Government or God? South Africa's Water Crisis

30 August 2019

By Thomas Holder & Ahmed Kajee

South Africa will not be able to supply all of its citizens with water by 2030.

That's according to the Department of Water and Sanitation in their 2018 master plan, which states we'll be at a 17% water deficit by 2030 if nothing is done soon. And there’s a range of reasons - drought, infrastructure, management, politics, lack of accountability, and a constant blame game.

Seventy-six-year-old Nolisini Faxi has been living in Makhanda, in the Eastern Cape, since 1960, spending most of her working life as a domestic worker in town. She stays in Joza, a township a few kilometres outside the city centre. Faxi lives with her daughter and two grandchildren in a two-bedroom RDP house, which has a JoJo tank that her employers bought for her. Her house is two metres off a sand road in the township. She has a dog which trots around her small sand-filled garden demarcating the boundaries of her property. Inside, you’ll find her couches covered with hard plastic and a television from the 90s.

She uses the taupe-coloured walls and her wooden walking stick as support to walk between her lounge and kitchen. The kitchen has a fridge, silver basin and a washing machine. The reality of the water crisis is evident - there are buckets of water and the empty five-litre plastic bottles she uses when there is no water supply in the area.

Faxi says there are times where there isn't water for days on end.

“Even now, they can stop the water now. We go to the tap in the morning, there’s no water. The whole day, three days, the whole week, there’s no water,” she explains.

When there is water supply in Makhanda, it sometimes comes out brown or murky, which Faxi cannot drink.

“If the water is dirty, I put it outside and use it for the toilet. Not for food, because of the mud. It comes out muddy.”

She says the water doesn’t smell clean and has a poor taste. The water is often murky, which she lets sit until the whiteness disappears. But when she drinks the water, it has a “taste like kalk”. Kalk is an inorganic substance with a base of limescale and calcium deposits. This is known as hard water and is generally safe to drink. But it can stain dishes and block drains.

Water is a precious resource, especially for those living in rural and township areas where access to water sources is limited. Faxi says there have been major issues with the reliable supply of water for most of 2019 – which she is worried about.

“People toyi-toyi about water. There’s no water. If the water comes, it is muddy. Muddy, muddy, muddy. You can’t do nothing with that,” Faxi explains.

“I was feeling sorry. Because toilets, you must wash. You must eat. You can't do nothing about [without] water. You must use drinking water. You must wash the toilets with water.”

Faxi says the health consequences of poor water quality for not just her but the broader community are huge. On the occasions she has drunk water from the taps, she experienced health problems.

“Sometimes - our water – you drink this water, you feeling your stomach is not alright,” Faxi says.

She said she's heard other people in the community talk about the poor quality of water, with some of their children not being able to sleep because the water they drank was not clean.

Faxi puts one tablespoon of bleach in 10-litre buckets of water when she drinks from the tap or from her JoJo tank because “the Jik makes the water clean”. The 10-litre bucket of water gives Faxi and her family about two days' worth of drinking water.

The Grahamstown Residents Association has confirmed protests over water in the area.

“Water trucks would stop in town for a briefing and people would storm the truck wanting water right there and then. But there were no instances of violence,” says the association’s Phil Machanick.

In November 2018, residents called for the municipal council to be dissolved. Twenty-four thousand people voted in the previous municipal elections, and 22,000 people signed the petition for the council to be dissolved. Machanick says this is what propelled government into action, which resulted in frequent turnovers of mayors and municipal managers in the Makana municipality. The frequent changes in government, he says, was why projects were not completed and accountability processes were extended.

Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane says these changes are part of consequence management processes he's implemented. Poor performing officials are fired. With so many changes in leadership positions, Machanick says the economy goes into a “death spiral” because no one wants to invest in a place without infrastructure. If this happens countrywide, job growth decreases and it cannot keep up with the increase in population, Machanick says.

Mabuyane concurs. He says there’s been an economic decline since the water crisis started. Investors don’t want to stay where there's no water and energy, he adds.


