When the sun rises, Zed Gana is the first to cross the dangerous ravine in KwaNobuhle, Uitenhage. He crosses it twice a day to get to and from work because he has no bus fare. “It is too muddy and wet. Last week a learner was stabbed here,” he said.
The Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, which also covers Uitenhage, has been criticised for failing to replace the bridge over the deep gully, which washed away more than 10 years ago.
The crossing is directly opposite the Solomon Mahlangu High School and is the only way for learners from the Tyoks village and Khayelitsha shack settlements to get to school. Using the gully saves them between R200 and R400 per month in taxi fares, although there is another way to reach the high school and the rest of KwaNobuhle.
The alternative route is an extra 3km each way via Jabavu Street and Mabandla Road, which is not feasible for school pupils and workers who, at that point, have already walked up to 4km from their homes to the gully.
Olwethu Noda, who is in grade 12 and Zolani Xaji, a college student, described crossing via the gully as “very difficult”.
“When it rains the water is knee high. We take off our shoes and socks and roll up our trousers. It is very cold and we all get sick”, Noda said, explaining that he’s previously been robbed of his school lunch and his cellphone in the area. “We know that criminals are raping girls here. There are so many victims,” he added.
The muddy way to school
The crossing area is surrounded by dense bushes that provide cover for criminals. “The government must replace this bridge. We so wish they would do that. It would be very nice and very helpful,” said Xaji.
A group of seven teenaged girls habitually cross together. They pull each other out of the gully after trudging through the muddy water at its bottom. They wear immaculate yellow-and-black school uniforms and sport carefully done hairstyles. They climb up the muddy gully with just minutes to go before the school bell rings. When they reach the top they’re all out of breath. They can’t cross any earlier in the day because it is still dark and they would be vulnerable to criminals.
Dusting and scraping mud off their hands, grade nine learners Lathitha Yeki and Ongezwa Maloni said “at times we feel a bit scared to cross. The mud is always wet and we fall.”
“Since we are females we are always most targeted. Criminals hide and even rob us of our shoes,” said Yeki.
“If only the bridge could be built we would be really pleased,” Maloni added.
Campaigning for the bridge
Phumla Runeli is the chairperson of the Makukhanye Women’s Forum, which is leading the campaign for a new bridge. “We want a very secure bridge. It must be a footpath only, built above the ravine so that everyone can see the people who are walking on it,” she said.
The forum has told the municipality that the bridge needs to be fully enclosed with see-through wire mesh fencing and equipped with lighting and CCTV cameras, monitored by the nearby police station.
“My neighbour Nkosinathi Nkandla was murdered here. They slaughtered him like a cow and dropped him on the floor of the ravine afterwards. Nobody was ever arrested and there was no support for his family,” Runeli said.
An elderly woman, Florence Majola arrives while the groups of learners are crossing. She exclaims loudly when she sees the pool of water at the bottom. Majola also makes the trip twice a day, to and from her job as a domestic worker. She crosses back after work at 5.30pm, when the sun has already set.
“I have had enough. I am very stressed today. My high blood pressure is too much,” she said. “I am a mother going to work for my children but every morning I must pray that I cross safely. Enough is enough!”
Majola takes a long time to climb out the other side of the ravine, finding her way carefully through rocks and around bushes.
If Majola, or anyone else, fell while climbing and broke a limb, it would be very difficult for emergency services to help them quickly, said Runeli. She added that if someone fell when no one else was crossing, that person would likely be set upon by criminals, or only found at the end of the school day.
Runeli is also on the governing body of Solomon Mahlangu High School, where she has the support of its teachers and principal for the forum’s campaign for a replacement bridge.
Horror, crime and the ravine
The high school principal, Mncedi Mtengwana, described a terrible day for the school when a female pupil was dragged into the bushes by criminals while she crossed the ravine. She was beaten and raped all night. The next morning, she was dumped in the middle of the ravine, unconscious. She was hospitalised immediately after she was found.
“That really shocked us. I have personally lobbied all the councillors, but still a bridge has not been built. We will even organise our learners to march there to make sure the bridge happens,” Mtengwana said.
Themba Ngqondi, a teacher and teacher liaison officer, says the school is grateful that the women’s forum has taken up the campaign, and that it had held one protest at the ravine.
“We thank them for this initiative. We have so many bad reports of daylight robbery from unruly robbers. Recently a grade 10 learner was stabbed there. Luckily he did not die, but he is recovering slowly. We are very concerned and worried as we are in loco parentis to these children while they attend school,” she said.
It seems that most people in the community have been affected by the ravine. Nonkosinathi Fila of the Makukhanye Women’s Forum said her son had his cellphone stolen there in 2016 by two men who held a gun to his chest. The pastor of her church was robbed there in February 2019 by men armed with spears.
“Another resident robbed and attacked there is now in a wheelchair,” she added.
The councillor for Ward 44, Nomsa Booi of the ANC, said that the council has agreed to build the bridge and that work will start on it before the end of August.
However, the budget for the bridge is still in dispute. Runeli said the municipality’s engineer had advised the women’s forum that between R500 000 and R700 000 was available and that the forum should accept this. But the forum wants a concrete arch bridge similar to a prefab green bridge that was hoisted into place on Sunday in Baakens Valley in Nelson Mandela Bay, which cost about R8 million.
“We need, demand and deserve to get that bridge. Council must listen carefully to us as a community. We don’t want another bridge that will collapse after five years,” Runeli said, adding that the forum and the school did not want to be advised by the municipality’s engineer to accept a low-cost bridge that was not fit for purpose and did not protect the community.
“We don’t need that advice,” she said, adding that if the municipality imposed the wrong kind of bridge on the community, “it will be a war”.