On a rundown street in Bertrams, in the heart of the inner city, Thabo Motluhuneng peers over a graffiti-scrawled bridge at a stormwater drain by his feet.
The water flowing through the canal is a murky grey-brown and reeks of sewage – but he doesn’t seem surprised.
“This is the only colour of the Jukskei I know,” he shrugs. "It’s how the river looks all over the city – it’s this blackish, greyish colour.”
The stormwater canal is where the Jukskei “daylights” and the source of the river runs just a few hundred metres away under Ellis Park, he explains. By the time the water emerges here, however, it’s already contaminated by sewage inflows from the CBD.
“This should be a special place because it’s so close to the source,” explains Motluhuneng, shaking his head, frustrated. “But it’s not.”
He works as a supervisor for Paul Fairall, a riverine consultant and long-time champion for the Jukskei’s protection.
“People in this city are so busy chasing chasing around town in their BMWs that they don’t know what’s going on in the rivers they’re crossing,” remarks Fairall. “It’s only once you go down and see the rivers that you realise the terrible state they’re in.”
The 78-year-old is sitting in a wheelchair inside his flat in a Douglasdale retirement village. Last year, he suffered a small stroke and is now learning to walk again. “The work is pouring in. I haven’t lost the use of my brain,” he says, smiling.
But the ailing Jukskei, he maintains, has already been lost. “The river is gone,” Fairall declares. "It will take 100 years to correct itself if we start managing it now, which we’re not doing.”
One of Joburg’s largest rivers, the Jukskei flows northwards, meandering through Bedfordview and moving back to Joburg before it joins the Crocodile River flowing into the highly eutrophic Hartbeespoort Dam.
Its roughly 50km course through the city inexorably marks it as a casualty of Joburg’s massive urbanisation, its eroded waterways a repository for the city’s torrent of sewage, stormwater, litter, industrial waste and building rubble.
For water expert Dr Anthony Turton, not only is the Jukskei one of the country’s most polluted rivers, it’s also one of the “saddest”. Its demise, he believes, is a metaphor for “all that is wrong in our society. Its malady is a complex amalgam of state failure upstream, including the hijacking of buildings by criminal syndicates that has resulted in the coupling between the sewage systems and the stormwater systems.
“The grease and fat in the system is so massive that it will have to be mined out, and until this is done, the drains will continue to be unable to carry the volumes.
“Until the criminal hijacking of buildings is sorted out - a legal issue that is also manifesting as an impediment to investor confidence and thus rejuvenation of the city - I can’t see the river being ‘saved’,” he declares.
Dr Irwin Juckes, a microbiologist who monitors the health of the Jukskei, agrees that the greatest problems the river faces are sewage pollution - and flooding.
Water quality reports from the City of Joburg show two peak inflows of sewage pollution into the river, he says. “The first is at the source of the river in central Joburg. It comes from the hundreds of bad and hijacked buildings which have no services, so their sewage runs into the stormwater system.
"The second peak is from Alexandra, where decades of unplanned development has covered over access to the underground system and brought about over-capacity.”
Sewage also gushes into the Jukskei from ageing infrastructure and a backlog of maintenance, and, in some cases the use of superimposed sewage and stormwater systems, with interlinks for access. “It’s therefore common for sewage and stormwater to mingle if the interlinks fail," Juckes explains.
"There is poor maintenance," remarks Fairall. "The sewage systems in Paris and Rome are 2000 years old and yet they don't have the spillages we do."
The once-clean Jukskei is now "filled with sewage sludge”, he says. Tests by the University of Pretoria on water in the former Bruma Lake several years ago revealed 50 roundworm eggs in every litre of water tested and scores of potentially dangerous pathogens, he explains.
“At Hartbeespoort Dam, the rocks are covered in black sludge - it’s frightening. There's pathogens on the riverbanks of the Jukskei that can live for seven years.
"The Jukskei and the Hennops are vying for first place as the dirtiest rivers in South Africa. The problem is one day we will soon run out of water in our city, and in our province.
“And we have destroyed our rivers … What the mayor (Herman Mashaba) is attempting to do by cleaning up these hijacked buildings in the CBD can only help the river,” Fairall believes.