Mahkanda is not the only area in South Africa with water challenges. Other provinces have lost hundreds of millions of rands due to poor infrastructure maintenance.

For the 2017/18 financial year, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu found that every province in the country lost money due to failing water infrastructure.

  • The Eastern Cape – R591 million;
  • Free State – R260 million;
  • Northern Cape – R112 million;
  • North West – R124 million;
  • KwaZulu-Natal – just over R1 million;
  • Western Cape – R10 million;
  • Limpopo – R154 million
  • Gauteng – just under R3 million; and
  • Mpumalanga – R407 million.

The Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Department (Cogta) is responsible for the smooth operations between national, provincial and local government, and also has to hold poorly performing municipalities and their officials accountable.

The National Cogta Department did not respond to any interview requests to discuss the country’s crisis. Three requests were sent over WhatsApp between 4 June 2019 and 19 June 2019, which were received and read, but not responded to.


According to the national Water and Sanitation Department and the Water Research Council (WRC), a lack of infrastructure development and maintenance have been a major reason for the water crisis. A scathing AG report on municipalities for 2016/17 echoes these sentiments.

WRC CEO Dhesigen Naidoo says that technology and patents are in place, but the lack of implementation from government hinders progress. The WRC works hand-in-hand with the water department to ensure sufficient water in the country. The department’s Sputnik Ratau tells EWN a big reason they can’t build additional infrastructure is due to a lack of skills.

Naidoo says citing old infrastructure as a reason for communities not having access to water is an excuse.

“It’s not because they’re [infrastructure] old, it’s because they’re not well maintained,” Naidoo tells EWN.

“We want to solve a 21st century problem, with 20th century technology and 19th century operating rules. It simply cannot work like that.”

Regarding failing infrastructure, the department says original water infrastructure was built for smaller populations who lived in urban areas, which failed to take into consideration an increase in urbanisation. Simply put, the department says urban water infrastructure was built to cater for a minority population living in the city.

According to Naidoo, South Africa loses 37% of its water supply due to failing infrastructure. This amounts to about R10 billion non-revenue loss the country must absorb.


The AG’s report also found that a disturbing portion of municipalities across the country had insufficient planning and bad policies regarding the improvement of infrastructure.

For the 2016/17 year:

  • 57% of municipalities had no policy on infrastructure maintenance;
  • 46% had no maintenance plan at all;
  • while 22% of municipalities had no budget assigned for the maintenance of infrastructure; and
  • 26% of infrastructure maintenance projects exceeded their expected completion dates.

The AG in 2016/17 said that a large part of the poor development and maintenance of infrastructure is due to the lack of financial planning, mismanagement of funds and poor performing municipalities not being held to account. The 2017/18 report repeats this.

Makwetu’s audit report for 2016/17 attributed a lack of accountability for poor performing municipalities in South Africa. Following the AG’s 2013 report citing the same reason, he says there weren’t sufficient improvements when it came to effective leadership and holding poor performing personnel accountable. This trend continued in the 2017/18 report with the AG saying “… various role players have been slow in implementing and, in certain instances, blatantly disregarded our (AG office’s) recommendations”.

“Accountability continues to fail in local governments,” Makwetu says.

The opposition party Democratic Alliance’s Makashule Gana says there can’t be water outages as we’ve had with power outages.

With poor management, a lack of accountability and a difficult environment for auditing - as set out in the AG’s 2016/17 report - maladministration and irregular expenditure continues. This leaves water infrastructure poorly maintained, and no new infrastructure can be built. Ratau says if government continues with a “do-nothing” approach, it increases the chances of reaching a national Day-Zero.

(Click to expand)


South Africa is classified as a water-scarce country, receiving on average 600mm of rainfall per year between 1904-2015. According to Weather South Africa, between 1999 and 2015 the country received its highest rainfall in 2002, with just over 800mm of rain. This dropped all the way down to 400mm in 2015.

