Water provided by almost 50% of municipalities is unsafe to drink, says the government

Nobuntu Hlazo-Webster

Nobuntu Hlazo-Webster

Published Mar 26, 2024


Nobuntu Hlazo-Webster

In late November, annoyed South Africans took to social media to rightly criticised President Cyril Ramaphosa’s trip to rural Jozini, KwaZulu-Natal, for the launching of a tap.

While the president’s spin-doctors tried to fix the fallout, citizens were not fooled.

Many of those who commented, pointed out the obvious. A country like South Africa should not be celebrating a community getting something as basic as a tap in their own home, let alone a communal one close to their homes as was the occasion of Ramaphosa’s visit.

As though that was not embarrassing enough, Ramaphosa only sprinkled a few drops on his hands and did not drink water from the same tap the community of Jozini, is now expected to drink from gratefully and happily.

Citizens on social media were correct to ask why the president did not drink the water if he is convinced that there are no questions over its safeness for human consumption.

It seems the president already knew what many South Africans would only get to know over the last few days.

Ramaphosa’s Cabinet Minister for Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, released the Water Services Drop Programmes 2023 Reports, Blue, Green and No Drop watch reports on December 5, 2023, which showed that water provided by almost half of all municipalities was unsafe to drink.

This is hardly surprising for many South Africans, especially those in the far flung and the most rural parts of the country. For those communities, the only shock is that anyone is shocked.

In October, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) gave three Limpopo municipalities three months to show detailed plans of how they intended to provide residents with water or face court action.

The SAHRC report revealed that about a third (1,4 million) people in Limpopo did not have access to piped water. Thousands of them scooped their drinking and cooking water from rivers and streams.

We agree with the SAHRC that the failure of municipalities to provide basic services can no longer go unchecked.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of water to all life. While we can live without electricity as our species did for hundreds of thousands of years, we just cannot afford to have the country’s clean water system go the way of Eskom.

That is why the Water Services Act makes it compulsory that the standard minimum quantity of potable water is 25 litres per person per day and that no consumer should be without water for more than seven days in a year.

That the law actually provides for this would be news to many communities around South Africa, urban and rural.

We also know this from our own experience. There was not even one of the nine provinces we visited in the last year where we did not discover challenges with the provision of water, or the quality of water provided.

As Build One SA we have taken on the position of a government-in-working – rather than one in-waiting – because the issues South Africans face cannot wait. We have had to hit the ground running and provide either bore holes or water tankers to these communities.

Virtually every rural community we visit has at least one basic request to make – a borehole or water tanks where people can get reliable water for their families. We have worked with communities and various partners to provide this in provinces across the country.

The endemic corruption in municipalities and the unwillingness of the governing party to take disciplinary and criminal action against those who perpetrate this has led to this crisis we are in.

The looting of state coffers is not a victimless pursuit. All South Africans feel its effect. But especially those who have no option but to depend on the state for their basic needs of energy, water, health, safety and security and education.

The well-off or credit worthy can always find alternatives to state failure. Installing solar panels, buying bottled water, using private health and schools or private security. While costly, there is an out available for them.

Those who cannot afford these will be pushed further to the margins of society.

But as many South Africans prepare to leave the cities to return to their ancestral villages across the country for the holiday season, they will be returning to face the harsh realities of how visible and tangible the regression is in rural South Africa.

Families are finding that unless they have the means to drill water, they are confined to live as though 1994 did not happen. It is unacceptable that nearly three decades of being a democracy, we still have South Africans sharing water sources with their animals.

We should not be surprised that we have a water crisis in South Africa. The water crisis has been hiding in plain sight. The water crisis is an outcome of a government either indifferent to the impact of the lack of reliable water supply to its citizens or lacking the political will to do something about it.

This was demonstrated in the cholera outbreak earlier this year in Hammanskraal, less than an hour from the country’s capital city.

This outbreak, which captured the nation’s attention, should have brought the severity of the water crisis closer to home in ways that rural communities just cannot because of the tendency by government and big media companies to pay attention to what happens closest to the cities.

It was only when 23 people had died that the various government departments started acting on the report by the Department of Water Affairs declaring the Apies River a disaster area after sewage had been pouring into the river located near the Rooiwal sewage treatment system. It took the state 13 years from the declaration of disaster to action.

We dare not despair though. We are about six months away from the national general elections.

Elections are like this current period in the schools and university system. Elections are about every citizen of voting age giving the sitting government its report card.

Any government that cannot or will not provide basics such as water and electricity and will not hold anyone accountable for failing in their duties to provide these necessities has no right to be progressed to the next class. It should be thrown out of the Union Buildings.

Nobuntu Hlazo-Webster is BOSA Deputy Leader

The Star