The School that Had No Water: Water Security in South Africa

14 May 2014 The School that Had No Water: Water Security in South Africa


In this music-rich piece, Terrascopers start at a South African school that once had no water–none for drinking, flushing, cleaning–and go on to learn that water security isn’t just about water: it’s about education, poverty, history and politics.

First aired: Spring Semester, 2014 ·




[South African acapella singing]

They have what they call South African barbecue over there. It’s called… is it *brie*? Yeah, it’s called *brie…*

And it’s, basically they just take a whole bunch of meat, just barbecue it all up, and it’s glorious and it’s amazing.

Beyond that, just being able to see the beauty of the nature and the ocean and the coast that we got to experience. The elephants, the animals, and everything that you just don’t get to see back here in America.

The tons of fruit. Oh man, the fruit was so good. I’ve never had better bananas in my life. I must’ve been eating four bananas a day.

Just seeing the nature is so beautiful there. Oh my gosh, it was warm. It was definitely great.

We went to South Africa as part of Terrascope.

Terrascope is a program at MIT where freshmen embark on a project largely on their own. Independence is encouraged rather than having us follow a strict syllabus. Our year, we studied global water security problems.

Sometimes when you study a country or try to come up with a solution, you can’t just read something on the paper and get it. You have to go there and see it and experience it yourself and talk to the people who actually live there.

So we actually went to a place where this problem is reality.

We went to South Africa for the Terrascope trip this year.

We came there and we learned about the natural ecosystems in the area, we learned how water was connected to everything there.

We collaborated with students from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Something that was really important in Africa was the idea of speaking to people and getting the people involved in solving the problem.

We gained a perspective that we wouldn’t have gotten any other way.

Just kinda walked in with the concept of water and just walked out with so, so much more.

[singing fades out]

We traveled to South Africa expecting to see the water issues we had studied for the past semester. We ended up seeing a lot more than just water. In addition to water security, there were problems of poverty, education, sanitation, and politics. 


During our trip, we were taken to a school where all of these issues seemed to intersect. 

Our group of about 50 people from MIT, along with 20 from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, visited the Charles Duma school, where the principal, Mam Sume, spoke to us. Before arriving, we were only told that this was a school without water. It didn’t take long to see that there was far more behind the story of the school than just the water problems it faced.

Now you can see, we are trying to give quality education to the poorest of the poor. It’s not the middle-class, it’s not kids that are coming from these houses, it’s from the squatter camps. And obviously, it is those kids especially that need to be educated, because there is no other way they are going to make it in life without education. Because you want to say to them, “Forget about where you’re coming from. You are the crafter of your own future, and whatever you are going to do in life, it depends on you. You don’t say ‘not having resources is going to limit us.’ Nothing has to limit you in life just because you don’t have anything.”

[sad violin music]

It’s hard being a student at this school while growing up in a poor informal settlement. These settlements are often called “townships”, a term left over from the apartheid regime. At that time, black South Africans were forced to move into segregated townships, where they faced severe inequality in education and employment. Before visiting the school, we had explored the Mission Vale townships, where many students lived. One of our guides of the area, who was a former resident of the neighborhood, described the conditions there:

This area, it’s called Fairplatz. It’s one of the underdeveloped areas. Lot of people here are unemployed, and there are few who can  jobs. Not a sort of ease around.

It was easy to be discouraged by the state of the townships. We saw scattered shacks and piles of accumulating trash. 

Several goats and packs of malnourished dogs roamed about freely.

Our guide told us about government projects in the township.

One of the most visible projects was building houses for those living in shacks. However, some people we talked to felt that there was a lack of communication between people’s needs and the execution of the government housing project.

This led to problems in Fairplatz.

Someone will be looking at a house, a nice built house. Then he will say or she will say, “no, I cannot stay there because I don’t know the place, and that place is far from the community.” From anything that they’re used to. Some of them were a year were like that. They were given some houses but they didn’t want to go.

Despite these conditions, the people were incredibly friendly and brave. One of the townships we went to was nicknamed “Soviet,” because it was a center for the resistance against apartheid. Many of the adults in the community spent years fighting in the struggle. 

Unfortunately, according to one of our guides, many people who fought in the struggle didn’t go to school. He explained one of the reasons why.

The reality of those that were in the struggle, that have not had any improvements in their own personal lives, is mostly because comrades did not have time to go to school. They sacrificed their life. Most of them spent time in prison, spent time in exile, spent time running away from the police, couldn’t sit in the classroom and start. Very few have been able to do that, and those are the ones that are benefitting now. 

We also talked to a man named Gosi Nati, who was an activist during the struggle.

Let me sing you the song that we used to sing from Mandela when we was in prison.

[singing] Holy sa sa Mandela

[singing continues in background]

I was very enthusiastic about the activities in my early days. Spent about the whole week not attending classes, going from meeting to meeting. Because now, I’m an activist now.


You know, the person who mentored me in ? used to be my teacher. Always wanted to emphasize to me that “you will be a better activist if you get education.” I would disagree with them on that and many other things. There was this thing of “liberation now, education later,” which was not a correct strategy.

[continues singing]

Show us the way to freedom / In our land of Africa, in our land of Afri… / Mandela, Mandela, Mande– Mandela, Mandela shall fight for… / Mandela says freedom now / Mandela says freedom / Show us the way to freedom / Show us the…


In addition to education issues, water access has proved itself to be a problem in many South African communities. One of the graduate students who was traveling with us, Thomas Mundi, told us about changes in water access in his hometown in northern South Africa. 

I grew up in Limbombo. To fetch water, we had to travel a long distance. You needed to have your wheelbarrow to get water, so if you don’t have a well that you draw in, then you have to have a wheelbarrow to go and fetch water. I think now we are a little better in Limbombo because there have been a lot of dams that have been built in the past two years, so I think that everyone will be able to access water from now on, but I’m not sure. A lot of people now, they are drilling these wells and building tents for themselves so that they don’t have problems with water.

