Kuils River Series: Part 2
Development and Infrastructure

by Nikiwe Solomon

Urban river management in Cape Town is dominated both by scientific and engineering approaches, and solutions to water quality and quantity problems emanating from what are claimed to be “objective” standpoints. However, these so-called objective approaches are not neutral. They are a result of a social, political and cultural imagination of our urban rivers as an extension of Cape Town’s sewer network, and the interventions on rivers are often geared towards making them work better by attending to the technical aspects of their flow in isolation from everything else that makes a river healthy. Focusing so intently on only one perspective of what a river is and what its role in the city is imagined to be, makes invisible its complex urban ecology. It overlooks challenges such as service delivery protests, failing infrastructure, declining wetlands and biodiversity, climate change and new forms of chemicals that are entering into the environment through runoff.

Advocates of neoliberal governance argue that infrastructure development is necessary to enable countries, particularly in the global South, to enter capitalism’s global markets. This vision has seen countries like South Africa undertaking massive infrastructure projects, placing government actors in various financial and engineering relationships with the private sector. This, in turn, has shifted political relationships and accountabilities. It has also reframed expert knowledge: who gets to know and whose knowledge counts in the context of development in the democratic state.

In his 2008 study of environmental services in the United States, The Sanitary City, Martin V. Melosi highlights that service delivery is an integral part of municipal government, taking up time, resources and effort from City employees to ensure the proper functioning of infrastructure to meet the needs of its citizens. He highlights that most contact between government and citizens takes place because of service delivery needs. These are often a site of contention when infrastructure fails or is incongruent with the needs of citizens.

This challenge became strikingly evident to me in conversations I held with Farmer Nazeem when the ‘Kak River’, a man-made canal, was built to discard effluent from the Zandvliet WWTW into the Kuils River, which flowed past his farm. I’ll turn to his story now to show what happens when official ideas about appropriate river management are light years away from those of citizens.

Pollution in the Kuils River, and collection of samples by residents. (Nikiwe Solomon)

The Kuils, like most urban rivers, features all manner of infrastructure which aims to control the flow of water, shaping how it moves, how it is interacted with — and what thrives and what dies in it. This infrastructure also affects natural, seasonal processes. A canal introduced into the Kuils River at its source and middle reaches over 50 years ago to prevent flooding in nearby residences offers a case study of what happens when human engineering focuses on “solving” a single problem without any respect to the greater life of water, and its relationships with the landscapes through which it flows. In the case of the Kuils, an unanticipated consequence of building the canal was that cutting off the river from its wetlands has sped up the water flow rates and led to the loss of the natural filtration processes carried out by plants and soils in the stream.2 One way to think of this problem is to imagine the different timelines that are at play: the river worked out its processes over millennia, but the concrete canals were built in bureaucratic time, which is driven by the changing priorities of electoral cycles and financial calendars, short-term management strategies, and shifting ideas about development and implementation. The effects of infrastructure decisions and implementation made by differing political regimes only become visible long beyond the time in which they were developed – usually long after the politicians that approved them are gone. 

But bureaucratic time, it has become increasingly obvious, is incompatible with what the river itself needs to thrive.

Horses and other livestock graze on the banks of the Kuils River (Nikiwe Solomon)

The story of Farmer Nazeem is a tragic illustration of this reality. A farmer who lives downstream of the Zandvliet WWTW, Nazeem lost many of his animals to terrible illnesses, including the decay of their intestines due to excessive levels of E. coli bacteria in the river water. His observation that it was the bacteria that killed his livestock was confirmed in water tests we collected as researchers, which had indeed shown extremely high levels of E. coli and Enterococcus in the Kuils River, downstream from where the WWTW discharged its effluent. For years, Nazeem and others in the community of Sandvlei had been in contact with City officials requesting that the problem with the river be resolved, because its poor state of health impacted their lives and well-being significantly. However, the City had been slow to act, and had already delayed the upgrading of the WWTW by 10 years by the time Nazeem told me his story. In a conversation I held with him on 25 January 2019, he told me about his long battle for effective service delivery.

