Three factors convinced Nthabiseng Mkase that things were falling apart in Hammanskraal: her six-year-old child was vomiting profusely under the weight of diarrhoea, the local hospital seemed overwhelmed with cholera patients, while sewage spills were overflowing in the streets.
It all began two weeks ago when Mkase’s child started vomiting endlessly on a Friday night. The following morning, the grade 1 pupil failed to wake up, sparking concerns and fear in Mkase.
However, when the child failed to eat breakfast until 10 am, Mkase, from Kanana Village in Hammanskraal, rushed her to the nearby emergency tent for help. The tent had been erected by the Gauteng Department of Health to deal with the cholera outbreak.
Inside the tent, Mkase said, the nursing sisters swiftly stabilised her boy with an anti-diarrhoea drink. They called an ambulance which rushed the mother and child to the nearby Jubilee Hospital.
“They (doctors) put my child on a drip, gave us medication and discharged him the following day. They said my child was lucky because we brought him to the hospital before he lost a lot of body fluid,” Mkase said, adding she feared the worst.
“By Sunday my child was still looking weak but I think the medication was still making him dizzy. But I was scared. He then slept forever that day. On Monday I didn’t take him to school. I forced him to go to school on Tuesday because they were writing tests. Even then he was still complaining about cramps. He is better now.”
Mkase’s child is one of hundreds of people who survived the deadly cholera outbreak which killed at least 23 people in Hammanskraal, north of Tshwane, alone in recent weeks. Most of the affected people were hospitalised and later discharged.
Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla last week said the first cases of cholera in Gauteng were traced to a bus trip to Malawi back in January. Phaahla held a press briefing at Tshedimosetso House in Pretoria, where he outlined the timeline of what has now come to be known as the Hammanskraal cholera outbreak, which has claimed 23 lives.
As the minister was speaking, the Mpumalanga Health Department reported that a 73-year-old hypertension patient from Phake near Siyabuswa died at Mmametlhake Hospital outside Hammanskraal after testing positive for the disease.
Phaahla said the first two cases involved sisters who travelled together from Diepsloot in Johannesburg to Malawi and returned on January 30. He said the two tested positive for cholera on February 5.
Mkase, however, told African Times that the water problem in Hammanskraal started 15 years ago when the taps ran dry. This was after the City of Tshwane replaced state-owned water utility Magaliesburg Water.
When the water started flowing from the taps, it was brown in colour and looked dirty. Her family stopped drinking the tap water and instructed all the children to do the same, Mkase said.
“However, kids are kids. When water drops come out of the tap, they play there and end up taking a sip. My child started vomiting after drinking drops of water from the tap. We keep telling our children not to drink the water because it’s unsafe, but they don’t understand the danger because they are still young,” she added.
The unemployed mother of four said her family is forced to use the water supplied by tankers contracted by the City of Tshwane because they can’t afford to buy bottled water. Her husband is also unemployed and survives on temporary jobs.
“Things are bad now. Water is life, and without water, we can’t survive. It’s tough,” she said.
“Even the water tankers are unreliable. They come as and when they feel like it. Sometimes they don’t supply us with water for a month. Then we are forced to run around looking for water.”
Mkase said the water problem got worse when the government connected sewage pipes in the area, which ended up overflowing in the streets.
“Even now, just look outside, it’s sewage all over the streets. Our water never used to be dirty. There was a time when you could even drink water from the nearby rivers. Now you can’t. You see raw sewage under the bridges overflowing into the rivers.”
The situation was not different at the nearby Mandela Village and Themba Township, where residents shared Mkase’s sentiment. Another family in Mandela Village also survived a cholera scare. Tidimalo Matseba, 81, had to prepare an anti-diarrhoea mixture to help her grandchild who was vomiting and complaining about a runny tummy.
Luckily, the two-year-old boy survived.
“The child was vomiting, and when he went to the toilet he released liquid that looked like tea with milk. I then prepared a mixture for him,” said Matseba, a retired school teacher with 35 years of experience.
She said she often boils and drinks water from the tankers because bottled water is expensive.
Matseba’s neighbour, Ethel Mosesi, 61, said the water crisis is the worst she had seen in the 31 years she had lived in Hammanskraal. The mother of four said she spends R100 per week on water alone. Mosesi fears that cholera might strike the neighbourhood.
“We have been neglected. This problem has been with us forever. We have not yet had a cholera case here in Mandela, but are concerned because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Our children share schools, and the schools have no water,” Mosesi said.
She said the government should fix the Rooiwal Water Treatment Plant and install water pipes from scratch. Sunday World visited Jubilee Hospital and various parts of Hammanskraal on Friday.
While residents went on with their lives, the mood of fear and helplessness was palpable. Locals who spoke to us said they feared the worst and were uncertain about their futures. They said they were losing hope of ever getting clean, drinkable water in Hammanskraal.