blame game

South Africa: Politics in a time of cholera

By Romain Chanson

Premium badge Reserved for subscribers

Posted on June 15, 2023 12:37

 © A man carries water bottles during a cholera outbreak that has caused the death of individuals in Hammanskraal, South Africa, May 24, 2023.  REUTERS
A man carries water bottles during a cholera outbreak that has caused the death of individuals in Hammanskraal, South Africa, May 24, 2023. REUTERS

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and the opposition are currently embroiled in a political game with each side blaming one another for cholera, which has already caused 32 deaths. Poor infrastructure management is being cited as a contributing factor.

First came electricity cuts, then water cuts, and now cholera. Is South Africa taking a giant step backwards?

The last epidemic was in 2008, when it broke out in neighbouring Zimbabwe before claiming 65 lives in South Africa. The origin of this new epidemic, identified in February, is not known, but residents of the township of Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria, the epidemic’s epicentre, have been complaining about the poor quality of the water for several years.

A great leap backwards?

“It is highly likely that the cholera epidemic is the result of the dispersal of untreated wastewater,” says Carin Bosman, a consultant on water management issues. Cholera epidemics regularly occur when there is a breakdown in water management systems.

Lack of maintenance and investment in new infrastructure can lead to wastewater being discharged into the rivers and reservoirs that supply the city. The poorest populations, who draw their water from the river, are more exposed.

Bosman also points to a lack of vigilance on the part of the authorities. In 2014, the government halted publication of the annual ‘Blue Drop/Green Drop’ report, which analyses water quality and management by the municipalities that are responsible for it.

This discontinuation, she says “led to a significant decline in the performance of municipalities in terms of their wastewater management and level of maintenance”. The report was reintroduced in 2022, and its latest survey, published at the beginning of June, noted “a decline in the quality of drinking water”, detailing infrastructure that is no longer up to standard. Out of 150 drinking water treatment plants analysed, 15% were in poor condition. Wastewater treatment plants are also suffering.

We have let you down

“We have let you down,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa, during a visit to the township of Hammanskraal on 8 June. The South African chief executive made sure to emphasise ‘we’, in reference to the Pretoria municipality run by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party. “There are many water-related problems here in Tshwane [Pretoria municipality],” he said. “The municipality receives money every month to provide water, but you don’t see the results even if you pay for the service.”

DA points the finger

Cilliers Brink, elected Mayor of Tshwane just two months ago, was seated a few metres from the president. The DA, his party, has governed Tshwane since 2016 and derives its power from the management of large municipalities, such as Pretoria and Johannesburg. It makes the good governance of its cities, such as Cape Town, a campaign argument, but the cholera crisis risks blurring the message.

“This could be very bad for them, as their constant refrain is that cities are well-managed when they are in power; however, in this case, good governance is lacking, so they will have their work cut out for them to restore their image enough to make a compelling-enough argument heading into the 2024 elections,” says Levy Ndou, a political scientist.

In politics, as in football, the best defence is a good offence, and the DA demonstrated this in a recent statement. “It is abundantly clear that the ANC [African National Congress] government is incapable of providing the basic services to which South Africans are entitled,” the statement said.

Yet the cholera crisis offers an opportunity for the ANC to reverse the accusation, also serving to bolster the image of a party of Whites who are not interested in the fate of marginalised Black populations. “We know who they work for,” Fikile Mbalula, the ANC secretary general, told residents of Hammanskraal.

No water or electricity

Do they remember that it was the ANC that ran the municipality until 2016? Moreover, “the consumption of polluted water dates back to at least 2008”, according to the South African Human Rights Commission in a report published in 2021. “The main reason for these unacceptable levels of pollution is the failure to manage and maintain Tshwane’s wastewater treatment plants for several years,” the report says.

“We’re sorry that we haven’t been able to provide you with clean water,” Ramaphosa told residents of Hammanskraal after noting the leaking pipes at the Rooiwal plant.

The South African president unveiled emergency solutions as the plant is restored to proper standards, which could take three years. In the meantime, he suggested boiling the water to kill the bacteria, which then raised another issue: they told him they don’t have electricity any more.

There's more to this story

Get unlimited access to our exclusive journalism and features today. Our award-winning team of correspondents and editors report from over 54 African countries, from Cape Town to Cairo, from Abidjan to Abuja to Addis Ababa. Africa. Unlocked.

Subscribe Now

cancel anytime