Special Report | Up to our knees in the stench of failure


Special Report | Up to our knees in the stench of failure

The cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal is a political crisis and a health crisis. Both the ANC and the DA must take their share of the blame. And there are many other ticking time bombs in the country, writes ILSE SALZWEDEL.

Nurse Florence Kgwarere talks to Amos Mmakou, a patient recovering from cholera at Jubilee District Hospital in Hammanskraal.
Nurse Florence Kgwarere talks to Amos Mmakou, a patient recovering from cholera at Jubilee District Hospital in Hammanskraal.

TWENTY-TWO people dead, 29 confirmed cases, and 183 people in hospital with gastrointestinal conditions. This was the situation yesterday morning (Thursday) with regard to the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria.

The official cause? Polluted water.

The actual cause? Politicians who, for 19 years, didn't care enough to listen to desperate residents and upgrade a sewage plant.

In 2004, the Tshwane Municipality was warned that a water crisis was looming if the Rooiwal sewage processing plant near the R82 north of Pretoria was not urgently upgraded. The more than 50 vegetable farmers in the area, previously known as the vegetable basket of Pretoria, have been warning since 2005 that sewage pollution from the plant poses a significant danger to their crops under pivot irrigation.

The farmers and the 120,000 inhabitants of Hammanskraal depend on the Apies River for water. The Apies feeds the Leeukraal Dam, which supplies Hammanskraal's water. At the heart of the problem is unprocessed or semi-processed sewage dumped into the river because the Rooiwal plant is not functional. The sewage also ends up in the groundwater due to unlined drying ponds at the plant. The holding dams also often break, causing sewage to spill into the fields and marshes.

Theunis Vogel, who farms on the farm Vastfontein near the Rooiwal plant, showed Rapport in 2021 what his fields looked like from the sewage and how one can see the pollution if you cut a head of cabbage in half, exposing black layers between the leaves. According to Vogel, wheat and maize turned black on the fields because of the polluted groundwater, and he had already lost at least three crops to the value of R7 million at that time.

Apart from a claim against the Tshwane Municipality, Vogel also had a land report compiled by experts to bring the urgency of the matter to the attention of the authorities. As with the water in the environment, soil sample tests showed unacceptably high levels of nitrites, nitrates and E. coli. The toxic soil can lead to respiratory problems and deformed foetuses in humans and animals.

Solomon Khethisa, a resident of Hammanskraal, buys water purifiers like these and sells it on to the community.
Solomon Khethisa, a resident of Hammanskraal, buys water purifiers like these and sells it on to the community.

A time bomb timeline

It's unclear what precisely the Tshwane Metro did between 2004 and 2010 after the warnings and complaints about Rooiwal had emerged. By 2010, the Rooiwal farmers had asked for help to put pressure on the Tshwane Metro. Julius Kleynhans, a water activist and now Head of Social Innovation at Outa, was still working at AfriForum and became involved. (Kleynhans took up the Rooiwal matter again in 2019, this time with residents of Hammanskraal.) “It's a very personal issue to me," he said in an interview.

In 2011, the pressure from various quarters led to the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) declaring the area around Rooiwal and part of the Apies River a disaster area. This was done to make money available faster, explains Kleynhans. At least R1 billion was made available.

Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, now the electricity minister but the mayor of Tshwane between 2010 and 2016, highlighted the Rooiwal project in his 2013 city address. “Much of the equipment has been repaired, and the city will keep a close eye on the situation until an extension and refurbishment of Rooiwal WWTW worth R950 million is completed in 2015,” he said.

What happened to the R950 million? One can only guess because, by 2015, Hammanskraal's water was still brown, slimy and foamy even after being boiled, Solly Msimanga said during protests outside Tshwane's municipal offices. (This was during his campaign to become mayor.) Msimanga and many Hammanskraal residents challenged municipal officials to drink some of the water they had brought before handing over a grievance paper about it.

When Msimanga and the DA came to power in 2016, the issue again got attention. Independent tests yet again showed that Hammanskraal's tap water was heavily polluted. After a three-year court battle, AfriForum and the Tshwane Metro agreed on maintenance and repairs at Rooiwal. (The court issued a costs order against the metro and ordered it to stick to a maintenance schedule.)

Yet Hammanskraal still did not seem to be a priority for Tshwane management.

In 2018, Msimanga again promised that the problem would receive urgent attention.

By December 2018, fed-up Hammanskraal residents approached Outa to intervene. “We immediately took water samples and had them tested," says Kleynhans. The tests again showed that the tap water was unsafe for human consumption. As an emergency measure, the metro deployed water tankers in Hammanskraal. (There are currently 52 tankers in the area.)

A tanker delivers water to residents of Hammanskraal.
A tanker delivers water to residents of Hammanskraal.

2019: a watershed year ... or not

In 2019, in collaboration with the Hammanskraal Residents' Forum (HRF) and Fair and Equitable Society (FES), Outa ensured that the poor water quality remained on the metro’s and DWS's agenda, including by having water samples tested every three weeks, and in a letter to the city council insisting on action.

The then acting municipal manager initially maintained that there was no problem, according to Kleynhans. This is despite laboratory tests that showed high levels of E. coli, nitrites and nitrates. The latter poses a significant health risk to especially babies under three months of age, and can, according to the South African Water Quality Guidelines for Household Use, lead to methemoglobinaemia, or blue baby syndrome (red blood cells do not take enough oxygen to organs).

Finally, the metro's utilities oversight committee succumbed to Outa’s pressure and asked if they could meet to discuss possible solutions.

Outa also arranged for Tumelo Koitheng to address the parliamentary committee on human settlements, water and sanitation on 10 September 2019. The irony is that the committee instructed DWS deputy minister David Mahlobo to step in and assist the community. (What exactly he did — if anything — is unclear. Still, he's now on the crisis committee tasked with managing the outbreak.)

