News / Africa

SAF Settlement Residents Struggle as World Marks Water Day

Emily Ntake pumps water in South Africa's Makause community
Emily Ntake pumps water in South Africa's Makause community

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Scott Bobb

The international community is marking World Water Day this year under the theme of water and urbanization - noting that for the first time in history, more than one-half of the world's population now lives in cities. In Africa, which has the highest urbanization rate in the world, 70 percent of city dwellers live in slums or shantytowns, often called informal settlements.

It is early morning in Makause, a sprawling settlement of shacks made mostly of tin and wood, sitting on an old mining ridge outside Johannesburg.

Makause's 12,000 residents do not have running water, so every day they must fill their buckets at communal taps. The city has installed two of these at the edge of the community.

The settlement emerged more than 20 years ago after the gold mine beneath it shut down. The owners now want to earn income from the land by using it for housing developments or light industry.

Four years ago, hundreds of people were forcibly evicted from a strip of land in the middle of the settlement. Their shacks destroyed, they were forced to move 40 kilometers outside the city.  With no jobs or services there, many returned.

Emily Ntake has been living here with her small son for two years while she looks for a job. She says because the city water taps are so far away, she uses one of 17 illegal taps built by neighbors.

"We've got a problem of water here. It's got to come. So we need more taps so that we can have water," said Ntake.

Makause residents also have no public electricity.  A few businesses operate using generators.

There is also no public sanitation. Residents dig pit latrines in their yards and enclose them for privacy. When the pit fills up, they cover it with dirt and dig another.

Following the end of apartheid 17 years ago, the black-led government embarked on an ambitious program to deliver basic services to its poor.  It built more than one million low-income houses and brought public water, electricity and sanitation to millions of people.

But a large portion of the population of nearly 50 million still lives without public utilities.

After years of waiting, frustrated residents here organized the Makause Settlement Development Forum to press for housing and basic services.

Ndawoyakhe Mpambo is the forum's chairman and he says all we are getting from the government is just promises, since we started voting 17 years ago. Every time there is an election, he says, the politicians come here promising a lot but we don't see it.

There are frequent demonstrations, sometimes violent, across South Africa by residents of informal settlements demanding housing and public services.

Professor Marie Huchzermeyer of Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University says the riots are about more than the lack of services.

"These delays, combined with broken promises," said Huchzermeyer.  "And then it's another year, and another year, and another year, and more excuses coming from the municipality. And that really causes huge dissatisfaction and a strong sense that they're not being heard."

Lawsuits in a few cases have led the courts to order local authorities to provide the services, which are guaranteed under South Africa's constitution.  But implementation has been slow.

City planners say it is difficult to bring pipes into communities where crooked footpaths are the norm rather than grid-like streets.

Some countries, most notably Brazil, have adopted a policy of providing services to residents of informal settlements rather than waiting until they can build them proper houses.

The South African government recently promised to do the same for 400,000 people in informal settlements within three years.  But Huchzermeyer says local governments are reluctant to bring city services to such communities.

"There is this mindset that if you improve informal settlements by giving them water and sanitation you are rewarding them and more people will then follow suit and do the same in order to access water and services and ultimately housing," added Huchzermeyer.

She says governments want to make their cities more attractive to investors and see the settlements as eyesores.  As a result, many like her believe it will take considerable social pressure to improve the lives of people like the residents of Makause.

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