“Our lives and our livelihoods depend on this water. If we don’t have it, we don’t have anything.” These were the words of Zaphe Kani, one of the most respected members of the community. He was a teacher, and his words were followed by a startling silence that seemed to reverberate around the room. The community that had gathered in the church hall that day could sense that the problem was now beyond their control and they were also aware that anything they dared to try now may result in failure once again. The ominous silence was broken by the voice of MaNdlovu who led the hall in a hymn that marked the closing of that day’s sombre meeting.
Not more than a few miles away, Luvuyo sat watching the herd intently. Although it was still winter, his worries were calmed by the fact that summer was near and her rains might grace the pastures once again. Ten calves were to be born in summer and Luvuyo feared that the cows weren’t receiving enough nutrition. Even the grass that blanketed the Transkei mountains looked parched and yellow. This was a sign that winter was still in session and the absence of the rain proved this. They had already roamed 15Km away from the kraal and the grass in the fields was disappearing rapidly.
He knew that with the help of irrigation the problem could be alleviated, however water stoppages at the communal tap had beeen occuring for weeks and unfortunately the cattle were beginning to suffer. As he kept a watchful eye on the herd, Luvuyo’s mind cast back to his Natural Science class. It was within that cramped classroom that he had learned about the water cycle and by the end of the lesson he realized that without water there would be no life. Luvuyo pondered about the water stoppages and the woman who was responsible for them. This woman was known as the Engine Operator and she was an ex-official member of the water committee.
The Engine Operator was in charge of the generator that distributed water from the borehole to the resevoir of Luvuyo’s disrtict. Luvuyo had often heard the complaints of his neighbours who accused the Engine Operator of malpractice and selfishness. When Luvuyo asked his father why nobody in the village tried to thwart the Engine Operator’s actions, his father made it very clear that it was not the nature of rural people to stand up to those who had more power than them. Luvuyo could identify with this however the education he received at school taught him that the people of this country had fought courageously for a democratic government and it was not a crime to voice one’s grievances to authority. In fact, Luvuyo had learned that it was the honourable thing to do in order to make society a better place.
The shadows of the mountains began to stretch signaling the arrival of dusk. It was time to return to the kraal and Luvuyo realised how hungry he had become. As he gathered his herd, he was greeted by Nomalanga who was carrying a few buckets. The direction she came from indicated to him that she had just returned from a visit to the communal tap. It was no surprise when he realised that not a single bucket was full of water.
Nomalanga had visited the communal tap during the times specified by the water committee and each visit was futile. She could not understand how the water commitee who were members of the village themselves could allow the Engine Operator to target ceratin households and punish them by causing water stoppages. As Nomalanga walked home, she dread the reaction of her mother when she would have to inform her that there was no water. At ten years of age, Nomalanga who performed all the house chores was aware that water was vital for their existence. The water commitee had made a rule that only 25 Litres of water was allowed per person in a day and like other families in their village, they made sure that they used each Litre wisely.
The absence of water concerned Nomalanga more than usual however because she would be attending a funeral very soon. Funerals and other traditional social gatherings required vast amounts of water and although families tried their best to conserve water, the potential of it running out was always a huge threat. Nomalanga who had only been outiside the parameters of her own village twice wished that her own village could have access to the running water she had seen in the towns she visited. She was ceratin that girls her age also had less to worry about because they could focus more of their attention on their schoolwork instead of taking time consuming trips to the communal tap. Nomalanga felt the familiar sense of hopelessness as she drew closer to home. If there was a solution to this problem what was it and when would her community enjoy the promise of “Water for all”?
Owen Jali had been anticipating the return to his village for weeks. Although he had become accustomed to the city life of Johannesburg, he always felt it necessary to visit his place of birth. Of course it was to see his family, but Owen also enjoyed the rush of excitement and nostalgia he felt whenever he drove past the villages of his childhood. LIfe in the rural areas was not easy and it was in fact in his adult years that he began to understand the true suffering of his community. In the city, life progressed quickly and the standard of living rapidly too. His career had trained him to look for areas of improvement and he realised that his village needed some improving. Owen had heard of the problems his community was facing regarding the distribution of water and he felt that it was time for an intervention.
Owen arrived during the day and when he began to see the huts that rested on the mountain slopes he really felt he was home. Upon his arrival, his family gave him the warmest of welcomes and they doted on him as though he were visiting for the first time. They even slaughtered a chicken to thank te ancestors for his safe arrival. It had been long since he had had his favourite dish of chicken feet. Once he had eaten, he conversed with his mother aboutthe problems the community was facing. When he had heard all he had needed to hear, he felt that it was necessary to speak to the representatives of the Chief as well as the Chief himself.
It was disappointing to hear that the Engine Operator, a woman, was responsible for these water stoppages. She knew how difficult it was to run a household and just because she received a stipend from the company contracted by the local district municipality didn’t give her allowance to abuse the system. It was even more disheartening to hear that she completely disregarded the role of the water committee as well as the chiefs who were in every essence the leaders of the community.
The Engine Operator had to respect the rules and procedures agreed upon by the water commitee. If they decided that water is to be distributed from the communal tap at a particular time she needed to respect this and do her job. Owen scheduled a meeting with the chiefs and he was informed about a misunderstanding that occured as a result of an intervention by a particular household. This household reported the Engine Operator to the Chief’s representatives who eventually involved the contractor who was resposible for employing the Engine Operator as stipulated by the district municipality. This misunderstanding caused a lot of tension and the conclusion was that the contractor urged the community to give the Engine Operator a chance to improve her operations.
When Owen returned that evening he knew that there was only one thing left to do. The community feared to stand up for their rights but Owen was going to convince them that this was the right thing to do. He decided to call a meeting organized by the chief where the members of the community could discuss their concerns and also formulate a plan of action to overcome the problems.
Owen knew that previous meetings had failed but he was determined to make a difference with this meeting. He also thought of solutions that he could contribute to the meeting. He noted that water should be supplied by electricity to each individual household by a service provider. He also noted that a water commitee should still be elected however they should also be trained on water and human rights. Gideon also suggested that the community be educated at large about water conservation and sanitation. Owen surveyed his page of suggestions and smiled with satisfaction to himself. The first step to solving the problem would be in helping the community to work together as a unit. When Owen arrived at this thought he was reminded of the Nguni proverb that says “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which essentailly means that on my own I am nothing but with the help of others anything can be accomplished.
From the author:
The characters in this story are fictional however the issues outlined are based on real incidents. This story is set in the Eastern Cape Province and it is based on the lives of the people who live in the rural Joe Gqabi district municipality which is a part of the eLundini local municipality. The issues discussed in the story are based on the experiences of the people who live in Mathafeni Village in eZingonyameni Administrative area in Mount Fletcher, South Africa.
By Nandi Majola