In a case reminiscent of David versus Goliath, impoverished residents of Ceres are being forced to choose between losing their indigent subsidies and accepting the installation of water management devices against their will.
This has resulted in the formation of a women-led organisation called the Fighting for Water Justice Coalition (FWJC) in this Western Cape town.
According to the FWJC, news started to make the rounds in 2016 that the Witzenberg Municipality was planning to install water management devices, but it did not happen then.
FWJC convenor Naomi Betana says a sad reality hit the nerve when they heard in a council meeting in 2018 that R2.7 million had been allocated for these devices.
She says that after the residents of Nduli, Bella Vista, Tulbagh, Woseley, Opdieberg and Prince Alfred Hamlet learnt about the impact these devices would have on their lives, they made it clear they would not accept them.
“They were told that if they don’t allow these devices in their homes, indigent grants would be stopped,” says Betana. Residents who have registered as low-income households with a municipality’s indigent programme are entitled to a certain amount of free water each month. “This is harsh. How can the government, that is supposed to take care of its people, do the opposite?”
Bella Vista resident Martha Lucas, 60, who lives with her two disabled granddaughters and two daughters, says she has lost her indigent subsidy for refusing to allow the municipality to install its blue-topped device.
“In September 2018, a municipality employee came with a form and explained that it is for a water device and that I must sign. I refused. I did not get my indigent grant the following month. I went to the Witzenberg Municipality offices to ask why my grant has been stopped. I was told that it was because I refused the installation of this device,” she says.
March to municipality
In October 2018, residents from the affected areas marched to the municipality and distributed a memorandum with a list of demands, says Betana. “We gave the municipality seven days to respond. But they never did.”
The list included a demand that the municipality stop installing and disconnect those devices already installed, she says. Also, that it leaves poor residents’ indigent status in place.
Betana says the issue was then put on the agenda for the next council meeting, when the ANC voted in their favour and proposed that devices should be for everyone, not just the poor.
The FWJC has consulted the Legal Resources Centre, a public interest law firm, for advice on the matter, says Betana.
A resident of the impoverished and dusty Prince Alfred Hamlet, which is situated beneath the Skurweberg mountain and consists of mostly shacks, Wilmar Louw, 42, says the municipality installed a water management device in her house in November, while she was at work.
“I came back from work and I was told to sign a form that was left with children. I signed, although I didn’t know what I was signing.”
She says she regrets signing that form now because if she had known the implications of doing so, she would not have signed it. “Water runs out now. I have four backyarders. We all share 50 litres of water. Now I’m a burden to my neighbours because I ask for water every day.”
The residents of Nduli, the majority of them black, have vowed to bring Ceres to a standstill if Witzenberg Municipality does not remove the devices it has already installed at the Vredebes housing project, where they are scheduled to live.
Nduli community leader Vusumzi Yisa, like Lucas and Louw, says they were not consulted before these devices were installed. “This is apartheid. Even the councillors were not informed,” he says.
Yisa says that since these devices were installed, the municipality has issued water bills consistently that range from R900 to R1 100 a month.
“This is not fair. Most of the houses here [in Nduli] belong to the old people who are dependent on pension grants,” he says.
Nduli says they did research and found that 300 litres would be allocated to each household a day.
“That is not going to be enough. They [the municipality] did not do their calculations correctly. The toilet uses seven litres each time you flush. If they are not going to remove those devices before we occupy our houses, there will be a shutdown,” Betana says.
Witzenberg Municipality did not respond to questions. But municipal manager David Nasson told GroundUp in October that the devices are meant to control water consumption as they are battling with water payment arrears of more than R50 million.
He said some residents “consider water a gift from God and therefore refuse to pay for the resource. Those who can afford to pay must pay for what they use.”
Betana says residents would understand if the area was facing Day Zero, a date marker for when it would run out of water. But “there is no water crisis here. We have Kouga Dam that is still full. What is unfair is that farms are allowed to use water as they please with no restrictions whereas they are the ones consuming most water. This is unacceptable.”
Two ANC councillors who spoke to New Frame on condition of anonymity confirmed the residents’ claim that they were not consulted about the installation of these devices.
“The DA is playing dirty politics at the expense of the electorate. They are micromanaging the council. They do as they please and take unanimous decisions to show that they are in control of the province. This is totally unfair to the poor. Imagine living on a water ratio allocated on a daily basis,” said one of the councillors.
The other councillor said they argued in vain at a council meeting when this matter was on the agenda. “We tried to reason with the DA. We told them that these areas in which these devices were going to be installed were like communes. We told them that other yards have six to 10 shacks. Did they listen? No. Instead, they went ahead and installed devices.”
Betana says the municipality is tying the provision of indigent subsidies to the water management devices. “If you don’t agree to sign for a device, then you can’t get the grant. This subsidy is from [the] national government, meant for poor households that cannot afford their full municipal account fees. Now Witzenberg is linking the two.”