In October 2019, the CSIR's testing of 144 water samples again showed the water was unsuitable for human consumption. Rooiwal was no longer the only problem. The Temba plant was also temporarily out of service after being struck by lightning. Once more, tankers were sent out with water. But due to scheduling problems, some residents missed their turn, and complaints about officials asking for delivery bribes compelled the DA to request a forensic investigation.

By this time, the Human Rights Commission had also been engaged in an investigation into the issue for nearly a year. Outa, in consultation with the Hammanskraal organisations, decided to withdraw. “After all, the parliamentary committee had ordered DWS to help, and the metro would have to listen," Kleynhans said. “Now we know it was a big mistake to trust the Tshwane city council and DWS to repair the plants and rehabilitate the Apies River."

But there was hope — or so everyone thought — when the metro (under the DA's Stevens Mokgalapa) awarded a tender worth R252 million for phase 1 of the Rooiwal upgrade on 1 October. Unfortunately, this was an unlawful tender to three companies of Edwin Sodi, better known for his company's involvement in the multimillion-rand asbestos scandal in the Free State.

The tender eventually cost the Tshwane Municipality R292 million before being suspended in 2022 after a forensic investigation. The original deadline for finalising phase 1 was May 2022, but Sodi's consortium only completed 60% of the work (but — surprise, surprise — got all the money).

The first phase of work at Rooiwal should have started in early 2020. Two more phases were planned at a total project value of R2 billion. On 14 April 2021, Lindiwe Sisulu, then the DWS Minister, visited the plant and once again undertook that the national government would assist the city with the repairs. She even mentioned that the Urban Settlement Development Grant (USDG) would be prioritised to speed things up.

By mid-2021, the plant was seemingly abandoned. Covid was to blame. Yet by mid-September 2021, then-DA mayor Randal Williams assured residents that 58% of the work had been completed.

The forensic report on the Sodi contract recommended that disciplinary and criminal action be taken against responsible officials. Five officials who gave the consortium 80 points even though it had no experience and did not have the necessary rating from the Construction Industry Development Council (CIDB) were charged disciplinarily in February this year. Criminal charges were also filed as early as December against them and the companies involved.

ActionSA councillor Thabang Sebotsane said in an interview this week that the companies did not even have the R71 million needed to start work at the plant. According to Sebotsane, the metro had to advance some money to them, which was a violation of the rules on supply chain management.

A Gift of the Givers truck offloads water at Jubilee District Hospital in Hammanskraal on May 22.
A Gift of the Givers truck offloads water at Jubilee District Hospital in Hammanskraal on May 22.

Why? And why not?

The past week's inevitable mudslinging between the various political actors makes it difficult to decide who is to blame the most for 19 years of doing little to nothing. After all, the ANC was officially in charge of Tshwane between 1995 and 2016. But the DA and its alliance partners since 2016 can't get off scot-free. Solly Msimanga (mayor between 2016 and 2019) had the issue on his list of election promises. And where was the due diligence in awarding the Sodi contract? Who knew about Sodi's ties to state capturers? One also has to ask what Randall Williams and his team did between 2020 and 2023.

Was any attention given to the Human Rights Commission's report of October 2021, which recommended that the national government take control of Tshwane's water and sanitation services? And if not, why not?

The Gauteng government should also shoulder some of the blame. In May 2018, protests over, among other things, the water issue broke out in Hammanskraal. Then-premier David Makhura visited the area and said the province was in “ongoing discussions" with the metro to improve service delivery.

The same goes for the national government, specifically DWS. Not only were the instructions to deputy minister David Mahlobo noted, but Sisulu's 2021 promises were also documented. Kleynhans also believes the DWS corruption under minister Nomvula Mokonyane has greatly contributed to the crisis.

Because of all the delays over the past 19 years, it will now cost even more to get Rooiwal to work. DA mayor Cilliers Brink announced this week that the metro will make R450 million available to complete phase 1 of the upgrade over the next three years. After that, another R4.5 billion will be needed.

Tshwane Mayor Cilliers Brink is chased away by residents at Jubilee District Hospital in Hammanskraal on May 22.
Tshwane Mayor Cilliers Brink is chased away by residents at Jubilee District Hospital in Hammanskraal on May 22.

The lesson to be learnt

What happened in Hammanskraal could occur elsewhere in South Africa, warns Kleynhans and Dr Ferrial Adam of WaterCAN (Outa's water initiative). Just think of Emfuleni, where the army was deployed to help with the sewage crisis in the Vaal River. This past weekend, there were also six cholera cases in Parys and Vredefort, an area with many water supply problems.

Sewage spills in the eThekwini Metro (Durban) were already a problem before the 2022 floods but have worsened considerably. And even in DA-controlled Cape Town, sewage in the Milnerton Lagoon is such a big problem that Outa and the Green Scorpions got involved at residents' request.

Adam believes municipal reform is essential. “Municipal water departments must secure sufficient funding to deliver and upgrade services. Right now, all the money goes into one account, and water security is neglected."

Kleynhans and Adam believe that what happened at Hammanskraal is a combination of poor planning and maintenance, and a culture of corruption. A lack of political will and accountability to residents is also a significant problem, Kleynhans believes.

They advocate the criminal prosecution of municipal officials who are negligent in dealing with water issues. “Do not fine the municipality — prosecute the individual. Only then will we see change," Kleynhans said. Adam agrees: “Access to clean water is a constitutional right and the responsibility of municipalities. Tshwane officials were negligent in not testing the water often enough and keeping residents informed. All of these deaths were preventable."

♦ VWB ♦

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