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As South Africa ponders whether ANC president Jacob Zuma will get his second term during next month’s December elective conference, writer Thabiso Thakali and photographer Paballo Thekiso took a road trip between Polokwane, where the conference was held five years ago, and Mangaung, where it will be held in December, and found access to water is a daily struggle for communities along the way. This is the real Road to Mangaung.
‘Water! Water! Hey! This side please! “ Lizzy Mulaudzi shouted from her shack yard in Mmasesha, a township sprawl on the edge of Seshego outside Polokwane in Limpopo.
From across a narrow and rocky dirt road, water vendor Clifford Motswalahosi looked up, whistled piercingly, and nodded.
Mulaudzi, a single mother of two, hurried to the gate. Then she stood behind Motswalahosi’s donkey-drawn cart full of white, yellow and green 20-litre plastic drums.
“R20 for a water load of 10 cans [sic],” Motswalahosi told Mulaudzi.
“But every day your containers arrive here almost half full,” she complained.
“That’s because we sometimes have to drive the cart fast in bumpy roads,” he told her. “You know the water business isn’t easy now because more people want us to deliver to their houses every evening so we have to rush.”
The water business in many areas outside Seshego is indeed hard – a daily struggle for communities where pipe-borne water in their yards remains the privilege of a few in semi-urban Seshego.
Like many living in Kwena Moloto, Blood River, Letsokoane and Mmasesha townships, among others, Mulaudzi has to go in search for water every day.
Motswalahosi and his friend Petros Serope get up before dawn to trudge their donkey cart up and down the streets till dusk from Letsokoane to Seshego to retrieve water from communal taps.
But long queues at these communal taps often mean residents and water vendors have to travel a further 3km to fill their plastic drums.
Mulaudzi, who lives in a shack, spends a quarter of her income buying water because she is building a house for her two children.
“If I didn’t get work early today I wouldn’t have had any water to bath or cook tomorrow,” she said.
“We haven’t had water in this area since I moved here in 2007. It’s a major problem. I may be complaining to these boys now but the service they provide to us is crucial.”
Many days residents don’t bath because they need to save water for drinking and cooking.
Most of them rely on the water vendors.
“Some people are unemployed and cannot afford to pay for water to be delivered to them,” said resident Inosi Moletje. “So if they manage to buy water once in a week, they have to go without a bath so it can last them longer for cooking and drinking. That is how sad it is with this situation.”
As the shadows lengthened in Mmasesha, Motswalahosi’s cart cautiously joined cars cruising by on a snaking drive back to Seshego to refill the plastic drums.
Mornings and late afternoons are busy for the water vendors.
When he was just eight years old in 1992, Motswalahosi discovered he could make money as a small-time water vendor using his father’s donkeys as transport. His father and brothers helped him build a cart.
With more people moving into Masesha and Kwena Moloto where land is bought cheaply, residents’ need for water increased and they were happy to pay him.
The 18-year-old high school dropout acknowledged that this was no longer just a business to earn a living but also a calling to provide an essential service to people struggling in his neighbourhood.
“When we first started it was for our family and immediate neighbours but then everybody started asking us to take their containers when we go to fetch water,” he explained. “I saw how serious the situation was and how people were struggling, so I did this in a way to help them , but also get something in return.”
Motswalahosi and Serope are not the only water vendors in the area using donkey-drawn carts – there are at least two others providing the same service.
Similar conditions are echoed in Phagameng and Phomolong townships outside Modimolle 170 km from Polokwane, where piped water is either absent or erratic.
The taps often run dry because the water system infrastructure is no longer working effectively, according to Hosea Montlane, ward committee member in Phomolong.
“People spend between three to four days or even weeks without water here and when it does come to those lucky few with taps, it looks like chocolate,” he said. “It comes out so dirty you cannot just drink it.
“We have had this habit for years. The problem, we are told, is most of the pipe network that brings water from Magaliesberg is old and rusty.”