Meanwhile, Naidoo says the country has faced “major drought episodes in the last 20 years”.

Projected water availability in 2030. Source: WRC
  • A water-intense economy;
  • Climate change; and
  • A public perception that doesn’t realise the importance, and scarcity, of water.

Sixty-one percent of South Africa’s water resources are being pumped into the agriculture sector, with 27% being used domestically in households.

Gideon Groenewald worked in Makhanda on borehole projects with NGO Gift of the Givers, and says drought normally takes 25 to 30 years to mature. Thereafter, it leads to a humanitarian crisis if interventions aren't implemented.

Groenewald says from a historical point of view, the dry period over South Africa will be at its worst in 2033 – with small pockets of wet weather every now and then.


“We need to understand that the water we get in the taps in the city comes from somewhere […] and be careful that when you use water from a tap, one day it might blow gas.” - Dr Gideon Groenewald.

He says the best thing for the South African government and its citizens to do is to plan for the future and save as much water as possible.


In July 2018, the Makana municipality was made of aware of the potential Day-Zero that could hit the town. 26 November 2018 was the day ear-marked for Day-Zero to arrive if the municipality failed to secure the supply of water, and if residents wasted water.

Makana had already been facing reports of water-quality problems, with reports of E.coli contamination. But questions around infrastructure continued to be posed to the municipality as infrastructure led to water losses and contamination of sewage into the drinking water, as well as into rivers and streams.

At the time, residents of Makhanda had level 5 water restrictions, which allowed 60 litres of water to be used per person per day.

A water plan was announced in January 2019 by local and national government to ensure water-saving measures were imposed. At the same time, the small amount of usable water in dams couldn’t be utilised for Makana due to an insufficient number of pumps and poor infrastructure.

Residents were continuously urged to save water heading into February 2019 as Gift of the Givers intervened in Makhanda. They delivered bottled water to residents and started drilling boreholes. Educational institutions, including creches, were also impacted, with some enforcing policies to have toilets flushed less frequently to save water. Water tanks were also installed at schools for pupils.

Questions were raised about the quality of the limited water that was available. In January and March 2019 the levels of coliform and E.coli bacteria coming out of some taps in Makhanda did not comply with national water standard regulations. Grocotts Mail reported at the time that in some cases, bacterial counts were 20 times over the safe limit. A similar situation existed in 2018 due to faulty chlorination systems – or simply put, poor infrastructure.

Top: This water system was once a stream. Now it is filled with debris and waste and holds sewage rather than water. Residents say this has been a common sight in the town for years. Bottom: Shots of sewage. Images: Thomas Holder (2019)


Faxi’s JoJo tank keeps her from dehydrating. She fills her 5-litre bottles with water from the rain catcher, but struggles to carry the water back to her house because of the weight.

She says there’s always a worry that the tank should also be kept full because she won't know what to do if there's no water where she lives.

The JoJo tank is filled with rainwater, which she uses only when there is no water available from the municipality. “I just use the water in the tank sometimes. I don’t want the children to always use the water in the tank. I’m worried if the water finishes [in the tank], there’ll be no water [at all],” she says. She also uses some of the clean tank water for washing her white clothes because the tap water is dirty.

Faxi says prior to the May 2019 elections, government officials gave the community five 5-litre water bottles to collect water. Since then, no-one has returned to the area to check on their water supplies.



Rhodes University is a central structure in Makhanda, and is the highest rate payer for the Makana municipality. Rhodes executive director of infrastructure, operations & finance Iain L’ange says water shortages have had little impact on the campus’s operations because plans to save water have been implemented.

“All residences had smart water meters installed. Those electronic devices measure water usage and when a student exceeds 50 litres per day, the valve shuts off,” he explains.

Additionally, research projects look into grey water usage. Students have been given tubs to collect bath water for flushing toilets. While it's an easy solution to not use fresh drinking water for flushing, laws around the use of grey water have not been amended to legalise the practice, Naidoo explains.

