By Magnificent Mndebele
In one of the hollow short-cut routes in the streets of Thokozani village; an old man in his 70s is walking under a scorching sun. With two walking sticks and an empty bucket, slowly approaches the nearest taps just 250 metres away.
After ten minutes, and two short breaks, he arrives at the tap and opens it hoping to draw water from it but nothing comes out. Disappointed, he puts his left hand in the pocket of his trouser, and starts walking back.
When The Open Journal asked what he planned to do, the old man responded: “Only death will set me free from these unforgiving earthly hardships.”
“Only death will set me free from these unforgiving earthly hardships.”
In the remote area of Thokozani village in Mpumalanga – which has two sub-villages known as Project and Mahlabathini – people live in dire conditions and many have become hopeless.
Circumstances have pushed residents to the edge of desperation. Residents have no other source of hygienic water except for a river teaming with pollution.
Villagers drink water contaminated by used diapers, and the dirt and grime from the cattle, donkeys and wild animals that bathe in the water.
The elderly are some of the worst affected
The Open Journal travelled to Mahlabathini, another affected area, to another old man who was said to live alone.
On the 19th of June 2016, The Open Journal interviewed Samuel Lokothwayo. He depended on kind strangers to fetch water for him as he struggled to walk long distances because of his lung problems.
Previous attempts to fetch water himself have failed terribly. “There is a day I will never forget when I attempted to go fetch water downstream,” Lokothwayo said before pausing to lick his dry lips.
“My heart gets [torn] apart when I talk about this, after fetching the water downstream where cattle normally drink, I tried to lift up the bucket and I fell. I rolled down with the bucket… I desperately tried to regain my balance, but nonetheless I fell with it.”
Lokothwayo died shortly after the interview.
Drinking polluted water is perfectly normal
The Open Journal visited the stream where Samuel fell. The water is littered with old plastic sandals, potato chip packets and a thick milky substance covering the body of water. Upstream, people are washing laundries and pouring back the dirty water while downstream inhabitants wait for the water.
Celimpilo Dlamini, a 12-year old boy a learner at Umlambo Combined School, said that sometimes people throw babies’ used diapers inside the rivulet.
Celimpilo and his two friends called us to observe that they consume the dirty water.
They went deep into the river. “Do you see that now we are drinking the water? Do you believe us now that we really drink this?” Celimpilo asked.
“Do you see that now we are drinking the water? Do you believe us now that we really drink this?”
A few days later after meeting Celimpilo, The Open Journal found three women in the river drawing water from it.
Approximately 40 centimetres away from the well, there were unclean plastics and other unsanitary items. One of the women told us that finding litter in the water is quite normal.
“If there are plastics inside the river I just remove them and continue drawing the water because I don’t know who put the plastics [there]. We fetch water from this rubbish, there is no other way to escape,” said 24-year old resident, Khabo Malatji.
“In summer when floods intensify, we wait until the water clears off before we [fetch it].”
The root cause of their suffering
The Open Journal understands that prior to 2014, the Mkhondo municipality was supplying the villagers with diesel to use to pump water from a tank that was in use at the time. The tank was erected next to a tavern and drunkards would insert used condoms inside the water.
The municipality decided to put up Jojo tanks and replaced the pumping engine with an electric pump that would send the water to the tanks that supply Thokozani and Mahlabathini with water. The sub-village of Project was unaffected by these developments.
Villagers were given money by the municipality to pay for electricity and gain access to the water. In a letter the villagers sent to the municipality in October 2014, they requested an increase to the R200 the municipality gave them at the time as they felt it was insufficient.
Villagers decided to turn to each other for help. They donated R10 per household in order to supplement the money from the municipality. However, most villagers are unemployed and they were unable to donate the money. As a result, many villagers are forced to fetch water in the streams when water runs out in the Jojo tanks.
Taking the water problem to the streets
According to local radio station Mkhondo FM 98.6, on the 27th of June 2017, locals protested and closed down their only tar road, demanding an intervention by the local municipality.
Water and Sanitation Manager in Mkhondo municipality, Thandeka Mazibuko said that the municipality could not aid the villagers due to financial constraints on the municipality’s budget, Mkhondo FM reported.
She did say however, that from July 2017 onwards, the beginning of their financial year budget, they would prioritise the areas lacking service delivery the most. TOJ