Makhanda takes government to court over sewage problem

The residents of the Eastern Cape town are taking all levels of government to court over the raw sewage that continues to flood the town and the municipality’s failure to respond to reported incidents.

After two years of having raw sewage flooding their homes and backyards, residents of Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) in the Eastern Cape are launching legal action against the municipality.

“The sewage is running through different neighbouring residential properties, into our premises, in front of the classroom and it has formed a river of sewer water there,” Anneliese Maritz, the manager at Lebone Literacy Centre, stated in a letter.

Maritz’s literary centre houses the Little Red Dragon preschool, which she shut on 11 October until further notice because of the sewage flowing through its playground.

“At first, we took down a sign and put it over the sewage for the children to use as a bridge. But the sewage kept bubbling up out of the ground and under our walls,” Maritz wrote.

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Newly dug trenches and sandbag walls failed to keep the sewage at bay and when it was just about to enter the classroom, Maritz decided to close the crèche.

The sewage stopped flowing a week after she had shut the school, but she explained that it had contaminated the sand and the playground. She and her colleagues are attempting to clean it by sweeping it away and using drain cleaner. They are hoping to get rid of the remaining putrid pools by digging more trenches. Only when the sewage has been completely removed will the centre reopen.

“We also run an after-school programme here for vulnerable children, where they eat meals and do homework. But we had to shut that down, too,” Maritz says.

Ill-equipped technician

After numerous calls to the municipality, someone eventually arrived to fix the problem after seven days, says Maritz, recalling how the municipal technician used a steel rod to unblock the pipes. But the rod he used was the wrong size and could not remove all the blockages. 

Solomon Tyanase, 60, who works at the crèche, says the situation in the rest of the town is even worse. 

“Outside Nombulelo Secondary School in Joza location, the sewage pipes must have burst completely. [The sewage] is flowing down the street. Nobody can walk across the field there anymore as it is flooded. We phoned the municipality but nobody came to fix it,” he says.

Makhanda uses a smartphone app to report sewage spills. The Legal Resources Centre’s (LRC) Grahamstown office is representing residents in the court action and it has used the app to supply them with a map that illustrates the 107 complaints made in the first six months of 2019.

Additionally, the town is in the grip of a long drought and was declared a disaster area on 25 February. It needs 18 megalitres a day but by 20 September was being supplied only 0.5 megalitres a day, most of this from boreholes drilled by non-governmental organisation Gift of the Givers. At the moment, Makhanda is rationed to no water at all on Sundays and water between 6am and 6pm on alternate days during the week.

On 11 October, Joza’s water was cut off without warning, forcing the township residents to buy filtered water at a cost of R20 for five litres, or R5 if they bring their own containers.

Ntombizonke Vena, 59, a resident of Makhanda’s Extension 6, is dealing with the aftermath of a three-day sewage flood in her home. She has put various measures in place over the past two years to keep her property clean, after realising that she would have to take matters into her own hands when human faeces and an aborted foetus came up through a back-yard drain. 

After she blocked the drain, she dug trenches along her walls to prevent sewage from entering her home. But it has flown unabated from the drains nonetheless, into her kitchen and her lounge. 

Ruined lives

“The municipality doesn’t care, they don’t come!” she shouts. “We have no government here. You can see my furniture is ruined and the inside walls are rotten,” she says, pointing tearfully to the faeces-stained cupboards and walls inside her house.

“We must be given compensation for all this ruined furniture,” she adds.

LRC attorney Cecile van Schalkwyk says Vena’s story is not uncommon. Currently involved in finalising the court application brought by Vena and 11 others on behalf of residents, she explains: “Our application is to compel the municipality and national and provincial government to take immediate steps to remedy the sewage spills as soon as they happen.” 

The LRC wants septic tank drainage trucks, popularly known as “honeysuckers”, to be deployed to clean up spills when the department receives a complaint.

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It is also demanding that municipal technicians are equipped with the correct tools to successfully unblock pipes for at least a few months. It hopes to compel the municipality to contain spills and treat the sewerage problem as a matter of urgency. 

The final part of the LRC application asks for finances to be set aside to upgrade two of Makhanda’s wastewater treatment plants. At the moment, one of these plants no longer chlorinates or purifies the waste water before releasing it into nearby rivers. Both have been functioning beyond capacity for years, according to the LRC, and neither is completely functional.

“Literally, raw sewage goes straight into the rivers,” says Van Schalkwyk. “And the sewage in the town affects peoples’ health.”

Municipal nonchalance

She says the municipality has been ignoring residents. “The people in this community could not have done more to get this issue sorted out,” she adds, explaining that the municipality has not responded to a single letter from the LRC asking for action to be taken.

Other parts of town that are affected include Fingo township, where a foul stench pervades the air at a field that used to be the training ground for local soccer teams. Sewage spills have turned the field into a swamp that even goats avoid.  

This the second court case this year in Makhanda against poor service delivery. The Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM) filed a high court application in February asking for the municipality to be dissolved for failing to deliver basic services, and for the provincial government to place the town under administration. The case was heard in September and judgment is expected soon.

“This municipality is really failing people because of corruption, because they think the ANC is the alpha and omega and because they only account to the party, not to the people,” says UPM leader Ayanda Kota. 

He adds: “The corruption in Makhanda has eroded the capacity of the state to meet its constitutional obligations. We will continue to put the necessary pressure on government. We know our rights and are able to fight for our humanity and dignity.”

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Gubevu Maduna, the manager of water and sanitation at the municipality, said he would send another team to the creche as he did not want the health of children to be at risk. 

Regarding the rest of the town, Maduna said: “We do have sewage problems and attend to such as they come. We try by all means to have a 12 hours turn-around time but certain problems leads to a much longer turn-around time. 

“Perhaps we must also understand that the issue of the ongoing drought also contribute to the many sewage spillage as our sewage network often dries out resulting in settling of solids within system and therefore causing blockages”. 

Maduna added that the municipality’s short term plan was to identify bottlenecks and carry out routine maintenance on these. 

He said in the long term, the municipality had submitted an application to the national department of water and sanitation to upgrade the bulk sewer infrastructure and was waiting for their reply.

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