of Joburg newsroom page, ‘Don’t throw rubbish in stormwater drains, cautions JRA’), they so often turn a blind eye to health crises of their own making!

  • Peter Tranter says:

    Approximately 20 years ago we, as a company, set out to market a Water Purification System that is supplied in stand-alone cabinets (can be “Venter” trailer-mounted for ease of movement) which will produce clean drinking water from any water source and whose water quality was under-written by the Pasteur Institute as far back as 1991. The potable water flow rate depends on the motive force of water through the system – electric pump, solar pump, or hand-cranked, like a boat’s bilge pump, at a rate of 10 to 600 l/hour. It can be expanded to 50,000 l/hour. We approached the Dept. of Water Affairs and got zero response, Kruger Park management, same response, Dept of health in KZN, when they were ravaged by cholera in 2000. All with the same result. We gave up – the units were to be locally built with only 1 item in the cabinet requiring importation. Pity !!

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    We’ve been hearing of communities around the country Complaining of raw sewerage in their streets and streams. This wont be the only cholera outbreak we will hear of.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

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