“People on the other side [referring to the area of Khayelitsha on the other side of the R310] are always protesting about the poor services in their area. When they need proper taps, they will block the highways. When they need more toilets they burn tyres and things. But it looks like it works for them. We don’t do that. For so many years, we as the greater Zandvliet community have been asking for better services. We have been here for much longer than them [pointing towards Khayelitsha]. We have followed the right channels to report problems and request assistance, but for some reason no one seems to listen…. Or they just don’t care. I swear, I am going to take a bucket of cement and pour it in that ‘Kak River’ of theirs. Let them see how they like dealing with shit flowing through where they work. At least they don’t have to deal with it when they go home. For us, this is our life, all day every day.”

The Zandvliet WWTW that is the at the heart of Nazeem’s sorrows services some of the fastest-growing areas in Cape Town, treating effluent from the densely-populated south-eastern parts of the City (namely Kuils River, Delft, Blackheath Industria, Blue Downs, Eerste River, De Wijnlanden, Thembokwezi, Mxolisi Phetani and Khayelitsha).3 The Zandvliet WWTW, with a capacity to treat 72 megalitres per day (Ml/day) has long been scheduled for an upgrade that was delayed by ten years of litigation over five tender process disputes and a land claim dispute.4 The upgrade finally commenced in 2019, is scheduled for completion in September 2023 and is expected to provide additional treatment capacity of 18 Ml/day, bringing its total capacity to 90 Ml/day. The upgrade of the Zandvliet WWTW was valued at R1.7 billion and is financed by a loan from the German KfW Development Bank.

The tender for construction services was initially advertised in May 2010 and awarded in September 2010. The award of the tender was appealed by competing companies in September 2010, and the appeal was upheld in January 2011. The cycle of advertising the tender, awarding and then appealing, happened five times between 2010 and 2018, when the appeals were finally turned down, and construction commenced in 2019. In addition to the bureaucratic and legal  challenges of appointing a construction company, a land claim was lodged in March 2014 which restricted any work on the WWTW. The land claim was finally resolved in June 2016. 

During this long drawn-out legal battle, the Sandvlei community downstream of the WWTW on the Kuils River reported an increase in animal deaths and a general decline in resident health, with specific complaints of respiratory and skin infections. While even contemporary teenagers remember that the Kuils River was once home to otters, fish, birds and a multitude of frogs, today, the river carries solid waste and chemical particles flushed down the drains of thousands of homes through the Sandvlei community, depositing what the City insists is foam and not raw sewage along the river banks. When living with this river became unbearable and life-threatening, residents reported these incidents to authorities charged with wastewater management. Farmers reported the death of their livestock and mothers worried about their children when they went out to play. But nothing changed.

Nazeem the farmer,  close to tears after the death of many of his prize-winning horses, said: 

“I loved my horses. They were show horses. Each one was worth about R100 000. I put all my money into them. But to me, these horses are not just my animals. They were also a way to send my daughters to school, to feed my family and to think I am not the only one around here who has lost so much. The authorities have asked us to wait. We have waited, we have been patient, but what has this done to my family? Look at us now. I will take that cement they took to block that ‘Kak River’ and those channels they are using to poison the river. Others down there in Khayelitsha have done poo protests, thrown poo on the roads. Maybe that’s the only way they will listen to us. Make them deal with poo we have to deal with all the time.”

So far, we’ve begun to think about the long term consequences for the Kuils River of a procession of poor and uncoordinated governance decisions, including a tender process that was allowed to repeatedly flounder — all while the environmental consequences of the failure to act were exponentially mounting. In the next part, we’ll learn more about the Sandvlei community’s responses to the repeated violation of their Constitutional right to a clean environment.


  1. Anand, N., Gupta, A. and Appel, H (eds). 2018. The Promise of Infrastructure. USA. Duke University Press.
  2. Brown, C., & Magoba, R. (Eds.). (2009). Rivers and wetlands of Cape Town: Caring for our rich aquatic heritage. Water Research Commission.
  3. IOL News. 2019. R1.7bn upgrade underway at Zandvliet Wastewater Treatment Works in Cape Town. IOL News. 
  4. Franskon, L. 2019. Upgrade to Zandvliet WWTW to start in 2019. Infrastructure News.