Tanks of drinking water were placed across campus in case of water outages, and borehole water was used for flushing. Car washing on campus was stopped. The university also worked with the municipality to find boreholes on campus. Three boreholes were drilled but were all contaminated with iron and manganese. A plan is being developed to filter the water and make it usable for the town.


Grahamstown Residents Association chairperson Phil Machanick has dealt with government, NGOs and residents on behalf of the Makhanda community. He says things were at their worst point in January and February 2019.

During this period, people were queuing from as early as 2:00am to collect bottled water from Gift of the Givers' trucks. The NGO had started drilling for boreholes.

People in Makhanda have gone to extremes of showering once every two days. Grey water systems were installed for gardens and for toilets. They drank bottled water instead of tap water to keep the systems functioning.

Residents of Makhanda have been using this stream to get drinking water for years. Municipal water has often been dirty or contaminated with heavy metals and E.coli, rendering it undrinkable. This and other methods of water harvesting are now standard practice in Makhanda. Image: Thomas Holder (2019)


Despite the Makana Municipal area being one that faces regular drought, new RDP houses are still not built with water harvesting measures like rain tanks. Image: Thomas Holder (2019)

Amatola Water – a state-owned enterprise that was put in charge of maintaining infrastructure in the Makana municipality – left the area in 2018 because they weren’t getting paid for their work. They returned when funding was made available by the new Eastern Cape Premier, Oscar Mabuyane. They began working on getting the broken James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works plant back to optimum operation. Machanick says during this time, there were water riots around the municipality.

The James Kleynhans Water Works Plant is vital for the survival of the people of Makana.

“If the James Kleynhans (Water Works Plant) fails, the entire town is virtually out of water,” says Machanick.

During repairs on the plant, Machanick says, there was an E.coli outbreak in the town because inadequate and poorly maintained infrastructure caused a sewage spill to contaminate the water supply and streams in the town. According to Machanick, officials from the GRA and government only knew about E.coli outbreaks after the first cases of illness were reported.

And government isn’t doing enough to make people aware of the dangers of E.coli, Machanick says. Awareness and communication is a major problem, as programmes are only printed in English, not in isiXhosa – the major language in the Eastern Cape, he says.

This email was forwarded to residents of Makhanda from the municipality in July this year (2019) informing residents of more water challenges.

L’ange says the James Kleynhans Water Works Plant in Makhanda is a world-class facility that can produce clean, blue-drop water if it’s maintained optimally. The big challenge is ensuring infrastructure is managed properly and maintained efficiently. He says that underground piping is poor and needs lots of attention. L’ange claims that at least 30% to 40% of water coming through the system is lost through leaks.

The Co-operative Governance Department’s Head of Department in the Eastern Cape, Gabisile Gumbi-Masilela, says when some of the old infrastructure around the municipality was being repaired, asbestos was discovered, causing the water supply to be completely cut off until repairs were complete. She says this upset people in the community, but it needed to be done.

“They [government] needed to fix the things because the danger wasn’t just sewage. It was also asbestos... There was going to be discomfort, but that’s expected,” Gumbi-Masilela says.

Machanick also begged the question about Rhodes University’s role in assisting with the water crisis. He says there are as many as 10,000 litre tanks on the campus, which only store water and don’t contribute to the greater water system. He says that the university should be involved in research regarding engineering solutions for the water crisis. But the university’s L’ange says they don’t have that kind of expertise.


Rhodes University is the largest rate payer in Makhanda. While they have begun utilising alternative water catchment and saving techniques, they are the largest consumer of water in the area. Image: Thomas Holder (2019)

The Makana municipality is working with Rhodes University to find solutions to the water crisis in Makhanda.

When the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works was only producing 5 megalitres of water per day, during the height of the crisis resulting in water outages, the university stepped in. It should ideally produce 10 megalitres or more of water per day.


The municipality and the university engaged provincial and national government to work together “under the auspices of the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission [PICC] … to ensure the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works was brought up to full capacity”. Premier Mabuyane says R200 million was injected into the Water and Sanitation Department to help improve infrastructure. Mabuyane says that things were less challenging in July compared to January because of these interventions.