Montlane said most residents, especially those in informal settlements like Phahameng, relied on municipal tankers to deliver water but often they never arrive, forcing some to seek water from nearby polluted streams.
“People just don’t have a choice sometimes but while the water may not be safe to drink, they simply drink it,” he said. “It’s dirty, very dirty water.”
Further from Modimolle, in Maubane township near Bela Bela, about 30km further on, John Rabothata turned on his tap and scoffed as the water gushed out: “It’s yellow. It has been like that forever.”
After having seen yellow and brown water drizzle into his jug before when he turned on the tap, Rabothata did not want to take the risk and boiled it.
“Who knows whether it’s just sand, mud, s*** or unspecified bacteria?” he asked.
“I sometimes drive 2-3km to Themba or Carousel to get clean water because I cannot simply trust this. I would rather be safe than sorry.”
Another resident, Erson Soboshe, confirmed Rabothata’s suspicions adding that a foul smell greeted him once when he drew water from his tap. Alarmed, Soboshe said he spoke to his neighbours, who had a similar complaints.
Almost the entire neighbourhood also complained of taps running dry for up to five days with no warning.
“Reliable, safe, clean and accessible running water remains a pipe dream to some of us here,” he added. “I cannot describe to you how often we are left frustrated here without water or with water that is in a shocking state we cannot drink.”
In Pienaarsrivier, 20km from Bela Bela, Willem Ramaripa pointed to the recent reconnection of water supplies after several dry days.
“It’s very difficult here. There was a pipe but the water wasn’t flowing,” he said. “We usually wake up at 4am to check water in the taps because by 6am there are only a few drops. We are used to seeing taps run dry. At times we are short of water and you spend a day or two without a bath.
“Washing cars and clothes with water from a canal that runs on the side of the road and can be contaminated with human waste and disease-causing bacteria is one thing. But bathing and cooking with it?”
In Hammanskraal, a densely populated township north of Pretoria that spreads out alongside the N1 highway to Polokwane, anything goes.
Anna Mputle, a resident in block M1 of the township, hobbled past the Dinokeng Game Reserve gate, pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with three 20-litre white buckets filled with water she had walked almost a kilometre to seek.
“We have never had tap water in our area,” she said. “This is the only thing we have ever known in our lives – waking up early in the morning to fetch water – since my daughter began school, now she is in high school, but what can we do?”
Down the dirt road next to where Mputle is headed, several women lined up with piles of clothes they brought for washing in the roadside waterway.
“We don’t just wash with this water, we also use it for cooking and drinking,” explained one of the women, who only gave her name as Matshidiso. “We either have to use this water or we will have nothing – no food for our children, no clean clothes or bath and no life. We simply have to boil it for drinking as a precaution.”
Some suspected the canal water may be dangerous when used for laundry with bare hands.
“The moment it touches your hand, you get an itching sensation. Also, the water is so dirty that sometimes you don’t feel like touching it at all. It has got to be sewage water,” said another resident.
In another impoverished section of the Hammanskraal community named Skierlik, hundreds of plastic 20 litre drums and buckets lined alongside a dirt road in a queue.
Residents here cheered and ululated as a municipal water truck leisured towards them at noon after many had been waiting since 6am.
Like many without reliable water in their homes, the people of Skierlik rely on a municipal tanker from Themba to deliver the basic necessity to their neighbourhood.
They, too, have watched their taps run dry for months - for those lucky enough to have a tap in their yards, a state of affairs that mirrors conditions all the way to Makeleketla township near Winburg - about 100km from Mangaung.
A resident of Tlohong- Khanyeng - a mixed dwelling of RDP houses and single-storey apartments said they also relied on water vendors and one municipal water tanker to survive.
“We have experienced water shortages for the past five years,” she said pointing to yellow 20-litre buckets lined up in her bathroom. “We have flush toilets here but many of us have never used them because we never had any flowing water.”
Back in Mmasesha, the water vendors - Motswalahosi and Serope - wheeled their donkey cart slowly across a main road near Kwena Moloto, still smiling after 12 trips, their silhouettes fading in the dusk.