Ayanda Kota is a very busy man these days. He has become a household name ever since his Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) joined forces with other local businesses and activists to take his city’s municipality to court for dereliction of duty. In a far-reaching ruling that sent shockwaves throughout South Africa’s governance structures, the Makhanda High Court made legal history by ruling in UPM’s favour. The court ordered the African National Congress (ANC)-led local municipality to be dissolved and for the Eastern Cape provincial government to appoint an administrator to run its affairs. Suddenly the UPM, which has been fighting for better services at local level for years, was getting requests from all over the country to help organise people who also want to fight for better services in their communities. 

The Makhanda High Court’s 2020 decision however does not mean that all of the city’s problems have been solved. In fact, they seem to be getting worse and Ayanda Kota has increased his advocacy for better service delivery in many other areas. Recently, the UPM and other civil society organisations in the area marched to protest water shortage, poor state of roads, air pollution and broken sewerage pipes. Disgruntled inhabitants from the east side of town marched from the township to the main business district and ordered all businesses to shut down. The protests were cut short by a court order. 

Ayanda Kota explains that there are many problems at the level of the municipality: 

Remember what the Auditor-General’s report said: there are many problems with service delivery, especially at municipal level – and it is generalised across South Africa. It is not just a general lack of skills, the Auditor-General also said that there were wrong hands at the till. 

For now, an uneasy calm hangs over Makhanda as the inhabitants await the return of basic services and water in its taps. Who knows how long the truce will last. In the past month, two separate protest marches have brought the town to its knees completely shutting down business activity. 

How did we get here?   

Why are Makhanda residents so angry? This historic town formally called Grahamstown is a far cry from its past and its problems are both natural and manmade. 

Many decades ago, Grahamstown was the second biggest city in the country. That was before gold was discovered in the Highveld area (present-day Gauteng province, economic capital: Johannesburg). Drawn by the allure of riches beyond their wildest dreams, thousands of people packed up and migrated northwards. Businesses also packed up and left. Suddenly, the town was left with only Rhodes University, a relatively small entity, to support it economically. That is a heavy burden. The town has kept growing and growing. Unfortunately, service delivery has not kept pace with the growth. Water and sewerage infrastructure originally developed for ten, maybe twenty thousand people now has to serve almost a hundred thousand residents. 

About ten years ago, a water pump on the west side of the town broke down. Water supply became intermittent and its quality was so bad that sometimes it was murky brown. Growing anger forced the national government to step in and initiate short and long term measures to alleviate the crisis. It became very clear very quickly that the city’s infrastructure was overburdened, underserviced and running far below the required capacity. Households all of a sudden started going for days, weeks and even months without potable water flowing from their taps. 

The issues with the bulk water facility were compounded even further by a multi-year drought that hit the ‘City of Saints’ especially hard. The entire Eastern Cape Province has been under one form of emergency declaration or the other as its dams slowly run out of water in the midst of a punishing drought. The prolonged dry conditions have lowered water levels in the Howisenspoort and Settlers Dams to the point where they pump barely enough water to reach the affluent west side of town. This leaves the much poorer residents of the East Side reliant on water from the Glen Melville Dam, a catchment served by the Orange and Fish Rivers. It is either that or they carry containers to the CBD.

People spend up to two hours a day trying to get water.

There is a spring flowing just outside of town on the highway to Port Alfred. This water source has become a vital lifeline, especially for the rich and middle classes as one needs to have transport to access it. Adversity brings out the ingenuity in us and occasionally, inhabitants of the distant east side can also be seen at this water source filling plastic containers for family and friends.

The Makhanda water tax.

Water sits at the centre of all unrest in social and business premises in the city. Its uses and disposal is a constant source of controversy and anger. 

The city’s maximum pumping capacity of twelve megalitres a day leaves a huge shortfall of six megalitres worth of daily demand that has to be met by purchasing water from supermarket or getting it from some other source. The authorities have adopted the short term measure of rationing available water so that everyone at the very least gets some for their household needs, albeit at different timeslots. Taps are scheduled to run only for twelve hours in every forty-eight-hour cycle. This rationing program is however not reliable as Shade Tobias, a social worker at Ikaya Losizo orphanage notes: “we are supposed to get water one day on and one day off but on some on days, we don’t have any water at all … or it trickles at very low pressure for a few hours and then stops.” 

