The weight of water

Published Apr 21, 2011


1841 steps. Every day for three years now Maphello Sephiri and the residents of Meqheleng township have taken an 83-minute journey by foot to survive. The prize: water.

Twice a day, two 25-litre drums of water are collected, each weighing 25kg. This is done to make sure that 16-year-old Mojalefa has a clean uniform for school; so that three-year-old Tsepang can have pap; so that they can insulate their tin and cardboard shack from the biting cold here in the highlands bordering Lesotho. This is done to make sure that Andries Tatane did not die in vain. This is the weight of water.

This morning at 4 Maphello Sephiri will carefully extricate herself from the tangle of bodies littered around the floor of house No 8720 in Zone 8, Extension 10.

She will place her baby, seven-month-old Mpho on the sunken double bed next to her mother, wrap a blanket around her shoulders and put the broken size 10 takkies on her size 6 feet. She will take the white 25-litre plastic bucket from the wall of containers next to the wood-fired stove and walk out the front door into the darkness.

Through breaks in the clouds, the full moon will shine.

As Maphello takes the turn at Matshiki Store, step 78, the breaks in the clouds reveal a silent army marching.

Three years ago, some say four, the Setsoto Local Municipality embarked on an upgrade of the pipes supplying water and conducting effluent out of the township bordering Ficksburg.

The community watched patiently as front-end loaders, graders and pipes arrived, bringing with them the promise of a better life. For some it would be immediate, a few dozen men and women finding work as unskilled labourers in this place where unemployment is rife.

Those who had “made it” had gone to the big city - Bloemfontein or Joburg - returning in big bakkies and cars that struggled to navigate the dongas in the streets of Meqheleng.

They saw the daily struggle of their families and friends and decided to take aim at the local council in a series of now all too common service delivery protests.

On April 13 everything changed. A maths and science teacher who had been rallying people in Meqheleng for years to stand up for their rights confronted police who had fired rubber bullets and a water cannon at protesters.

The images of an unarmed Tatane being beaten, then shot and killed by police flashed around the world, bringing the plight of the people of Meqheleng home to millions.

When confronted by a local journalist that his people did not have water, local mayor Mbothoma Maduna offered a bottle of Valpré water to refute the claims. The mayor has since denied the incident.

“I have a huge pain for that man because that man was fighting for water for us,” says Maphello of Tatane’s killing.

This afternoon at 5.25 Maphello will be in a queue at a standpipe with her bucket, Mpho strapped to her back with a towel. Her three-year-old son Tsepang will stand patiently beside her, occasionally wiping his runny nose.

In less than a minute, her 25-litre bucket will be filled. Maphello will adeptly raise the bucket on to her head, carefully at first, and then more confidently, starting her walk back home.

Step 12, a small rocky hill, will make Maphello carefully place a hand on the bucket as the other hand holds on to Tsepang.

At the top she looks straight ahead, hardly seeming to notice the veld brushing against her skirt or the fact that Meqheleng seems to be cupped in God’s hand, situated in a valley surrounded by towering mountains.

At step 62, the three pass “the rubbish people” - local workers employed for R50 a day to burn the garbage dumped in the veld by residents who say they have no refuse removal service.

Maphello greets them with a smile that seems to break with the determined grimace of the 25-year-old. She stops, carefully removes the bucket from her head and places it on the ground beside her. With eyes closed she stretches her neck left, then right, then left again.

She looks down at Tsepang, brushes his cheek and wipes his nose before quickly raising the bucket again and continuing. She will repeat this ritual once more before she gets home.

Maphello walks atop a small embankment created by the front-end-loader ahead. By step 852, the stench of washing water, garbage and human effluent already reaches out. By step 955, it is overpowering.

Further down the road men are tying party political posters to the lamp poles.

“Here’s the party of the people. If (Mosiuoa) Lekota was still premier we wouldn’t have these problems,” Teboho Mohase tell passers-by, canvassing for votes.

Maphello doesn’t break her stride for him, greeting with a dumelang, ntate and a nod.

From a green shack at step 1 252, with the door slightly ajar, rapper Tupac Shakur’s ode to his mother blares out.

Step 1 712, and Maphello can see her home now. As she draws near, she can see Mojalefa in the doorway, his hands covered in flour and water glue.

1 841 steps later, her return is hardly acknowledged as Mojalefa meticulously places another page of the glossy furniture advertisement overlapping the hundreds of others along the wall.

The pictures of lounge suites, bedroom suites and fridges staring down at the family of seven will help keep the cold out.

Inside the neat kitchen Maphello immediately sets to work preparing supper. Along with her mother’s pension of R1 080, the child grants for Mpho and Tsepang are the family’s only income.

“I do nothing. I fetch water,” Maphello offers when asked about her job prospects.

When he is done with his plastering, Mojalefa pours a little water in a metal bowl and washes his hands.

“Clean,” he says, holding up his hands. - The Star

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