Residents of a mining ghost town feel victimised by an uncaring municipality
Dolly Burnet can’t move far on her neatly-polished stoep. The octogenarian stands, hunched, as she stares at the rows of empty containers, wondering how she will fill them with something she now believes is more valuable than gold.
“This is my life now”, Burnet says.
“At this moment, water is the most precious thing to me. Nothing else matters. It’s like gold”, she smiles.
She does have a small stockpile, at her feet. Some of this water will be used for her to wash, cook supper for the night and flush the toilet.
Her biggest worry is how she will wash her quadriplegic son, Robert. “I’ve given him a bed wash nearly every day, for over 30 years”, she says, proudly. But these days, there’s just not enough water to go around.
For the past three weeks, Burnet and several thousand of her neighbours living in the derelict Blyvooruitzicht (“Happy Prospect” in Dutch) mining village, just outside Carletonville, in the far western reaches of Gauteng, have had to learn to live without water.
The Merafong local municipality cut the village’s water supply in early May because the Blyvoor gold mining company, which is being liquidated, owes it over R182 million in arrears, dating back four years.
For the desperate Burnet, it’s another nail in the coffin for her once-perfect mining village that is fast falling into ruin. The 83-year old shuffles into her house, where Robert is resting. “He’s not feeling well today”, she whispers. Now in her early 50s, Robert broke his neck in a rugby accident when he was just 22.
A few streets away, a municipal water truck is dispensing water but Burnet cannot leave her son. Sometimes, her helper fetches water for her – but often, the truck leaves before they’ve had a chance to fill up, she says.
“This water trouble, that’s getting me down. Tomorrow I’m getting water from my hairdresser. On Friday my son in Fochville is bringing me water. On Saturday I’m going to his house to take my washing to daughter-in-law. I’m getting water now all over the place. I feel so guilty. I never realised just how precious water is. The other day, I had half a glass of water left. I thought ‘ag, I’ll just throw it away’. Then I realised there was no water left. This morning, when it started raining, I said, ‘Lord, thank you’. Even that little bit of water will help us.”
She is sitting on an embroidered couch, adorned with a crocheted doilie, as her son’s wheelchairs stand idle in the lounge. Outside, blackened mine dumps jut like mountains over their homes.
Burnet has lived in Blyvoor for 56 years – and remembers it as a paradise. “Oh, it was beautiful back then. Everyone came here to look at the gardens and there were always competitions. “The way it’s gone down, it’s unbelievable. It’s heartbreaking, really. When I came here, we had free water, free houses, free electricity. It was a real mining community. The mine did everything for us. Now, there’s nothing”.
Blyvoor mine was started in the 1930s and the village was built around its rich seams of gold.
In 2012, DRG Gold sold it to Village Main Reef, which declared bankruptcy just over a year later. All Burnet sees now for her village – overrun by crime, illegal miners and unemployment – is doom. Like the mine that built the town, much of its lies in ruin.
“If it gets worse, we’ll have to move. The municipality says Blyvoor owes such a lot of money, but it’s really got nothing to do with us”, she shrugs. “We want to pay for our water”.
Outside, as her neighbours see a lone tanker arrive, they run, screaming, towards it, their arms laden with buckets and containers. Others complain the supply is erratic.
The queue moves sloely in the biting cold. Steadily, Maria Msimango fills her 20 litre container. She manoeuvres the bucket on her head and beings the kilometres-long walk home as she has done for the past two weeks.
“It’s better now. We didn’t have any water at all for two weeks. At least now we have enough to cook and clean, but who knows when this will end?” she shrugs.
Beautrude Mqikela lies in a heap on the hard cement, a threadbare blanket wound around her stringy boy, waiting for her turn at the taker. She’s been here since 7am and it’s already past midday. This is terrible”, she says. “My daughter lives here but I live in Eastern Cape. I can’t wait to go back.”
This week, the North Gauteng High Court threw out an application by Afriforum and the Pentecostal Church of SA for an urgent interdict to have the water restored to Blyvoor’s two mining villages.
The applicants had argued that the “Merafong municipality’s actions infringed the rights of the community, especially those of the vulnerable an children, the ability to flush toilets to cook clean and wash and accordingly also infringed the right to dignity of the individuals and the community.”
The municipality estimates there are anywhere between 3 000 and 15 000 people living in Blyvoor’s two mining villages.
Chris Spies, spokesman for the Merafong local municipality, argues that Blyvoor’s villages are not declared municipal areas.
“They are mining villages that don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the municipality. We’re not supposed to deliver services there.”
Blyvoor’s new owners, Double D&G Building Contractors, have told the municipality they will pay R500 000 a month if the water is restored, but the municipality has refused, arguing the mine owes too much – tis monthly bills alone can climb to as much as R4 million.
The mine’s liquidator, Leigh Roering, meanwhile, has questioned how the water bill can be so high, given that mining, and therefore underground pumping, has ceased.
“There’s still mining going on – there are businesses operating”, says Spies.
The municipality, he says, is meeting the community’s basic water needs of 25 litres a day each, the court has agreed.
“Three water trucks deliver water daily to Blyvoor. There was a 13-day period when no water was delivered because people complained there’s too much crime in the area and their water would be poisoned. It’s at huge cost we are bearing that could be used for service delivery in other areas.”
Osmond Mngomezulu, an attorney with Lawyers for Human Rights, says it will now take the matter to court, arguing that the municipality didn’t follow due procedure in disconnecting the water.
“Many people live far from where the municipal trucks stop. People have to carry 25-litre buckets of water – andthat’s still not enough for the entire household.
“People can’t flush their toilets. There’s a genuine health risk associated with this compromised sanitation.”
At a community meeting this week, resident Pule Molefe tol how locals felt abandoned.
“IT’s hopeless. We’re living in a filthy village; our electricity and water supply is in a mess.” He and his neighbours have start to guar Rand water’s pipeline. Their fear is if they are stolen – some pipes have already been – that water will never again be supplied to them. “We do it because we love Blyvoor”,he says.
The Federation for a Sustainable Environment has called on the government to intervene in the crisis.
“The people here are being penalised for the failure of this mine. It’s a disaster and it’s going to get worse.”
Burnet, too, has little hope for the future. “Everyone has left Blyvoor on its own.
“To me, the future looks bleak. There is no future.”
(Photographs not included. Typographical errors are our own and not Saturday Star’s.)