Despite the positive changes in infrastructure, much work remains.

But if you are from the ?? area, not a lot of things have changed because still a lot of people have to queue for water. A lot of taps on the roads, on the roadside, and then they have to queue. A very long queue. And then there’s a limit, maybe you have to get three or four barrels of water, and then you do not have more than that. Because other people, they have to get water as well. Because water come in a certain time. They say maybe from trough to truck walk. Then water, there’s no water anymore.

One of the bus drivers on our trip, Ryan Bauers, told us about the poor quality of water in his suburb. We talked to him one evening while most of our group was relaxing and chatting.

You don’t have a fault of your own? You’re drinking poison, sorry. Now you can actually see when you pour water to the tap, it’s all green. Water’s green. So you can’t drink that. And it’s amazing what it does to your skin. I know mine has gone all dry, and you actually have white marks on your body. Like a calgae? or something. Like pool water. That’s what it looks like after you shower. So definitely there’s something wrong with the water.

We also encountered problems with water and sanitation in the Mission Vale townships. Some of these neighborhoods had only one tap per block.

But amidst this struggle, there are people doing good things. Our guide was optimistic. 

Like some people are drinking for themselves. For example, I saw a lot of ??? also wait for another transition all those things and metric environment. And our community, we search for  Actually, a lot of stakeholders, the NGOs, and community members. So yeah, there are people doing good things in the community. It’s just that maybe those stories are not reflected one-hundred percent in the mainstream media. 

?? , the principal of the Charles Duma school, is one of the people doing good things for her community. The failures of the school’s water infrastructure forced the school to cancel frequently, making students fall behind. Sume knew she had to find a way to keep her school going all day.


As we stood in a big crowd in the open schoolyard, she told us about her incredible journey. 

When I came in here in 1998, the pressure system was very low, so if you flush a toilet, it would take about– more than 30 minutes for the system to fill in, and also, if you opened the tap, it was only a drop of water that was coming. So it would take a long time for even a bucket to fill up.

Sometimes, the water would fail completely.

Once, the pipes collapsed and they had no running water for months. 

Each and every time we’re bathing with water, and each and every time, we’re having challenges with our toilets. We had to release the kids early. And I know people will say “why didn’t you close the school”? But you close the school and the kids are going to be out there. Are they all going to come back?

She gathered volunteers from the community of parents to help her get the school running. 

So I talked with the parents and I had 80 volunteers in January. But by June, you know, it was 27. But out of the 27, it was only females. You know men never want to volunteer.


So it was females, and we had to connect a hose pipe to the community one. So that we manually put the water in toilet buckets and the parents had to manually flush the toilets every day. Then we had a normal school day. 

After speaking at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University about her work, she was approached by someone from Coca-Cola who was impressed by her accomplisments. 

And after my speech, she said “you know, we have a program of rainwater for schools at Coca-Cola. But unfortunately, your department didn’t give us your school because they had schools already. But she said “okay, I will see what I can do and I will make your school number one.” And she contacted Coca-Cola Atlanta, and they came on board. And obviously, the money was not enough, so the school had to reach in in employing labor but at least now you can open any day. On the 15th of July last year, we opened our dams for the first time and we had water.


?? successfully managed to turn her struggling school into a source of hope and change in the township. Stories like this make us believe that there can be a better future for those living in townships, and show us how to make that happen. 

These kids are not waiting. They are continuing and they are passing. And you want to make sure that by the time they leave here, at least it’s quality education that has been offered to them. So that is my biggest vision.

Another thing on the trip that really struck us was the warm and welcoming culture of South Africa. 

We witnessed the strength of communities through visits to many community gardens. In these gardens, people from the local neighborhoods spent much of their time growing fruits and vegetables. 

Any extra food was given out to the neighbors. Selling crops for money was virtually unheard of. 

On our trip, we heard many stories about South Africa’s cultural diversity. 

South Africa hosts a large variety of languages and culture, with 11 official languages and hundreds of unofficial ones. We talked about this diversity with one of our Mission Vale guides, Zim.

This is really a rainbow. It’s a rainbow nation, this one. We live with the Nigerians, people from Somalia, people from Congo, Zulu, Urdu, different kinds of nations are living all in the one place. 

The people we met were also very enthusiastic to teach us about their culture. On the last day of the trip, ???, a friend we made in South Africa, taught us a song in Shona, the main language of her home country, Zimbabwe.

[?? speaking in the background]

It means “children of the world unite. Come together to protect the earth. Unity is power.”


Despite many of the problems we saw in South Africa, the township conditions, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, we saw a lot of hope. 

We met many incredible people working hard to give themselves and their children the best possible futures.

In the midst of the harsh conditions, there were many good stories to tell.

[singing continues]


[acappella music]

This piece was created by Terrascope Radio, a class in the Terrascope learning community at MIT. The class was developed in collaboration with the MIT program in Comparitive Media Studies. Terrascope is part of MIT’s Office of Experiential Learning. We would like to thank Professor Sam ?, director of Terrascope, and Debora Axel, without whom the Terrascope program would not be possible. We would also like to thank the students and staff of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, especially Professor Martin DeVitt, who organized our trip to South Africa. 

[singing continues]

Of course, we cannot forget to say thank you to the wonderful people we interviewed, even those that did not make it into our story. 

Finally, we would like to thank Dirk Stalker, our undergraduate teaching fellow, Sabina Madila, for helping us at the tenth hour, and Ari Epstein, our Radio instructor, for guiding us throughout the whole process.

I’m Anthony


I’m Shinjini

Thanks for listening!

[acapella music ends]