Water, water, everywhere — but only for the white Transvaal town of Balfour. But, only two kilometres away in Siyathemba, there was not a drop to drink.
For eight months, from October last year until May this year, the 60 000 people of Siyathemba township were without water. Meanwhile, in the nearby white town of Balfour, people sipped tea, swam in their swimming pools and watered their gardens.
Last year, the white residents of Balfour voted for the Conservative Party (CP) to run the town. One of the first things the CP did was to cut off the water to Siyathemba.
The CP Council of Balfour said that they cut off water to the township because of the drought. There was only enough water for the white people in the town.
THE REAL REASON
The people of Siyathemba say that this is not the real reason. They say that the CP cut the water off because they do not like black people living so close to them.
By cutting off the water, the CP hoped that black people would not come to live in the township — and that many would move away.
But the people did not move away. They stayed and came together to fight the CP’s racist policies — and in the end they won!
Learn and Teach drove the 90 kilometres south-east of Johannesburg to meet the people of Siyathemba. They told us about the long, dry months and about how the power of unity and organisation brought the water back to the people.
“WHITE” WATER “
We were angry when the Balfour Town Council turned the water off,” says a young resident of Siyathemba. “People were having to go into Balfour to buy water. White residents from Balfour were telling us: “Jy mag nie die ‘wit water’ bruik nie” — (You mustn’t use ‘white water’). And black children found in Balfour with buckets of water were sjambokked by white residents.
“Going into town to buy water caused many problems for the community — carrying water back to the township, transport costs, and finding good containers to transport the water in. The price of 25 litres of water was R1. And the transport also cost R1. People were spending about R3 per day for their water.
“Most of the people in Siyathemba are unemployed and could not afford to pay for water. These people had to use water from the water wells. The water in the wells is very dirty and caused sickness — and sometimes even death.
A BABY DIES
Lindiwe Mdaki was three years old when she drowned in a water pit. Lindiwe’s mother, Jumaima, told us how it happened: “It was during the time when there was no water. I was at the hair salon at the time. One of the young girls was looking after my child. She came to tell me that someone found my child’s body in the water well.
“Lindiwe went to the well because she was used to seeing all the residents going down there for water. There was no water at the time of the funeral and so we had to plead with the mayor to get us some.
“The pit was fenced up three days after the drowning and now it has been filled up with sand. But if those people didn’t turn the water off, my child would still be alive today.
THE ARMY’S PRESENT
“We knew that we had to do something to get our water — and our pride — back. That’s when we started to organise ourselves. We started the Siyathemba Water Crisis Committee. We all came together — youth, women’s organisations and other residents,” said a resident.
The Crisis Committee wrote a letter to the State President, P W Botha. They asked for help. The State President sent in ‘help’. The army — with two tankers of water.
But the water they brought in the tanks was just as bad as the water the people were getting from the wells — it was filthy dirty.
This was when the Crisis Committee turned to the South African Health Workers Congress (SAHWCO), an organisation of health workers. They fight against health problems caused by apartheid.
SAHWCO sent out a team of doctors, nurses and other health workers. They went to examine the health conditions in Siyathemba. They took water from the wells and the tankers and tested it. “
When we had the water tested by the South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR), we found that it was filthy,” says Dr Aslam Dasoo, a member of SAHWCO. “It was just like toilet water and it was full of insects and plant wastes. This water should not be drunk by humans. The dirty water was causing bad diarrhoea, bronchitis and malnutrition.
“The children suffered most of all. When people were fetching their water from the wells and the tankers, there were days when between 12 and 20 children were taken to hospital. Most were suffering from diarrhoea. The closest hospital is about 30km away in Heidelburg. At this hospital there are only eight beds for black children.”
SAHWCO wrote to the newspapers about the dangerous water. The Balfour and Siyathemba Town Councils said that it was not true that people were having to use water from wells. They said that the council never cut the water supply.
THE POWER OF UNITY
Now the water is flowing again in Siyathemba — and so is the spirit of unity and community organisation. The Crisis Committee has started working on new projects, like the sewerage problems and improving the clinic.
But this is only the beginning. There are still many battles to be fought — * especially for the 20 000 people who live in Siyathemba’s ‘squatter camp’, known as Wag Plek. The area is known by this name because the people were told to wait there for houses that the council promised to build for them. They are still waiting.
In Wag Plek, there is only one tap for 50 shacks. And there is no proper sewerage system. To fight these problems is an uphill battle.
But the water victory has made the people of Siyathemba thirsty for more victories — especially against the racist people who hang like a dark cloud over this country.