Kowa, formerly known as Elliot, is a four-hour drive from East London through winding mountain passes. Set in the foothills of the southern Drakensberg mountains, the area is tranquil and beautiful. But the town is in a state of collapse, leaving its working class and impoverished residents in a terrible predicament.
Dumile Mvulane, Kowa’s municipal manager, has been suspended and is currently facing allegations of corruption and nepotism after NT Vuba Attorneys released a report in December 2018. The investigation found that Mvulane appointed an acting chief financial officer who worked for 10 months without permission from a member of the executive council, even though the council had resolved to advertise the position. Mvulane had personal relationships with his appointees, which violates the Municipal Systems Act, and he appointed people to positions but allowed them to work in other roles, “thus creating a huge risk for the municipality”. There were also instances of irregular expenditure.
An official sent by the provincial government in Bisho to identify financial irregularities is allegedly receiving death threats as he tries to solve the town’s problems.
The victims of Mvulane’s corruption can be found in the oldest township in Kowa, Old Location. A new sewerage plant with expensive solar power and generator equipment was built in Kowa in 2016. But it has not operated in three years because of disputes over who should work there. A working sewerage system is desperately needed in Old Location, which is about five kilometres away from this deserted facility. Effluent forms pools in the streets, spurting out of underground pipes described by residents as “rotten”. During last year’s drought, precious potable water leaked into the sewage to form foul rivers.
Exposed to waste
Nonkoliso Mbundana, 51, has lived in Old Location since 1991 with five other people, including her sister Lindiwe Mbundana, 54, daughter Khayakazi Mbundana, 27, and three small children. The house has battered window frames, crumbling walls and large gaps between the doors, walls and ceilings. There is no floor. The house stands directly on the bare ground. The family has no electricity or running water. On a cold day, they warm themselves by a fire made in a drum. This is also where they cook. None of the family members is employed. They all survive off small social grants.
Old Location is built on a hill that slopes down to the Slang River. The sewage flows downhill, through the homes, forming a fetid swamp at the bottom. The 30 families, including the Mbundanas, who live next to the river are the worst affected. Nonkoliso and Lindiwe have both had tuberculosis for the past eight months and speak through racking coughs. The children all have sores on their heads. Khayakazi’s toddler son has sores that have formed a thick, hot crust, which oozes pus and covers the back of his head. A few days later, the little boy is diagnosed with an infected scalp and begins a course of antibiotics.
The family did not expect to be living here long. “This house was abandoned. It was an old clinic a very long time ago. We were put here by the clinic sister because we were homeless and suffering. But now we have sewage coming up to our knees … Our little ones are very sick. They get chest problems and are admitted to the hospital … There is nothing that the municipality is fixing here. We have to dig … to drain the sewage,” said Nonkoliso.
“This house leaks all the time,” said Khayakazi. “Sewage comes inside the bedrooms. My son has sores on his head, which never heal. A man came from government and took photos but didn’t do anything about our situation … We want a house. We don’t like this place, but we don’t have an option. We tried to talk to our councillor but nothing.”
George Nqoko, paralegal at the Elliot Advice Office, said government owns public land in Kowa and could build houses in a suitable area to move the families out of the swamp.
“The problem is that officials take people for granted in this area. This house is not safe in many ways. Any criminal can push this rotting door in and rob them. The government needs to look after these people because they are the same as other people – they have rights,” said Nqoko.
The residents have wondered to Nqoko if perhaps they aren’t worthy of decent housing, and this is why they have found themselves living in a sewage swamp.
Trash, sewage and mud
The town is run by the ANC. Garbage is not collected and builds up in huge mounds, mixing with the sewage, completely blocking at least one road in Old Location. When asked why they don’t protest, the residents said they would be accused of openly defying the ANC. The families in the area seem afraid of the ruling party.
Some Old Location families still live in the same mud houses they built as temporary dwellings during apartheid. Mud house owner Mnikelo Tywhili, 46, said: “We live like pigs here. There is no one who looks after us. The government needs to take us out of this area to a better place where we can have nice houses.”
One of the problems is that the municipality does nothing to remove the sewage sludge, which keeps building up, Nqoko said.
Nomsa Nanamba, 49, lives in the row of houses right on the river. “It smells so much. If a bulldozer can come and clean, it would not cost them a lot,” she said.
Local religious leader Boyi Ntaba, 71, owns the only newly built two-bedroomed house in the area, slightly higher up the hill. He said the government built him a new house because he went to the provincial legislature in Bisho to complain about his mud house. “It has a toilet inside and no problems because they put those big pipes,” he said. “There is nothing that comes unless you go to Bisho to complain. When Chris Hani District [municipal staff] was here last year they said these pipes are rotten all over this place and that is why they are leaking. We told them to install new pipes, but they said they can’t do anything. It is wrong, yoh!”
An elderly resident voiced her annoyance with their councillor, Tenjwa Doda of the ANC, describing him as “not right in the head” for failing to improve their lives.
But Doda said he has no individual power or budget to have a new sewage system installed. He claimed to have advocated upgrades to Old Location’s infrastructure. “Applications have been done to the provincial government for new pipes. We are just waiting,” said Doda.
He adds that Kowa has many problems. “The children have to travel long distances to school from Old Location. They walk one and a half hours each way in snow in the winter. Elliot is known for its cold. The department of education is supposed to help needy pupils to move from one place to another.”
Another problem is that Kowa has to share its revenue with Cala, a town about 50 kilometres away, as both fall under the Sakhisizwe local municipality. “Elliot people are used to paying for services. But Cala people are not. Eighty percent of the municipality’s revenue comes from Elliot residents but we have to share. That is why we are seeing the streets deteriorating because the money is coming from Elliot but it is not enough to maintain both towns,” said Doda.
Court action against the municipality
There have been political disputes between the residents of Kowa and Cala for some time, with a group from Cala allegedly opposing the previous mayor, Siyabulela Nxozi, who was from Kowa. When Nxozi was removed, local newspapers reported that Kowa residents shut down the municipal offices demanding his return. But residents of both towns called for Mvulane to be suspended.
Lwazi Ncapayi works at the Cala University Students Association (Calusa), a local advocacy organisation formed in 1983 by newly released political prisoners. They had been locked up by the apartheid government for leading the 1976 student uprising in the area. He said the problems go far beyond any alleged Kowa-Cala town rivalry.
“This municipality is dysfunctional and in a crisis,” Ncapayi said. Calusa made a request to the municipality about a year ago under the Promotion of Access to Information Act for all the annual, financial and audit reports, municipal tender records and minutes of council meetings from 2000 onwards. But the municipality never provided them with the information.
“We are of the view that the municipality should be dissolved. We need an administrator to assess the state of the municipality and redirect the budget towards service delivery. But we also want the court to appoint a special master who can oversee the implementation of the new budget, and make sure that the recommendations are carried through,” Ncapayi said.
Calusa had written 30 letters to Cogta, the public protector and the municipality since October 2018 calling for an intervention. Ncapayi said Calusa had now engaged lawyers to bring a court action, which it is hoped will result in the municipality being put under administration.
The Chris Hani district municipality, which includes Sakhisizwe and seven other local municipalities, did not respond to any questions.