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“This is going to be another Hammanskraal, but it can be avoided if we fight.” These are the words of Merle Dietrich during a community speak-out organised by the Western Cape Water Caucus about water supply and other services in Goedverwacht just outside Piketberg on the West Coast. The Moravian missionary town in Bergrivier municipality is home to 600 families and has never had clean water since people settled there.

Goedverwacht village is a Moravian settlement located on land belonging to the church. Residents may occupy houses in the village but cannot obtain ownership of the land. The private village is administered in accordance with the church’s constitution, and is managed by an Overseers’ Council (“die Opsienersraad”).

Dietrich, a leader of Goedverwacht Tourism Development Forum, told Elitsha that they have never had clean drinking water but their problems were compounded when they started having watershedding in 2017 without being notified by the church or the municipality. “Before that we had dirty water all day long but we do not have that anymore. There is no engineer or monitoring of the day-to-day activities at the water plant. It would be possible for someone to slip in to poison the water that we are provided by the church. The Community Works Project people are the ones who act as monitors,” she said.

Lack of clean drinking water

During the speak-out, community members lambasted the church and the overseers’ board for not providing quality services to the community. Patricia Adams told the packed community hall that the church refused to write off her debt even though she told them that she won’t be able to pay the outstanding debt of the R70 water levy that they pay to the church.

“For 3 months last year I didn’t have water; I had to ask for water from people in the community. I decided to go to the church office to explain my situation and ask them to write my debt off as I was not going to be able to pay them. They refused to write it off and told me that if I were to die they were not going to bury me up until my family pays the outstanding amount. They put my name as a bad debtor and they made that judgement against me,” she said.

Former ward councillor and community leader, Daniel Smith, whose family has been living on the land for over 200 years, corroborated Adams’s claim: “Recently, a number of young people died in a car crash and their families were owing the church. They [the church] refused to bury their children until they settled their water debt,” he said.

Residents accused the church of refusing burial rights if the household owes the church money.

“On the 8th of February, my house burnt down and there was no water to extinguish the fire. The Overseers’ Board person who had the key to open the water hydrant system didn’t want to fetch the key to open the fire hydrant or get the hydrant pipe from his house. He allowed the fire to rage on. The fire brigades are based in Piketberg and they take an hour to get here,” said Lorraine Cornelius.

What is in the water?

Cornelius believes there is a link between the unsafe drinking water in Goedverwacht and the high number of deaths from cancer in the village. “Between 2021 and 2023, we noticed that there are lots of people who died from cancer in this community and were both young and old. We then had to ask questions. So one doctor came out very strong and said that there is a relationship between our water and our cancer patients. He was willing to testify if it comes to it,” she said.

The residents said that water pipes from the treatment plant are made from asbestos and Ferial Adam from WaterCan, Outa’s water quality campaign, urged the community to also test the water for asbestos. “Because they said the pipes are with absestos we need to test for asbestos. There is a national government policy to remove asbestos pipes as it can cause lung infection and cancer.”

The residents say that even the clinic does not have safe drinking water for patients.

The Church owes Eskom

The water shedding problems were compounded by the water treatment plant not working since the church owes Eskom money and was disconnected. “We met with the church council on the 12th of September and we agreed on certain issues. We agreed that the municipality will provide the community with more and clean potable water. The Overseers’ Council was going to provide people who can run the water treatment facility, but the problem is that there is no power to run the plant. The power was cut off because they owe Eskom money. I was copied in one email but because of the POPI Act (Protection of Personal Information Act), I can’t divulge how much they owe Eskom, ” said Riaan de Vries, the ward councilor.

According to Dietrich, the church owes Eskom R102,000 in interest that has accrued since 2018 relating to the power supply to the water treatment plant, and they also owe the municipality R6,7-million. The Bergrivier municipality did confirm that the church owes them millions and the last time they paid their property tax was in 2018. “Due to the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), Bergrivier Municipality is not at liberty to disclose the exact amount of money owed by the Moravian Church (Goedverwacht) to the Municipality. We can, however, confirm that it amounts to millions and the last payment received from the Moravian Church for their property tax was in 2018. This account has been handed over for litigation. The matter is currently on the roll of the High Court in Cape Town,” said municipal manager, Adv. Hanlie Linde.

“It is clear to us that the Church is not capable of rendering the services it is supposed to as the land owner. They cannot provide quality water. They don’t pay taxes but they expect us to pay for the water. Even when you die, you must be fully paid up before they give you your resting place. They are breaking their own religious rules,” said Dietrich.

The municipality has promised to deliver more and safe potable drinking water to the residents.

The results of a recent water test by Ferial Adam, confirm that the water is not safe for drinking. “The test that I have tests water for a few chemicals. It tests for PH, alkalinity and all those things but it also tests for E.coli and bacteria. I’m almost certain that since you have mentioned sanitation that your river and water has sewerage in it and you should not be drinking it,” she said.

Dietrich said that they are determined to continue to fight for their rights and that one of their next steps is to write a letter of no-confidence to the church.

Emails and text to the Moravian Church in South Africa and specifically to the CEO, Sidney Stadler, went unanswered for weeks.

The community says it will write to the Moravian Church to express their lack of confidence in the church to render services as a land owner.

In February last year, the Elim community that is descended from the freed slaves and Khoi people that the Moravian Church converted and settled there, were granted an order by the Western Cape High Court compelling the Moravian Church to consider their proposals for alternative models of land ownership.

The Department of Water and Sanitation is planning on engaging with the community on Thursday. “In recent weeks, the issue of water supply challenges in Goedverwacht has been given a sharp focus. Having listened to the Moravian Church who are the landowners and the Berg River Local Municipality, the DWS undertakes to listen to the community of Goedverwacht and Witterwater in an endeavor to resolve the water supply challenges speedily,” reads the statement from the department.