Photo: Ayanda Ndamane African News Agency (ANA) – A municipal workers is seen with a long pipe lodged down a hole in a project aimed to jet-clean 200km of sewers. Infrastructure has fallen victim to war, lack of electricity, and poor maintenance in the country, the writer says.
By Gwinyai Taruvinga
Over the last few weeks, there have been several debates surrounding South Africa’s water provision considering that several cholera outbreaks have been reported in parts of the country.
In March, the Department of Health refuted claims that Gauteng’s water was unsafe for consumption with the department’s spokesperson stating that these allegations were pernicious.
At the time of the department’s statement, five cholera cases had been recorded in the region.
A cholera outbreak was recorded in Hammanskraal, Tshwane, where, as of this week, the death toll from the disease stood at 23 with 48 people reported to be in hospital. It has also been noted that more than 200 people have, since the middle of May, been attended to at the Jubilee District Hospital.
Such is the magnitude of the crisis at hand that the public has been warned to avoid consuming water suspected of being contaminated.
Many key thinkers who have written about and studied cholera often argue that the disease is easily avoidable as it requires citizens to have access to clean water resources.
The last cholera outbreak to affect the Southern African region was experienced in Zimbabwe in 2008. This outbreak in Zimbabwe was because of a collapsed economy and dilapidated water infrastructure which saw citizens going for long periods without access to water.
These elements made the country ripe for a cholera outbreak. The cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe resulted in more than 98 000 cases and more than 4 000 deaths being reported.
The current South African scenario has similar elements, especially when analysing the impacts of poor infrastructure on water governance.
The late former minister of water affairs, Edna Molewa, during her tenure, stated that the country needed close to R300 billion across the country to replace the ageing infrastructure.
To add context to the current debate, Molewa’s remarks were made 10 years ago — and very little has been done to address the ageing infrastructure.
To further illustrate the challenge at hand, load shedding has shown that there is a huge price to pay in the face of failing infrastructure.
In 1849, John Snow, who was a physician, proposed that cholera was not airborne, as many had believed, but revealed that the disease was waterborne.
At the time of this discovery, London had been hard hit by a cholera outbreak of a great magnitude. Due to Snow’s discovery, 1865 saw Joseph Bazalgette completing a complete overhaul of London’s sewer system which effectively saw cholera eliminated in England.
The upgrading of the system in London should serve as a lesson for South Africa on the importance of having infrastructure that is continually upgraded to ensure it functions effectively.
Over the years, cholera has become better understood and there is more information on how the disease can be avoided and how people can be treated if they contract the disease.
Cholera in many cases, speaks to a failed governance system which results in the failure to maintain infrastructure.
As a disease, it can easily be avoided by ensuring citizens have access to clean running water.
The events from Hammanskraal are a clear indication of a governance system that has failed, especially seeing that the province affected is one of the wealthiest in the country.
One of the other contributors to the cholera outbreak is the corruption that has often been associated with municipalities in South Africa.
In 2019, for example, a tender amounting to R295 million was awarded to businessman, Edwin Sodi, who was believed to have strong links with the ruling ANC.
Sodi did not deliver on the tender that was issued to him and this can be seen to have contributed to the cholera currently being witnessed in Tshwane.
Had the tender been issued to an entity that would have delivered, one can argue that there would be no cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal.
Over the last few years, especially with the advent of load shedding, several municipalities have often encouraged citizens to use water sparingly as the incessant power cuts have affected the pumping of water to households.
When this is taken into consideration, the events in Hammanskraal could easily spill over into other municipalities around the country.
The lack of progress in addressing water and sanitation challenges is often one of the main contributors to the spread of cholera in many countries.
In less affluent countries like Yemen, infrastructure has fallen victim to war, lack of electricity, and poor maintenance. In addition to this, it is believed that 16 million people lack access to safe water and sanitation and, again, this has made the country conducive for an outbreak.
The events in Hammanskraal where there has been a needless loss of life are unfortunate and prove that there has been a massive failure in the governance of water resources.
The challenges that have caused this outbreak are clear and the government needs to meet the basic needs of the citizenry.
South Africa remains one of the beacons of hope when it comes to constitutionalism but the events in Hammanskraal undermine this.
It is, therefore, important that the South African government puts in place measures to address the crisis at hand.
*Gwinyai Taruvinga is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Wits Humanities Graduation Centre