The City of Joburg acknowledges that “persistent” sewage leaks from the hundreds of hijacked buildings end up in the river system, particularly in the upper-reaches of Jukskei.
“The parameter of concern for the Jukskei is e. coli, an indicator for sewage pollution. The river has a very high bacterial load," says council spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane.
Recent official quarterly results red flag e.coli at almost all sample sites feeding into the Jukskei as "unacceptable".
In Bez Valley, results show 2.4 million units of e.coli per 100ml and downstream in Alex 1.3 million units per 100ml. The required standard is 1 000 units per 100ml.
Last year, a report commissioned by the Gauteng government warned that dysfunctional and malfunctioning wastewater treatment infrastructure and the diffuse release of effluent from unserviced settlements in the province requires "serious, urgent intervention" to reverse the degradation of rivers, wetlands and dams.
The research team found an “overwhelming negative trend” in the condition of provincial water resources from the poor, irresponsible management of human activities, and warned of the increase in dangerous faecal coliform concentrations in local waterways since 2011.
The Jukskei, says Modingoane, is “under severe stress from anthropogenic (man-made) impacts". He blames its poor state on “sewage leaks and spillages from informal settlements and bad buildings in the inner city; root growth and ingress into sewer manholes; the ingress of stormwater into sewer infrastructure overloading the system and causing spillages and the vandalism of infrastructure to extract valuables (sewer mining)."
Chemical contamination also pours into the river from, among others, industrial effluent, industries, car washes and repair workshops and hydrocarbon contamination from fuel depots.
Themba Gadebe, spokesperson for the City of Ekurhuleni, agrees that sewage spillages are the main water quality issue for the river, as this causes elevated e coli and nitrate concentrations.
"The problem with elevated nutrients is that it often results in depleted oxygen levels in the water. The secondary water quality issue in the Juskei is the high sediment load and turbidity which is caused by increased erosion rates and hardening of the catchment," he says, adding that the municipality is working to address sewage spills.
In Joburg, Modingoane says the river’s catchment is an important ecological corridor. “Joburg is a water-stressed city. Protection of water resources is important to ensure water security as well as to ensure that the City does not negatively impact on its neighbouring municipalities and the Hartbeespoort Dam, which supplies water to some North West municipalities.
Several experts, however, point out how many of the problems blighting the rivers and waterways in Gauteng can be blamed on the lack of proper management and control by officials and law enforcement bodies. The region's pollution is then "exported" to other provinces.
But Modingoane says work has been done to try to restore the Jukskei, including a litter trap in Bez Valley and the rehabilitation of the former Bruma Lake upstream of Stjwetla informal settlement in Alex.
Fairall, for his part, charges that the latter project has been poorly-maintained. “They've never touched it again,” he scoffs. “They think they can build things and nature will take over. Only God can build that way.”
In Stjwetla, Alexandra, Michael Mphoko* watches his neighbour toss a bundle of nappies into the foul-smelling river, flowing past his shack. Mounds of rotting waste ooze on the blackened, sludge-filled riverbank where fat rats scurry in the morning sun. “There are no dustbins here, no services. It’s too dirty and when it rains we fear for our lives. We are really living a bad life here,” he says.
The council says the Johannesburg Development Agency has now appointed a consultant to design the alignment of Jukskei around Stjwetla “to remove all the shacks that are below the 1:100 year flood line, to de-congest the shacks and to provide basic services”.
A little further down the river, John du Plessis and Mark McClue, from Action for Responsible Management of Our Rivers (Armour), wind their way through the picturesque surrounds of the newly-redeveloped Jukskei Park that runs along the river in Alex.
Du Plessis watches as parts of a car float down the river, frowning at the heaps of rubbish and cable piled opposite on a newly-reinforced riverbank.
“Here’s this beautiful park for the people of Alex to enjoy and connect with the river, but on the other side of it people are dumping rubbish,” he says, shaking his head.
The river runs grey and dirty here too. “Some people call it the Jukskei sewer but it can be a river and should be a river,” offers McClue.
