SOUTH AFRICA: Tired of waiting – frustration mounts over promised change

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MUSINA, 24 Feb 2006 (IRIN) – Every day, Mashudu Beauty Mukavhatsindi fetches water from an outdoor tap. To get there requires an ankle-twisting walk down a potholed road, past garbage-strewn lots that reek of human waste.

A resident of the Sihlala Nge Nkani informal settlement in the South African border town of Musina, 19-year-old Mukavhatsindi lives with her family in a “mokhukhu”, a tin shack without water, electricity, or sanitation.

“To be without water is very difficult, especially with children,” said Mukavhatsindi, a mother of a young son. “You need water for everything – drinking, washing, washing clothes, bathing. Water is life; without water, there is no life.”

On the other side of the settlement, 18-year-old Tsumbedzo Munyai walks five times a day to the neighbouring township where she fills a plastic bucket at a private home. Her family pays the owner of the house US $11.60 a month for both the water and the use of a wall outlet to recharge a mobile phone.

“But to go to the toilet, we must go in the bush, over there,” said Munyai, pointing to land surrounded by hundreds of households. Other families collect waste in buckets, and dump it on the fringes of the settlement.

Here in Musina, the conditions of the poor have left thousands of local residents frustrated by the slow rollout of housing and service delivery they had expected from the government after democratic elections in 1994.

Though President Thabo Mbeki recently promised that no South African community would be using the “bucket toilet” system by the end of next year – and that all households will have clean water and basic sanitation by 2010 – there is so-far little evidence of such progress in Sihlala Nge Nkani.

The community has staged several demonstrations in recent years, accusing a range of authorities – including municipal and border officials, police, and the army – of corruption, bribery, nepotism, rape, and the demand of sexual favours in exchange for services, money, housing, and jobs. The residents allege their calls for justice are ignored – or, worse, met with hostility by those they implicate.

Officials, however, say Sihlala Nge Nkani is an illegal settlement, where misguided individuals are actually preventing housing construction for the legitimate poor. They complain they are caught in a Catch-22, with the demand for housing and services far greater than can be met on their limited budget.

The tensions between Sihlala Nge Nkani residents and government officials illustrates the difficulty of providing shelter and services for the 2.4 million South Africans still in need of housing, a decade after the country’s first democratic elections.

Birth of a Settlement

Local residents started Sihlala nge nkani (‘We Stay by Force’) a year ago. They chose a plot of land on the fringes of Musina’s sprawling Nancefield townships, and in a matter of weeks the community had cleared the bush and marked out 750 individual plots measuring 18m by 22m.

“The community started to say, ‘We want a place we can stay’, because the municipality is not doing anything about housing,” said settlement founder, Charles “Sinkie” Makushu. “It was engineered; there are roads and places for everyone to make a nice stand in their own yard.”

A typical mokhukhu in Sihlala Nge Nkani

Until then, many residents had lived in Nancefield all their lives, often renting shacks in the tiny backyards of government-built house. For most, efforts to obtain their own subsidised housing had been fruitless.

Most blame corruption within the municipal government. Many recount stories about how they followed the proper channels for housing, repeatedly signing up on the municipality’s waiting list. Some say they were later told that their names were never on the records, while other say that when their houses were finally built, they were instead distributed to those friendly with – or able to bribe – local officials.

In October 2004, municipal housing authority staff Johannas Mulondo and Timothy Tshikhuto were arrested on charges of fraud and corruption. But Mulondo died a few months later, and the case was withdrawn in May 2005 due to insufficient evidence, according to Musina police. There is no further investigation.

A Chance to Bring His Children Home

Soyaphi Moses Xivambu, 43, said he first submitted his name to the municipality’s waiting list for government housing in 1994, only to have it disappear again and again from municipal records.

“Those in the municipality are not prepared to do anything, that’s why we are doing it ourselves,” said Xivambu, who earlier this month built his own mokhukhu from salvaged wood and tin.

For years, Xivambu rented another shack – without a roof – in the next township. He and his wife have six children, who until now have stayed with other families because of the lack of space.

“One of our children is in Polokwane with my sister, one is in the town of Elim, two are in Venda, and two are here in Musina, but staying with another family,” said Xivambu, a delivery driver who puts most of his $240 monthly salary towards school fees.

By building his own home – and eliminating the cost of rent – he hopes to bring the two or three youngest children to live with him.

“People are sick and tired, and they are even not registering to vote any more, because they say that they’re voting for nothing – except for those politicians to ride the gravy train,” Xivambu said.