We heard the same complaint at the Ikaya Losizo, a foster home for homeless, abused, neglected and abandoned kids. House mother Chameletha Carme Fantelas told us that the water quality is really bad and the city’s water rationing schedule is hardly ever respected: 

You can’t drink the water that is coming out of the taps because it is really dirty. You can literally see brown and green stuff in the water. They say we can boil it, cool it off and drink but still, we’ve had incidents where children and I myself fell sick. We had stomach problems and diarrhoea and so on. 

Chameletha explained that to ensure steady supply, they either have to buy water, get it from Gift of the Givers or from the fountain at the city entrance. The home stores water in Rainwater (Jojo) tanks when the Gift of the Givers (a relief organization) water trucks come or they are forced to rely on the rain, and the rains rarely falls these days. 

Ikaya Losizo struggles to keep its doors open for 13 kids presently in its care. They have enough capacity for 21 kids distributed over three houses but the water crisis makes it difficult to operate at full capacity. Other old age homes and orphanages that we visited in Joza location during the time we were doing this story were also closed.

Ikaya Losizo's Chameletha Carme Fantelas shows that no water flows from the taps

Jack, the owner of a carwash explained that without water, they cannot work and this has serious implications on how they feed their families. For this reason, Makhanda residents are always angry. They cannot wait for the day when the R160 million upgrade project to increase the pumping capacity of the James Kleynhans Treatment Works from 10 to 20 megalitres a day is completed. The project was due for completion in September 2021 but the covid-19 pandemic delayed its progress. 

The scarcity of water from the taps has created a business opportunity for some local entrepreneurs. Some business owners have invested in storing, purifying and reselling municipal water at R1 a litre. Paying for water has been going on for so long that people have started putting aside part of their income for waster purchases. Jojo tanks are popping everywhere. This is a new water tax for the people of this rural town. This tax exists nowhere else in the country. It is business as usual to see people walking with 5 and 25 litre containers to purchase water. 

The climate change factor.

In the meantime, residents have also taken to watching the skies carefully for any signs of rain. Unfortunately, the Eastern Cape Province is in the midst of a multi-year drought. Ayanda Kota argues that the government has to recognise that more frequent droughts are signs of climate heating. He believes that the way in which water is produced and consumed in the country has to change completely:

One of the reasons why we are taking to the streets is because the governments of the world, including the South African government is not respecting the Paris Climate Agreement’s decision to cap warming below 1.5 degrees. And our economy is based on fossil fuels. Even this municipality has no mitigation plan. As I speak to you, the Settlers dam is dry due to drought. This drought is caused by the climate crisis. 

The UPM affirms that the climate crisis should be a number one priority for South Africa. They have vowed to take the issue to parliament and, if necessary, to join forces with other organisations and organise protests around the issue. The UPM argues that the poor, and women and children especially, are already feeling the full impact of climate change. This problem will get worse if nothing is done now. 

Problems with the sewage system

Untreated waste water spills onto lawns and streets.

As if the fight to have and use water is not difficult enough, Makhanda residents have an even bigger problem to resolve, namely the treatment and disposal of waste water and sewage. Sewage from burst pipes run into homes, flood the streets and create puddles everywhere. There are reports of leaked sewage causing some people to fall sick. The local municipality cannot keep up with repairs of broken pipes from the city’s very old infrastructure. This also leads to burst pipes causing potholes to develop on the poorly managed roads. A number of people have been forced to relocate, while others have seen the value of their property fall sharply as a result of stagnant and regular sewage in the neighbourhood. 

Ten residents recently took Makana Municipality before the High Court in Makhanda to force the local and national governments to solve the sewage crisis and give a permanent solution to the archaic and overloaded sewage system of this historic town. The taxi driver associations have organised a number of protests to decry the poor state of roads in the town. The administration has committed to and allocated fund for upgrades to the Makana Bulk Sewer and the Mayfield Waste Water Treatment plants. 

While the administration and people of Makhanda continue to battle over which administration and method is best to get the town’s water infrastructure up-to-date, nature has offered a hand of relief to the town’s people. A few weeks ago, it rained in some parts of the province, though not heavily. While more rains are needed to increase damn levels, Day Zero has been pushed back a few weeks. However, more needs to be done by local authorities to make Makhanda smile again.