By Matebello Motantsi, Honours in Journalism and Media Studies student
At the 2019 graduation ceremonies held in April, the Vice Chancellor’s Distinguished Community Engagement Award was conferred on Professor Tally Palmer, Director of the Rhodes University Institute for Water Research (IWR) for her work on advocating for, teaching, and promoting sustainable water resources and clean, reliable and fair water supply.
Professor Palmer, who has been working with the IWR since 1989, held a workshop at City Hall on the evening of 30 May, instead of the usual lecture associated with the award, with the tagline: Makhanda: Water Works for Everyone. In her introductory speech, Prof Palmer commented on this tagline by pointing to the fact that right now, water in Makhanda does not work for everyone, but it could be, if we shift from a blame culture to collective action in tackling the water crisis. Further pointing that her research has shown that learning together can shift behaviour and feelings.
She acknowledged Dr Matthew Weaver and Mateboho Ralekhetla, students of the IWR, for their contribution and assistance towards the engaged research that motivated the award. The Makhanda: Water Works for Everyone engagement was specifically conducted to change the Makhanda community’s perception of the water crisis by providing them with accurate information about the complexity of the water problems the city faces. “Issues with water is something that we share deeply in common,” she said to those attending the workshop.
This workshop was attended by the mayor of Makana Local Municipality, Mr Mzukisi Mpahlwa, Rhodes University’s Vice-Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela, and the Chairperson of the Makhanda Water Forum, and Technical Portfolio Committee Chairperson, Councillor Ramie Xonxa. Other representatives included senior officials from the Department of Water and Sanitation, the Resident’s Association, MBB, and Amatola Water. The IWR team of staff and students facilitated discussion groups at table points marked “clean”, “reliable” and “fair”. Each attendee was encouraged to contribute a comment or pose a question and to commit to an action concerning each of the three themes of the workshop. Participants received a pack with material relevant to each table in English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa, and were invited to reflect on what they had learned during the evening.
With this approach, Prof Palmer believes our thoughts and contributions matter, just as votes do. “There is no one solution to our water problems – multiple factors are connected – making solutions elusive,” she said. She supplemented this statement by demonstrating the intricacies of processes involved in the culmination of tap water in our homes, schools and business places. The goal for Prof Palmer and the IWR is for each person to have reliable access to the at least their rightful daily minimum of 25 litres of clean drinkable water. While many people exceed the municipal limit of 50 litre, the greater population of Makhanda has access to far less.
At one of the tables, the delegates pointed to the fact that people residing in informal settlements receive the worst treatment, such as residents the Sun City community who all rely on a single tap to get water, which results in long tiring queues of people waiting their turn to get a drop of clean water.
This unfair system of water allocation and access to a basic resource that is essential for life, is one of the focal points of the Makana Water Forum, a civil society institution, formed to attend to the challenges on the ground, in contrast to top-down intervention approaches which fail to serve everyone fairly. Membership is open to interested volunteers and through the forum, where people can voice concerns and contribute to solutions. The forum in in formal communication with the Mayor, Council and Municipal Manager.
At the end of the evening, Prof Palmer promised to compile a report sharing the knowledge generated at the workshop, which will not only be sent to attendees as feedback, but sent to the relevant authorities to use for action.