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Johannesburg's water crisis is the latest blow to South Africa's 'world-class city'

South Africans have had to line up for water as the country's largest city, Johannesburg, confronts a collapse of its water system affecting millions of people.
Jerome Delay
/
AP
South Africans have had to line up for water as the country's largest city, Johannesburg, confronts a collapse of its water system affecting millions of people.

JOHANNESBURG — Lungile Khoza is at her wits' end. The mother of four has been without water at her home for three weeks, the kids are dehydrated and sick, and she can't run her small hair salon so she's losing money.

Khoza, 37, lives in Soweto, a sprawling township of Johannesburg, which is among the areas worst hit by a water crisis in the city. She says there are sometimes government trucks distributing water, but it often runs out before you make it to the front of the line.

Then she says, the water seems to cause stomach problems for her family, but — to add insult to injury — she can't even boil it because she's often also without electricity.

Khoza doesn't hesitate when asked who she blames for the current crisis.

"Our government is failing us, our government is so failing us," she says. "It's not getting better, it's getting worse."

Johannesburgadvertises itself as "a world-class African city," but a breakdown in basic services has many of its more than 5.5 million residents seething. About half of its population has been without water or suffering water shortages for weeks. With a national election set for May, South Africa's governing party could be punished for it at the polls.

Soweto, once home to anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, has always been a stronghold of the governing African National Congress (ANC) party.

But Khoza says she won't be voting for them in the coming elections, and she says a lot of other Sowetans are saying the same.

"If someone votes for ANC now, that person will be out of her mind or his mind because it's failing us," Khoza says.

Numerous recent polls have shown the ANC getting below 50% of the vote in elections on May 29 — for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Analysts say corruption scandals, record unemployment, and the failure to ensure basic services like water and electricity account for the once-storied party's dwindling popularity.

World-class city?

South Africa's state-owned power company, Eskom, triggers planned blackouts in Johannesburg and other parts of the country, which it calls "load-shedding," saying it needs to ease pressure on the overstretched electricity grid — sometimes for as long as 10 hours a day.

Now, city residents have added a new bleak term to their lexicon: "water-shedding."

And there are other signs of decay: Trash lies uncollected for days and the streets are riddled with potholes, which some frustrated citizens have taken to spray-painting with the ironic tagline: "Thank you ANC."

The failing infrastructure does not discriminate and has affected people of all incomes and across racial lines, from the rich leafy suburbs to the bustling townships.

Residents of the township of Soweto, South Africa, try to get water on March 16.
Jerome Delay / AP
/
AP
Residents of the township of Soweto, South Africa, try to get water on March 16.

The wealthy, unable to rely on the municipality, are going off-grid; digging boreholes, buying water storage tanks and installing solar panels. They are emigrating, with "For Sale" littering the verges outside their homes, or "semigrating" — a tongue-in-cheek term for those leaving for Cape Town, which is governed by the main political opposition and operates more smoothly.

For most residents of Soweto — where ramshackle convenience stores display hand-painted advertisements for junk food; a tailor has set up his sewing machine business on the sidewalk; a muthi, or traditional medicine shop, flogs "cures" for all ailments; and a funeral home advertises named "Obama tombstones" — leaving is hardly an option.

Moses Mabaso, a 46-year-old security officer, has finally found a place to fill up his buckets — one house in the Soweto area of Meadowlands that still has municipal water. The kind owner is allowing people to fill up for free and they are coming in their dozens with wheelbarrows and buckets.

"We need water for everything, without water there's no life. So it's a challenge, it's terrible, we cannot say we're celebrating Human Rights Day," he says, noting a March 21 national holiday, "when we don't have the basic right, which is access to water."

What's gone wrong?

Even though city officials acknowledge that half of residents face water outages or shortages in recent weeks, Johannesburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda has mostly denied there is a water crisis.

His office blames a heat wave for surging demand, as well as events out of the municipal government's control — like a lightning strike at a water pump station at the start of March.

"It is not often that you have a disruption that affects 50% of your supply area, in so far as water supply is concerned, so in this particular instance the disruption which we witnessed on the 3rd of March is an unforeseen incident," the mayor's spokesperson, Mlimandlela Ndamase, tells NPR.

But experts say the problems are mainly due to unmaintained infrastructure like broken pipes, as well as electrical outages at pump stations.

Soweto residents carry jugs and bottles to fill up with water, March 16.
Jerome Delay / AP
/
AP
Soweto residents carry jugs and bottles to fill up with water, March 16.

"Overall ineptitude, deficiency of transparency and accountability, as well as little to no political will, has exacerbated the ever-expanding water crisis," says Anja du Plessis, an associate professor and water expert at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.

"The continued dysfunctional and inept state of the local municipality, ongoing lack of service delivery, poor and uninformed water governance, as well as continued lack of political will of government ... are the primary factors of concern," she says.

Back in Soweto, Zanele Sithole, a 52-year-old activist, says going without water is a major problem for the sick or elderly.

"The elderly, they are affected because for some of them hygiene is key, based on their diseases," she says, adding that her mother has cancer and needs to avoid endangering her immune system.

Frequent power cuts are also a problem, and can even be a matter of life and death.

"Some of them are using those oxygens that they keep in the fridges and when there is no electricity that means that they have to suffer," She says.

"Two weeks back somebody told me that their granny ended up dying because of that."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kate Bartlett