Kids sleep at school after fetching water all night
Villagers have now gone to court to demand municipality gives them the resource they desperately need
Eastern Cape maths teacher Lunga Sathalaza wants to offer the best possible education for his pupils – but he often finds many children fast asleep during his lessons.
These pupils are not tired because they were up all night watching TV, or playing on their phones.
They are exhausted because they spend hour upon hour in the middle of the night at the local dam filling up drums and bottles so that their households can have water to drink and cook with and for bathing.
Sathalaza is a maths, history and geography teacher at Mseleni Junior Secondary School in Mmangweni, a rural village in the Eastern Cape – a village that has gone to court to demand they receive their constitutional right to water.
“There are about 70 learners from Mmangweni in the classes that I teach,” Sathalaza said in an affidavit contained in the court papers.
“I see some of them asleep during my classes and I ask them why they’re sleeping. They tell me they had to wait a long time at idami [the local dam] to draw water, maybe from 7pm to 2am.
“I’m worried someone from the Department of Education will accuse me of not doing my job well because some of learners don’t pass. But I do teach. It’s just that some of the learners don’t hear me. They are sleeping because they have been up late waiting at idami for water.”
Sometimes, his affidavit continues, he asks lethargic and tired-looking kids what’s wrong.
“They tell me that they had to leave home without eating because there is no water for cooking,” he writes.
His is not the only account of the villagers’ plight contained in the court documents.Nobongile Soyini has lived in Mmangweni since 1995. The 45-year-old widow has to take care of her eight children and one grandchild – and this means spending large chunks of her day making the walk from her rondavel to the dam.
“The water situation is very bad here,” she says in an affidavit. “In the summer it is not as bad because the rain helps. But in the winter it hardly ever rains. I have to make many trips to idami and I have to wait long hours.”
Her routine involves going to the dam between 8am and 9am, when she fills up a 20-litre jug and takes the approximately 20-minute trek back home. It’s a process that can take three hours, depending on how many people are in the queue in front of her.
She then cooks using that water and, at about 2pm, goes back to the dam with her 20-litre jug and four 10-litre jugs, one for each of her school-going children.
Her children get home from school, eat, and then join Soyini at the dam to help her carry the water home. They only get home at around 7.30pm. That water is used for cooking and cleaning.
But, in order to make sure there is enough water for the morning, she has to make an early-morning trip back to the dam.
“I go back to idami at around 2am and wait around three hours to fill my jug up again. I use this water to cook breakfast for my children. I return to the dam that same day around 8am or 9am to start the process all over again,” Soyini wrote in her affidavit.The main applicant in the case is the Masiphathisane Committee, an organisation made up of residents from Mmangweni.
Vuyiswa Xazi, one of the committee members, is the second applicant – and her more than 100-page affidavit spells out the community’s struggles in the greatest depth.
“The residents of Mmangweni do not have access to sufficient [and] safe water to live a dignified and healthy life. Even at the best of times, most residents have too little water to meet their basic needs. We travel significant distances to gather dirty groundwater from drinking holes shared by livestock.
“We have repeatedly engaged with the [OR Tambo] district municipality and requested that it provide us with a basic supply of water. Our engagements have come to nothing.
“We cannot live this way any longer and have no option but to approach this court for urgent interim and medium to long-term relief,” Xazi says.
Through the case – lodged with the assistance of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) – the community wants it declared that the municipality’s failure to provide Mmangweni residents with 25 litres of potable drinking water daily “is unlawful and unconstitutional”.
It wants residents to be provided this water through providing (and filling monthly) water tanks and providing chlorine tablets or a similar product to ensure the water is clean. The water sources must be within 200m of the affected households.
The LRC said: “The court application will hopefully result in a court order directing the district municipality to supply, at minimum, 25 litres of water per person, per day, and to submit to the court a written plan for providing water on an urgent basis to all people within its jurisdiction who desperately need water.”
The matter is being opposed by the Nyandeni Local Municipality (the second respondent in the case), but was not immediately clear whether or not responding papers had been filed. The matter is set down for a hearing on June 28.