L’ange says the result of the PICC was that the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works was brought up to capacity and exceeded expected output. The plant achieved an output of 13 to 16 megalitres per day, compared to initial figures of 10 megalitres per day. L’ange says this is a success story in itself. He says there is enough water for everyone in the town, if residents obey the restrictions.


To understand the dire financial situation Makana is in that is preventing it from solving its water crisis, the AG’s 2016/17 report is vital to understanding how much money was mismanaged by the municipalities in the Eastern Cape. The AG said a lack of accountability, mismanagement within local government and a poor environment for successful audits led to R27 billion in wasteful, fruitless and irregular expenditure.

Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane responded to the AG’s report, which painted a damning picture regarding management across different spheres of government in the province.

Mabuyane says the 2016/17 AG’s findings are “unacceptable in a constitutional democracy”. However, he says this was a problem his administration had inherited from previous provincial governments. The main issue for Mabuyane is that of transparency and accountability. He adds that irregular expenditure doesn’t mean corruption, but rather a lack of accountability when government spends money.

He says poor spatial planning, the history of colonisation and apartheid in South Africa have always put the province “to the side”.

Mabuyane says the issues with the Makana water system is historic. The infrastructure was built for a minority group of people, which hasn’t been able to keep up with the increased population since 1994.

“What you see in Makana is a sign of a collapsed system of governance,” Mabuyane tells EWN.

“The fact that Makhanda is prone to drought is a major challenge which is further exacerbated by poor governance and maintenance of infrastructure,” he says.

The premier’s office, as well Cogta, are to be blamed for poor governance, Mabuyane says. Consequence management isn't happening as best as it could be, he says, and accountability officers and CFOs need to be held more accountable for financial mismanagement.

Based on the wasteful expenditure figures and the lack of accountability, Mabuyane says the blame can’t be laid solely at the doorstep of Cogta. He says provincial treasury must have a direct interest in the financial management at both local and district level. The premier says he also takes responsibility for the current situation in the Eastern Cape.

Speaking about municipalities having their own accountability processes, Cogta’s head of department, Gabisile Gumbi-Masilela, says a municipal manager has directors who report to their offices. The portfolios under these directors include finance, infrastructure, corporate services, community services and strategic departments.

Gumbi-Masilela says if things go wrong, it’s the directors who are held accountable and investigated for any wrongdoing.

Regarding the water crisis and failing infrastructure in the Makana municipality, she says an infrastructure manager was suspended in September 2018. According to Grocotts Mail, Daluxolo Mlenzana was suspended pending an investigation into alleged misconduct. Cogta mandated a new official to correct the mistake. According to Grocotts Mail, Makana’s “newly appointed Community Safety and Social Services Director Kelello Makgoka acted in the role for three months. The role defaulted to the Municipal Manager Moppo Mene at the beginning of this year. The Cogta-based Municipal Infrastructure Support Agency (MISA) sent Luthando Maboza in April as acting infrastructure director.”

Going forward, Premier Mabuyane has plans to fix the errors:

  • A memorandum of understanding has been signed with Cogta in the Eastern Cape, as well as national and provincial treasury to support local government and administration;
  • Mabuyane says his office has learned from poor leadership in the past, and that priorities and policies would focus on how it would impact locals and how it would also reflect on the city’s image and impact the rest of the world;
  • Additionally, the premier says his office has a long-term plan to address the needs of the municipality;
  • He plans to bring in accountability officers in the city, and skills managers for ongoing maintenance; and
  • A project management unit (PMU) will also be set up that is mandated to intervene in areas where there’s a system breakdown. This, he says, will prevent a crisis from turning into an extreme disaster.


Gumbi-Masilela explains that in the Eastern Cape, there are two spheres of government, both of which have to work together to ensure a reliable water supply in Makana. The two spheres are district officials and local government. District governing bodies are in charge of bulk water, and the local municipality is in charge of water reticulation.

