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Waterless Limpopo residents fall short of having municipal manager jailed

Jeff Wicks Senior reporter

A Limpopo municipal manager — hauled to court by a collective of villagers who have suffered for nearly a decade without water — has escaped jail time.

The villagers, from a clutch of settlements in the Sekhukhune district, wanted acting municipal manager Molatelo Mabitsela jailed for contempt of court.

This is the latest stanza in a protracted legal battle which has stretched over five years — a desperate bid by the indigent villagers to have water supplied reliably..

Ariella Scher, of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, who is representing the villagers, said the community had secured five court orders since 2015, four of them directing the municipality to provide the community with water.

“To date, they are still without a reliable water source,” she said.

The situation has become even worse during the Covid-19 pandemic when hygiene, such as regular washing of hands, is imperative to stop the spread of the virus.

She said most of the court orders had been taken “by consent” — and yet the municipality “wilfully” disobeyed them.

In July 2015, the community obtained an order that they would be provided with water through both reticulation through the existing water infrastructure and the bi-weekly delivery of water to the villages. This was not complied with.

In August 2017, an application arguing that the municipality was not complying with its constitutional obligations to provide water was also settled by agreement, with the municipality agreeing to comply with the previous court orders to report back to the court monthly on progress, including details of a water purification plant to provide water to communities in the long term.

This order required that the municipality fill existing Jojo tanks to capacity at least once a day and that residents would receive potable water through its reticulation system twice a week.

Elias Seloma braves the crocodile-infested Lepelle River near his home in the village of Elandskraal to draw water for his family, because of an unreliable supply from the Sekhukhune district municipality.
Elias Seloma braves the crocodile-infested Lepelle River near his home in the village of Elandskraal to draw water for his family, because of an unreliable supply from the Sekhukhune district municipality.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

Scher said in the ensuing two years, the municipality “consistently failed” to do this and in November 2019, the community obtained a contempt of court order.

“We sought sanctions against the municipal manager but just before the hearing, it came to light that she had been suspended,” Scher said. “We did not think it fair to hold the new acting municipal manager personally accountable for the faults of his predecessor.”

However, the water situation did not improve and the villages were virtually waterless over December.

In February, the community secured a court order, joining the municipal manager to the proceedings with a view to instituting the personal contempt proceedings against him.

And then the lockdown came. The progress reports, many of which were “cut and paste” jobs, stopped coming. Deadlines for the completion of the promised purification plant were pushed forward by two years.

In April, the community reported that it had no water and the Jojo tanks were empty.

After the “dire situation” was brought to the attention of the minister of human settlements, water and sanitation in May, the residents reported that the water supply was intermittent at best.

“They are receiving reticulated water once a week and at most two trucks are filling the Jojo tanks, which are often empty because the water provided is used up immediately,” Scher said. “There is no plausible explanation for [the municipality’s] failure to comply with the multitude of court orders. Its contempt has enormous implications for the rights to health and wellbeing.”

Mabitsela had held that there were plausible explanations for her administration’s failure, including a major breakdown between the water treatment plant and the reservoir. She said, however, that supply had been consistent, and the tanks were being filled regularly.

“We have made unwavering efforts to comply with the court order.”

She accused the residents of “creating a dramatic narrative”.

North Gauteng High Court judge David Fourie, in his ruling, said that while it was clear that the municipality had not adhered to earlier court orders, there was no wilful intent to see residents' taps run dry.

“I am of the view that the explanations are sufficient to conclude the municipality and the manager were not acting deliberately ... what is more, the explanations indicate a willingness to comply even though it is not always possible to do so,” he said.

Fourie did, however, saddle the Sekhukhune district municipality with half the legal bill for the residents for failing to file documents on time.

This specifically related to a progress report which was filed four months late.

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