Reactionary servicing of sewage networks prolonging Khaya Magadla search: expert

Public infrastructure expert Gundo Maswime has told Eyewitness News most municipalities do not have an adequate register of its assets, including its water networks.

EMS crews at a manhole in Klipspruit West to search for six-year-old Khaya Magadla who fell into a manhole in Soweto. Picture: Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

JOHANNESBURG - It's been 15 days since an extensive search for little Khaya Magadla started and he's still not been found.

Public infrastructure expert, Gundo Maswime, has told Eyewitness News that most municipalities did not have an adequate register of their assets, including their water networks.

He said that this would have been a key guide in the search for the missing boy.

There’s still no trace of the six-year-old, more than two weeks after he fell into a manhole in Dlamini, Soweto, while playing with friends.

A multi-disciplinary search team, including the Joburg EMS aquatic rescue unit, the police’s K9, air-wing and search and rescue units, tasked with the search have been met with several challenges, including the discovery of at least five "hidden" manholes during the search.

According to Maswime, many of the country’s municipalities failed to update their asset registers during the upgrade of operations.

He said that many relied on knowledgeable officials who’ve since retired to map and record the network using new technology.

Maswime said that the problem became more pronounced as one moved further away from the more affluent parts of society.

“Mostly in the suburbs, they know exactly how the network is running but when you move out of the suburbs and the CBD and you go towards the townships and the more informal areas in those spaces, they don’t seem to have the details.”

On day eight of the search, Khaya’s father Kholekile said that he was concerned as it seemed as if municipal officials on the job did not have a clear idea of the infrastructure layout.

“The plan for the plumbing, I don’t think they have it. I couldn’t be sure but from what I’ve observed, I can see that some of these holes they discover along the search and what makes me say that is because I feel it’s going to be a long procedure. It’s going to be a lot of work,” Kholekile said.

Maswime also said that for many municipalities, the servicing and maintenance of sewage networks was reactionary, and this contributed to prolonged search operations.

Meanwhile, Joburg Water said that a media briefing would be held to respond to questions about the entity’s perceived role in the incident and in the subsequent search for Magadla.

According to Maswime, there is no quick fix for uncovered manholes as the replacement of these structures competes with other priority projects in municipalities.

There are at least 1.3 million manholes along the Joburg network, which have come under the spotlight following the disappearance of the six-year-old.

The theft and vandalism of municipal infrastructure is on the increase as a wide network of criminals sell the valuable material such as copper cables and metal manhole covers to scrapyards in exchange for cash.

Mayor Mpho Phalatse previously said that Joburg Water was in the process overhauling the city’s manhole covers but explained this would be an incremental process focusing on only lost and stolen covers.

According to Phalatse, the metal manhole covers around the City of Joburg were being replaced with ones made of a less valuable cement composite to deter criminals. But Maswime said that the alternative materials aren’t necessarily tamper-proof.

“There are various metal alloys which they use but they tend to be slightly more expensive, and they are lighter in weight so if people just want to casually open them for whatever reason, they become easier to open. Many municipalities have started to bring that change in, but you need a manufacturer, and then you have to have stockpile and go on a replacement exercise, which not cheap.”

Phalatse said that Joburg Water was piloting the installation of sensors that would detect any tampering on manhole covers but she admitted that this was an expensive intervention which is so far being tested at only 10 points.

Meanwhile, Joburg Water said that it was investigating claims that the community’s reporting of the uncovered manhole Magadla fell into went unattended for two years.

It said that it had no record of such reports.