Local government elections are due on 1 March, and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) – though in do danger of losing the ballot – is believed to be facing its sternest test yet as unquestioning support gives way to a degree of criticism from the poor over the pace of change.

The municipality contends that they are doing all they can to accommodate Musina’s 65,000 residents – including the 46 percent of adults who are unemployed. But they say Sihlala Nge Nkani is an illegal settlement, occupied by those wanting to delay the planned development of official subsidised housing.

“They are deliberately breaking the law,” insisted Musina Mayor David Phologa.

Phologa said the municipality will service the site – but not necessarily for the current residents. The mayor noted the municipality will continue to negotiate with the Sihlala Nge Nkani community, but said the land must be cleared before services can be delivered.

“Those people must get out, so we can put in pipes, because there is no way we can develop [when] they are there,” Phologa said.

Once new government housing is built, priority will go to the “4,000 law-abiding citizens who are currently on waiting lists”, with some special exemptions made for the elderly and orphans, he commented.

Phologa said the municipality also believed that some of the Sihlala Nge Nkani residents were not South Africans, but Zimbabweans from across the border who had entered the country illegally.

Many in Sihlala Nge Nkani are adamant that they are South African, and at a moment’s notice, dozens showed IRIN faded identity documents, some of which date back to 1958. They say municipal officials have repeatedly threatened – in public meetings and in writing – to evict them, and last year distributed pamphlets that said residents should “go back where you came from”.

Sinkie Makushu, founder of the settlement and outspoken critic of the local government

“The municipality gave us letters saying we had to get out within seven days, and then 14 days, but we’re still staying here,” said Irene Mundzelele, 53, before 150 people gathered at a meeting in the settlement.

She continued, “We’re telling the municipality, ‘We voted for you from 1994 to today, but you are forgetting us. We’re asking that you give us toilets and water, and that you mustn’t scare us anymore’.”

Sinkie Makushu, grandson of a former regional leader and the founder of Sihlala Nge Nkani, is among the staunchest critics of the local ANC leadership. He said those who live in Sihlala Nge Nkani are denied services and employment, and are routinely threatened by local government officials as a result.

“They call us rebels,” Makushu said. “We are being told by the municipality, ‘When we have won, we will remove you from this place, and by the end of March, you are out if you don’t vote for us’.”

He added, “They are trying to scare these people, but they are not scared.”

Alternatives to Eviction

Eviction of informal settlements is not the only option available to municipalities. National housing ministry spokesperson Mbivhuwo Mabaya said informal settlements are sometimes developed in situ, with residents remaining in their homes as services are delivered.

South African Human Rights Commission Chairperson Jody Kollapen said while informal settlements sometimes interfere with planned urban development, they are commonly a response to homelessness.

“Generally, residents of informal settlements construct some form of housing and provide their own accommodation, so there is quite a persuasive argument that at least basic services be made available,” said Kollapen. He added that governments planning evictions in order to further development should both relocate residents and clearly communicate a long-term plan.

Dangerous Conditions

Meanwhile, residents say they will not leave Sihlala Nge Nkani. Yet the lack of basic services means the area is increasingly unsanitary.

Such conditions often put communities at risk of disease, according to Dr Landon Myer, senior lecturer in the Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology unit at the University of Cape Town’s School of Public Health and Family Medicine.

Poor sanitation can in some cases lead to serious epidemics, including typhoid and cholera, he said, while even non-epidemic diseases, such as salmonella and diarrhoea caused by the e. coli bacteria, also could have serious health implications.

In 2005, untreated sewage triggered an outbreak of typhoid and diarrhoea in Delmas, northeast of Johannesburg.

“Children and the elderly are the two high risk populations for high morbidity and mortality from diarrhoea,” he said, adding that diarrhoea-related diseases are a leading cause of death among children in South Africa.

The Vhembe Municipal District – more than 100 km to the east – now drives a water truck to the settlement once a week, but it’s not enough to meet the daily water needs of 750 households, nor is it an answer to residents’ pleas for toilets and sanitation.

“Why is the government throwing stones at us?” asked David Mbedzi, 58. “We are also the sons of the president, sons of government and sons of the soil. Please, if the government can just help us with water and toilets, but they must help us as soon as possible.”

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2006

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One Response to “SOUTH AFRICA: Tired of waiting – frustration mounts over promised change”

  1. Tsolo historina nyalleng Says:

    i would like to hear more about the concepts “running water/fresh water and sanitation” in sihlala nge nkani musina