No water for rural poor in a time of pandemic

Poor communities in Ga-Mphahlele in Limpopo experienced hunger especially during level 5 of the lockdown as they did not have access to food. Photo by Vincent Mpebe

Covid-19 and the lockdown has exacerbated poverty and inequalities in the rural areas of South Africa.

Activist organisations report that the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has worsened the living conditions of the many poor families living in rural South Africa.

Nokuthula Mthimunye from the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA) says that the lockdown brought social and economic inequalities to the fore, where Black farm dwellers and the rural poor do not even have water to drink let alone wash their hands conscientiously. Their battle for basic service delivery continues with the added urgency of the pandemic.

Mthimunye says that farm dwellers are different from people living in the traditional rural context under a chief because the dwellers usually don’t own the land they live on. Their respective lack of democratic rights, decent living standards and access to resources, however, is just the same.

“Farm dwellers are not just people who come into farms and leave after working. These are marginalised people whose homes are on farms, where there are no clinics, no shops there. For a woman farm dweller to access a clinic, they have to go outside the farm to the nearest city. At the beginning of the lockdown we heard women from rural settings reporting that they could not access healthcare for their children and for themselves,” Mthimunye said.

Black women living in poverty in farming communities and communal areas are the most affected by poor and often non-existent service delivery, the lack of access to decent healthcare and food insecurity.

Nita Pusakwe fetching water from the river in Centane where villagers have struggled to access water since before covid-19. Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik

Long-standing activist for rural democracy and community development, Mazibuko Jara, says that the lack of employment opportunities in many rural areas is a historical problem. This is because of SA’s apartheid past that designed an ongoing cycle of poverty in Black communities.

Matshediso Takalu, a community leader in Ga-Mphahlele village, Limpopo, says that the lockdown left a number of families hungry and not knowing when they will be able to provide again. “Most of us are unemployed and those who were working part-time are no longer able to go out and do those jobs. The municipality tried to distribute food parcels to the community, however they were not able to reach all 500 community members who had applied for them,” she said.

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Takalu says that children were affected because the insufficient number of decent classrooms in the village made it difficult for learners to attend school. “During the hard lockdown level 5, the people’s livelihood was very negatively affected. Many children had to stop going to school. It was hurtful to observe because everyone was in constant fear, saying that this virus is here to kill us. We were not aware that this virus is both preventable and that one can recover from it.”

Spokesperson of the MEC of Social Development in Limpopo, Witness Tiva, says that the confinement of people in their homes under the lockdown was difficult and caused problems for the rural province. “A number of households did not have money to buy groceries and other basic amenities,” he said.

Tiva says that the department launched the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) program in response to the growing crisis of poverty in many villages in Limpopo. “We identified households that were food insecure and got our social workers to conduct assessments of those who qualified to receive food parcels. We tried to reach as many homes as we can.”

According to Jara, in the rural municipalities of the Eastern Cape, elected councillors have failed in the past and continue to fail due to limited human resources, limited budgets, as well as, corruption. “Councillors in areas like Butterworth and Centane, have been at war with each other over municipal related issues, taking their attention away from service delivery. The collapse of local government and the poor state of the economy has led to mass unemployment.”

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Sipho Majiya standing next to an empty water tank in Ngqushwa where about 138 villages have no access to water. Archive photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik

Jara says that in areas like Keiskammahoek, the municipal water tanks have run dry, there is no collection of waste, and no accountability on the side of government, all factors worsened by the pandemic: “Rural communities were left without the most basic precautionary measure to guard themselves against covid-19.”

“During the lockdown, we also had drought and it was difficult to get water and I had to make means to try make sure people had water no matter how, even if we get water from the river. We don’t have any clean water in the area at all,” says Centane resident, Mphumezo Zwelibanzi.

Community volunteer, Mkhalitshi Mentani, says that the village of Centane has not had any clean water since 2018 and the pandemic has worsened the suffering that residents go through, “We decided to come together and request for water in 2018. We have taps that were placed but they are dry. We depend on water from the river, water that is dirty and filled with waste. Water that animals don’t even drink from.” Mentani says that diarrhea is common and people show skin conditions that are due to the consumption of dirty water.

The violation of the rights of people who are poor and living in rural areas and on farms has been overlooked since before the pandemic, which has resulted in an inhumane way of life, that continuously strips them of their dignity.

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