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Sewage mismanagement in Bloemhof, North West, South Africa


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 [1]. It is the sixth-biggest killer of South Africans of all ages after HIV, tuberculosis, heart disease, strokes and pneumonia [5].

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 [1].

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 [6]. 

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 [6]. 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 [2].

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 [2]. By June, 500/700 students at Thuto Lore had water poisoning [8]. 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 [4]. 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” [8]. Subsequently, during the protest, 5 people were killed. Police were investigated for their roles in the killings, but no conclusions were made [4].

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” [6]. 

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” [6].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Sewage mismanagement in Bloemhof, North West, South Africa
Country:South Africa
State or province:Northwest
Location of conflict:Bloemhof
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water treatment and access to sanitation (access to sewage)
Specific commodities:Domestic municipal waste

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:2,000
Start of the conflict:07/04/2014
Relevant government actors:the North West MEC for local government and housing, Department of Water and Sanitation, Bloemhof police station
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:GroundUp, Centre for Environmental Rights, Afriforum, The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Northwest Health Department, NICD Centre for Enteric Diseases, the Enteric Virus and Environmental Research Unit (Department of Medical Virology, University of Pretoria)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Street protest/marches
Property damage/arson


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Infectious diseases, Deaths
Potential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors


Project StatusUnknown
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Criminalization of activists
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Under negotiation
Violent targeting of activists
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Although the sewage leak was fixed, residents had still reported dirty water afterward. No updates past 2014 have reported any improvements in water quality since then, and there are also no updates on the municipality manager's criminal judgment or whether those responsible for killing the five protesters were found culpable.

Sources & Materials

[1] All Afrika. South Africa: Vaal River Pollution - 'There Have Been Challenges to Compliance', Sasol Says (Phakgadi 2018)

[1] Mail&Guardian. 50 000 litres of sewage flow into SA’s rivers every second (Kings 2017)

[2] News24. Bloemhof reeling from water failure (2014)

[3] Daily Maverick. North West’s water contamination (Moore 2014)

[4] Phys. Water problems lead to riots, deaths in South Africa (Khumalo 2014)

[5] Times Live. Baby deaths placed at municipal boss’s door (Mabuza et al. 2014)

[6] GroundUp. Three infants die from polluted water in Northwest (Fourie 2014)

[7] Centre for Environmental Rights. Criminal liability for deaths of three infants at Bloemhof, Northwest (2014)

[8] IOL. Cops anticipating trouble at Bloemhof (SAPA 2014)

[9] Herald Live. Lewkwa Teemane city manager suspended over contaminated water (2014)

Meta information

Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA-UAB, [email protected]
Last update21/08/2020
Conflict ID:5124



Bloemhof sewage

Photo: Mail&Guardian