The Unseen Vaal Resident

Carte Blanche has been covering the issue of raw sewage flowing into the Vaal river for approximately 3 years now. My colleagues and fellow presenters have each been to the area to assess the collapse of infrastructure there. Unfortunately, it has gotten progressively worse, and this time, it was my turn to see what the situation on the ground was.

31 July 2018

On the way there, I was expecting to see pump stations not working, I was expecting to encounter bad smells at the actual Vaal river, but it was the look in the residents’ eyes that tore me up inside. I was trying hard not to pull a face at the stench and the sewage flowing past us, because I realised that these people live that life everyday. What was foul to me, was normal to them.

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I spoke to a few residents and met Mr Mbele, who was briefly featured in our story. Mr Mbele is a soft spoken, elderly gentleman who lives in Boipatong. His humble home is over 20 years old, and is starting to crumble and fall apart right before his very eyes. The floor throughout his home is cracked, and there is no trace of the tiles that were once there all those years ago. I was told that when it rains, and the manholes overflow, raw sewage actually seeps up through the cracks in Mr Mbele’s home. So much so that he has to sweep it out his front door. He says he physically cannot be inside his house when it has rained, and has to stand outside just to breathe. I thought to myself that this must be the equivalent of hell on earth. I literally cannot imagine a worse environment to live in, but here was a man, living his life with human waste seeping up into his home on a regular basis.

As he was describing his living conditions, I struggled to read his facial expression. His eyes were glassy, but lifeless. He couldn’t even muster any anger towards the municipality, who are ultimately responsible for the dire situation these residents find themselves in. At the end of our conversation, he looked at me with his blank stare and in isiZulu said that, the people in charge “do not see me”. That is the literal translation, but the depth of that statement hit me hard, because the true meaning is that his humanity is not acknowledged, his dignity is not a priority, his life is not important to those in charge. I had no encouraging or comforting words for Mr Mbele. We looked at each other in silence; he seemed defeated, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by it all. We said our goodbyes, parted ways and we went on with our day.

The story of the collapse of the Emfuleni Municipality will stay in the headlines for another few weeks or so, and then we will all move on to the next crisis. But I will never forget Mr Mbele and the haunting, vacant look in his eyes. At Carte Blanche, we strive to bring you truly South African stories, of real people and their circumstances. South Africa, if we measure our progress as a country by how we treat the impoverished and most vulnerable, then we are failing spectacularly.