When I first heard about the reports of cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, I knew that South Africa’s poor communities would be next. As for Zimbabwe, the epidemic highlighted the need for that country’s politicians to conclude the power-sharing talks and to channel its resources into fighting this killer disease.
This week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) figures showed that the epidemic has already claimed more than 2 000 lives in Zimbabwe. According to WHO, the disease has already affected 89 percent of the country’s 62 districts.
The cholera outbreak is not only affecting the people of Zimbabwe. Angola, Mozambique and South Africa are also affected. Reliable sources put the total number of deaths in these countries combined at more than 1 000, with 32 000 affected.
This means that South African Development Community (SADC) member states have to “act now” to prevent further outbreaks.
The contribution that NGOs such as the Red Cross are making to ensure the distribution of clean water and food must be acknowledged. Preventative work also includes providing public education about the disease. SADC member states must act now to ensure that poor communities have access to clean water and sanitation.
The situation in South Africa is a case in point. In Limpopo where cholera cases were first reported in Musina, poor people continue to fetch water from contaminated rivers. They do so because they do not have access to clean water and sanitation. Their right to access to clean water as guaranteed by the Constitution is far from realised.
Even when communities are proactive in their development, government still lets them down. In Ga-Sekororo village for example, the community, in the spirit of vukuzenzele*, initiated a water project and bought water pipes that draw water from the local river almost a decade ago. To date not a single government department is helping them to purify the water. They still do not have access to clean drinking water. This is the case of many villages throughout Limpopo.
If our government encourages people to play a part in improving their own lives, it should also work with these communities in doing so. Adhering to basic health and hygiene practices can be a temporary solution – but the government needs to invest a lot of resources to ensure that communities have water and sanitation. I am also not sure if government’s messages about cholera are reaching the intended communities as high levels of illiteracy, coupled with the fact that the majority of people do not speak English, means that many people are simply not being reached.
Cholera is a disease of poverty and we must do everything in our power. I appeal to the powers that be to capacitate local government to ensure that they make people’s right to access to clean water and sanitation a reality. Local governments should also be encouraged to work with NGOs to implement projects that are aimed at enabling communities to have access to clean water and sanitation.
We need more investment in water and sanitation projects in rural communities. The absence of these basic services means that poor communities will forever be exposed to life threatening diseases. The vicious cycle of poverty and under development will continue.
Butjwana Seokoma is the information coordinator at SANGONeT.
*Vukuzenzele: this slogan puts emphasis on partnership of government and society in all sectors and communities on the basis of active participation in the programme of action. It evokes the spirit of volunteerism and civic responsibility. It stresses the task of nation building in the context of joint action towards eradicating the imbalances of the past.