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By Selloane Khalane and Simphiwe Nkwali

Corruption in the Free State human settlements department has left the coffers R500 million lighter, and a trail of half-built RDP houses and unfinished projects that were meant to benefit the poor.

Trapped in the aftermath of rampant government corruption are citizens such as Marie Douw, 52, who has never known the comfort and convenience of a flushing toilet.

Worn-out toothbrushes loom over a toothpaste tube in Douw's faded pink bathroom. A bar of green Sunlight soap idles on top of the cistern.

In 2009, contractors left Douw with piped water to the kitchen sink but nothing else requiring a water source in her RDP house, and no drainage or sewage system. The water from the sink flows out into the yard.

A decade on, locals from the Honeyville township in Petrusburg call these toilets blompots (flower pots). They say that without water, the toilets are purely decorative.

Residents are frustrated by the state's slow response in building a water reticulation system that will unshackle them from the degenerating, red-brick pit toilets that were built before their RDP houses were constructed.

They protested in 2011 when, they say, then Free State premier Ace Magashule, now secretary general of the ANC, visited and promised to build a water pipeline between the town and Bloem Water to tackle water shortages.

That never happened.

White elephants

The farming town lies midway between Bloemfontein in the Free State and Kimberly in the Northern Cape, 80km from either city.

Known for its annual Aartappelfees (Potato Festival), the small town with a population of 8 435 according to the 2011 census faces high unemployment, water scarcity and incomplete RDP housing units.

Only three boreholes supply water to the area, which is separated by a highway bridge. Although the township is littered with heaps of rubbish, the town alongside is a cleaner, sleepy urban development with a handful of retail outlets.

Doubtful at government promises to rectify the plumbing work abandoned by the contractors, Douw points at the rusting bath in the corner of her bathroom. Like the toilet, it is a white elephant.

From the kitchen table, she continues to stare at her bathroom with quiet resentment. It is a constant reminder of corruption. "They said that houses don't have pipes because apparently someone stole the money meant for completing the houses."

Douw's son David died in 2017 at the age of 28. He was blind and it was a struggle for him to use the seeping pit toilet out in the yard. While they could fill the cistern in their bathroom manually with water from the kitchen tap, with no sewage system in place, "when I flush the toilet, human waste floods my yard".

Like most of the residents of Honeyville, Douw, a disability grant recipient, endured years of shack life in the settlement of Sechaba before moving into her RDP house.

A danger to children

Douw's neighbour, Mieta Phoka, 70, moved to the area 15 years ago. Mieta and her husband Motsamai Phoka, 69, live with their six children. Unlike Douw and other residents who are still waiting for their homes to be completed, the Phokas demolished the walls of the bathroom to make space for another sleeping area.

Chipped blue walls and the cold cement floor of the Phoka's humbly furnished kitchen betray the poverty that confronts parents fending for their six children on pension grants.

Elisa Albetrus, 35, says residents are forced to hire people to dig another hole next to the pit toilet to divert human waste if the municipality fails to drain the toilet. "Sometimes they charge us R300 or R600."

Residents are expected to notify the municipality when the pit toilets are full and need to be drained, but Albetrus says the trucks are unable to reach some of these toilets.

The mother of three worries about her children falling into the pit toilet and dying. "It is a daily struggle. I have to watch them like a hawk."

A R500 million scandal

There are 52 incomplete projects in the Free State, according to a report tabled in 2018 before the provincial portfolio committee for public works, infrastructure, roads and human settlements. These include 11 000 incomplete RDP houses from as far back as 2009, following a R500 million housing scandal.

In August 2012, former human settlements minister Tokyo Sexwale asked the Special Investigations Unit to look into allegations of corruption in the Free State housing department.

These included wrongful housing allocation by senior managers; irregular expenditure of more than R500 million; houses built without being registered with the National Home Builders Registration Council; houses recorded on the Housing Subsidy System that could not be physically verified; and advance payments to suppliers on behalf of contractors.

Although the department has taken some of the contractors implicated in the scandal to court, thousands of people are still living with the shoddy or incomplete work that resulted from this rampant corruption.

Beyond Petrusburg

Douw's story reverberates throughout the Free State and beyond. About 240km from Petrusburg is the oldest gold mining town in the Lejweleputswa District Municipality.

Odendaalsrus is about 160km from the provincial capital of Bloemfontein and has a population of around 64 000. Incomplete houses and abandoned projects litter the nearby Kutlwanong township. While Douw received an incomplete RDP home, Martina Tshabalala, 56, got only a concrete foundation slab.

Tshabalala moved to K9 section, formally known as Extension 11, in 2007 and applied for an RDP house in 2008. Before moving to the township, Tshabalala lived on a farm on the outskirts of Odendaalsrus.

Tshabalala says the contractors disappeared after laying the foundation in 2011, which they positioned on top of the vegetable garden that fed her family.

"I used to grow pumpkins, spinach. To make it worse, I had to cut down trees to make way for the building of the house and, nine years later, I am still waiting for a house," she said.

Tshabalala lives in a blue, two-room shack on the site with her family of four. Her inquiries at Matjhabeng Local Municipality about the completion of her RDP house have been futile.

A few blocks from Tshabalala's house is an abandoned reticulation project that was meant to alleviate pressure on the existing water pipeline system.

The project, which allegedly cost R2 million, was left unfinished in 2016 and only fading trenches remain. Some residents are forced to piggyback on their neighbours' water connections.

Housing authorities

Matjhabeng Local Municipality spokesperson Tshepo Davids said the local authority is not responsible for building houses or finalising the incomplete houses that are littered across the municipality. "Houses are built by the Department of Human Settlement."

As a result, questions about the abandoned alleged R2 million reticulation project in the K9 section of the township went unanswered.

Free State Department of Human Settlements spokesperson Senne Bogatsu said the department planned to finish 46 incomplete housing projects - about 2 900 houses - in 2019-2020.

According to the department, Fezile Dabi district has the highest number of incomplete houses at 946. The district is followed by Mangaung with 801, Thabo Mofutsanyana with 509, Lejweleputswa with 414 and Xhariep with 231. It has allocated a budget of almost R350 million for the completion of these houses.

Glimmer of hope

Bogatsu said the department would send a team to Honeyville, Petrusburg, in the first week of August to assess the situation and formulate a plan to address the problem.

She highlighted a number of reasons why recipients of RDP houses such as Douw and Tshabalala have been left with incomplete structures for as long as 10 years. One of these was that contractors could not finish the jobs because of financial constraints, among other things.

Bogatsu said the department pays for work only once it is completed and certified. "Poor workmanship that would be discovered upon inspection by the department and work stopped for rectification, slow or poor performance [could lead] to termination of the agreement and reappointment of another contractor."

The department mentioned its shortcomings regarding the managing and monitoring of projects. It has since appointed a technical team who serve as project managers and this has improved the situation.

Bogatsu said the department is aware of the RDP house foundations that were laid in Kutlwanong township in Odendaalsrus and has included this area in its plans.


This article was first published by New Frame

Banner image: People staying in RDP homes in Velwano, Mdantsane, are living in incomplete houses and appalling conditions. Photo: Lisekho Madikane - GroundUp

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