Cogta acts as a big brother to municipalities when they are in need of help and ensures that competent individuals are placed in relevant positions. Gumbi-Masilela adds that municipalities have to take recommendations they put forward to fix problems. Cogta officials aren’t there to punish municipalities, but rather to assist them in finding solutions.

Speaking about the issues faced by the Makana municipality, Gumbi-Masilela echoed Mabuyane, saying sanitation is an issue because Makana is an old municipality and Makhanda is an old town. The colonial infrastructure is old and decaying, causing sewage to enter the water system and also causing clean water to be lost through leaky pipes, she says.

Another reason for the poor infrastructure is a lack of capacity and budget constraints from local government.

“They [municipalities] didn’t have capacity to carry out operations and maintenance. So when you get there, their sanitation has not worked for a long period… Where you need to overhaul the whole thing, it’s difficult because you need a lot of money,” says Gumbi-Masilela.

She says town planners are deployed to areas but aren’t given a lot of financial backing to effectively maintain infrastructure. Because some areas have no infrastructure at all, she says the town planners’ mandates turn into providing basic infrastructure rather than repairing existing infrastructure. She says that’s a bad thing because municipalities are building new pipes, but forgetting about the existing pipes that are in need of repairs.

Gumbi-Masilela says the raw sewage running through the streets of the Makana municipality is a clear example of aging infrastructure, as well as outdated pipes that had asbestos and urgently needed to be replaced due to the health regulations around it.

"It [the municipality] needs the money for repairs and to make sure maintenance is always present. If it’s not water, it’s electricity. Bills need to be paid for maintenance to continue,” she says.

Problems Cogta faces with money, according to Gumbi-Masilela, include:

Cogta says residents not paying their bills contributes to waning cash in the coffers;

Big businesses and residents steal electricity, which strains the income streams for the municipality; and

Long-term lease agreements that have low rental rates increase financial strain on municipalities.

Despite Cogta saying there is no budget to repair failing infrastructure in the Eastern Cape, the AG’s report stated that just over R13 billion was irregularly spent. Gumbi-Masilela says internal auditing processes brought the figure down to R6 billion. The biggest reason around irregular expenditure, she says, is government officials not following the correct procurement processes.

So, what has Cogta done to hold municipalities in the province accountable for the remaining R6 billion? Cogta orders municipalities to revisit their financial and procurement departments to “identify where irregular expenditure are, and then charge the person who is responsible for the irregularity”.

Open sewers run through the town after the water treatment works became dilapidated and incapable of processing the sewage from the town. Now, sewage runs along the open waste water system for residents to breathe in. Image: Thomas Holder (2019)

She says that at the end of the day, approval processes need to be followed and that those who “sneak things under the carpet” - at some point – will be picked up when reconciliation happens, and they will be investigated accordingly.

She said with interventions from Cogta and the municipality, water provisions in Makana increased from 10 megalitres per day to 13 megalitres per day. This sentiment is echoed by L’ange who says there is a “good story to take” from the Makana municipality recovery. He says within a space of 9 months, the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works was back up and running, exceeding its expected output. R22 million was given by the Department of Water Affairs to Makana to solve its problems. R12 million of this was designated to water management issues within the municipality, while the other R10 million was for borehole drilling. Cogta says this was done before Gift of the Givers intervened in the municipality and drilled boreholes.

Gumbi-Masilela says government is committed to changing the lives of the people. “Administrators in government are doing their work with conviction and commitment to change the lives of people,” she says.

But Faxi is one of those people government says it is working to assist. She and many like her in the Makana municipality are still waiting for help.

“Does the government give me water or does God?”

Nolisini Faxi. Image: Thomas Holder (2019)

Story by Thomas Holder and Ahmed Kajee. Filmed and edited by Thomas Holder. Written by Ahmed Kajee. Graphics by Christa Eybers. Text edited by Janice Healing.