Municipal sewage failures are common across South Africa, where out of 824 treatment plants, only 60 release clean water. The rest break the law and more than a third are rated as critically in need of urgent repairs, causing 50,000 liters of untreated sewage to be released every second. Consequently, high levels of coliform bacteria from human feces such as E. coli and dangerous pollutants kill off life in dams and rivers. 60% of the country’s water bodies are eutrophic, which means that the water is so rich in nutrients from sewage that hyacinths cover the surface. Plants also dump untreated waste directly into the veld, contaminating groundwater and making agriculture more difficult. Moreover, the sewage pollution is also deadly for humans. Diarrhea related to water poisoning kills 10% of children less than five years old . It is the sixth-biggest killer of South Africans of all ages after HIV, tuberculosis, heart disease, strokes and pneumonia .
The sewage crisis comes from a lack of maintenance. Although municipalities should spend at least 15% of the value of a plant on its maintenance yearly, widespread corruption and lack of enforcement or regulation means that 1% or less of maintenance budgets are actually spent on upkeep. Sanitation departments and municipalities are apathetic and unresponsive even when given hundreds of millions of rand, far more than is needed, to build new plants or fix existing ones. The excessive spending is usually stolen or otherwise unaccounted for .
In early April 2014, violent protests erupted at the Boitumelong township in Bloemhof in Northwest. Residents accused municipal manager Andrew Makuapane of corruption, maladministration, and nepotism in response to repeated negligence to fix broken sewage pipes. Protesters torched Makuapane’s house and demanded the municipality to be disbanded. The contractor hired to fix the pipes subsequently abandoned the work and never returned .
A month later, during the week of May 19, sewage contamination across Bloemhof caused widespread turmoil. An immediate effect of the contamination was that over 100 students at Thuto Lore Secondary School in Boitumelong fell ill with stomach cramps from drinking the tap water, and over 200 residents were hospitalized for stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and other serious water contamination symptoms. Three babies died and five more were in critical condition within days of drinking the contaminated water . Livestock animals also died of thirst. The situation continued to worsen as schools needed to be shut down and backup tanks ran out. Civil rights group Afriforum ran tests to determine where diarrhea came from and if there was a cholera outbreak as well .
On May 27, the municipality shut down the water and closed the leaking pipe responsible for the pollution. People resorted to taking water from swimming pools or lining up to fill containers with contaminated water from the only working tap in Boitumelong despite knowing it was polluted. Although the system was allegedly drained, cleaned, and flushed by May 30, the water was still brown and smelled of feces even when taps were left running . By June, 500/700 students at Thuto Lore had water poisoning . 15 babies died from drinking the still contaminated water and another ten were hospitalized, becoming a symbol for community outrage toward routine environmental injustices rooted in the legacy of apartheid and contemporary rapid urbanization . This sparked a protest on June 2nd, 2014. Although the protestors had applied beforehand to the Bloemhof police station for permission to march peacefully, the police were “anticipating violent protests” and were on “high alert” . Subsequently, during the protest, 5 people were killed. Police were investigated for their roles in the killings, but no conclusions were made .
That same day, the North West MEC for local government and housing suspended Makuapane for the water crisis owing to dereliction of duty and negligence because he failed to ensure that the contractor was fixing holes in sewage pipes as agreed upon, causing the spillage [5, 9]. According to MEC Collen Maine, Makuapane “should have called the contractor and made sure he was doing his job” .
On June 4, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), led by attorney and executive director Melissa Fourie, formally requested the Northwest Police Commissioner and the Northwest Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate the criminal liability of Makuapane, the contractor, any municipal employees overseeing the contractor, those with the legal duty to inform residents of proper measures to avoid illness, and others involved in the babies’ deaths. As Fourie stated, “The least we can do for the memory of these [babies’] lost lives and their families is to investigate whether their deaths were the result of criminal negligence … Sewage treatment and the delivery of safe drinking water have to be prioritised above everything else. If these things are not in place, people die. We also want to see the new Department of Water and Sanitation impose early and effective community warning systems so that the mothers of babies … have the information and access to alternative sources of hydration for those children” .