Joburg, he says, is a transformed city. “We can’t take the river back to what it was because then we all have to leave. So we have an opportunity to learn from other cities in the world and fix this river.”
Du Plessis agrees. "Look at Europe's rivers - they were cesspits in the 1970s and 1980s, but they've turned it around. We can do the same ...We need to address the upstream problems to solve the downstream issues. The challenge is to understand the problems, prioritise and then address the issues. Routine monitoring and maintenance to follow. We need the involvement of the public to make this happen.”
Armour says the diverse sources of pollution into the river and its tributaries - such as the Klein Jukskei, Braamfontein Spruit and Sand Spruit - arises from sewage inflows, several private residential estates, the industrial commercial estates and informal settlements of Kya Sands, Mswawa, Elandsdrift and Zandspruit, among others.
Suburban densification is another problem.
The non-profit environmental lobby group was established from an ecological catastrophe on the river in 2015: a months-long raw sewage spill from the Northern Wastewater treatment works that turned parts of the Jukskei black. Consequently, Joburg Water embarked on a major maintenance and upgrade project.
Armour’s aim is to be a “voice for water”, and for “clean, living rivers and waterways” in Gauteng. It holds working group meetings with the relevant interest groups and authorities to address specific problem areas. “We challenge and cooperate and support and be supportive,” explains McClue.
“What we’ve discovered in the past two years is the sheer size of this issue,” says Helen Duigan, a founding member of Armour with her husband, Anthony.“People say fix Northern Works, but it’s not just about that - it’s about fixing the pollution upstream and in the inner city, which Mashaba, bless his cotton socks, is trying to solve. But it's also about us, the public, our litter and the stuff we put down our toilets. It’s horrifying.”
At Northern Works, manager Ntokozo Mdluli insists it is “turning the tide” on spillages into the Jukskei. “As we try and upgrade and refurbish infrastructure, we’re able to push more sewer and ensure that we don’t over-capacitate our emergency dam,” he says.
“The biggest issues we have are the blockages because of sewer abuse," he says, showing the shredded pickings from the plant’s new macerator: heaving skips filled with rags, pads, tampons, pipes, mattresses, condoms, nappies and sponge, swirling with flies.
“In the last few months, we’ve found the bodies of adults, three babies and one foetus in the system,” says Mdluli.
Last November the Department of Water and Sanitation issued it with a directive for spillages into the Jukskei - and while Armour states there has been a distinct improvement in its performance, Fairall has little hope in the plant's recovery.
"In this country, almost all our sewage is running into the rivers because 80% of our wastewater works are failing ... in a country that doesn't have water. There's no respect shown for wetlands and no sustainable urban drainage."
McClue, who kayaks on the Jukskei, believes its reputation is far worse than it deserves. “We find fish, frogs, terrapins and leguaans in the river. It’s not dead and the whole point is that we want to catch it and stop it (save it) before it does die.”
The effect of spillages, he adds, is not instantaneous but lingers in the river system for years. “So the solutions have to address not just the immediate problems but the legacy issue as well.”
From his smallholding in Chartwell, Julian Walker smiles as he watches water birds flock on the river. He has an emotional connection with the river, and the wildlife that still cling to it, but many of his neighbours barely know the river that runs alongside their properties exists, he says.
“There’s not too much white foam today; the birds are bathing in the river and not avoiding it. This is as good as it gets,” he says.
Last week his portion of the river was hit by another sewage spill, turning the river from "clear" to grey. “It breaks my heart,” says Walker.
Juckes, of RiverWatch in Edenvale, increasingly finds fewer signs of life in the river. “The problem is that the sewage spills are so overwhelming that it’s hard to address anything else. The Jukskei is at the lowest ecological class and has been extremely impacted and removed from its natural state."
The problem for the Jukskei is that there is no rallying call "to get people excited about the river... because of its poor condition and safety concerns. It needs more than occasional clean-ups and needs continual effort", he believes.
Back in Bertrams, Motluhuneng still has hope. “If everyone in the city can sweep in front of his door, the whole yard will be clean. That’s how we can save this river.”
* This is part of an ongoing series on Gauteng’s dirty rivers. The next story on the Klip River will run in September.