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Thu Oct 23 05:50:27 SAST 2014

Village grannies must brave crocs for grants

MHLABA MEMELA | 26 March, 2012 00:14
Zenzi Mchunu and Khethiwe Kubheka must wade across the uThukela River to collect their monthly government grants. When the river is swollen it becomes almost impossible for the elderly to cross. It has claimed many victims, they say Picture: TEBOGO LETSIE

Pensioners from KwaNogawu village, in KwaZulu-Natal, risk drowning each month when they are forced to cross a raging, crocodile-inhabited river to collect their old-age pension.

The elderly, school children and mothers carrying children have for years braved the uThukela River in the province's midlands as the nearest bridge to their social grant pay point is more than 45km away.

A week ago, an eight-year-old schoolgirl drowned while crossing the river to attend a school activity.

Grannies from the village this weekend spoke of their fear of crossing the river, which is about 100m wide - sometimes taking more than half an hour to do so.

Khethile Kubheka, 80, is one of hundreds of grannies from KwaNogawu village who wake at 5am on pension day to prepare for their trek across the river.

Kubheka, like many her age, has bad eyesight and has to wait for others to help her cross the river, regardless of the weather.

In groups of two to five, the grannies cross the uThukela every month to get to the nearest pay point, in Umsinga.

Fear consumes them each time they are about to enter the river but, with their pension their only income, Kubheka says only God can guard them.

"We sometimes see crocodiles in the river as we cross. But we choose certain areas because now we know which areas in the river are preferred by the crocodiles," she said.

Pointing to the area where the eight-year-old girl drowned, Kubheka said: "We just buried the little daughter from the neighbour who was swallowed by the same river a week ago. Many people I know have died on this river while crossing. But that does not scare me that much, maybe this is the way our God wants us to live and die."

Years of pleas for a footbridge have fallen on deaf ears.

Said Bayekile Mthonti: "People are now tired of asking for the same thing. We have asked for the bridge while I was still a girl in the area and at that time we were under Zulu government nothing was done here. But we had hoped that when government falls under Jacob Zuma's hands our lives will change.

"Just a footbridge for our children and us when we are going to collect our pension won't be costly," said Mthonti.

For most of the villagers, the social grant is their only income.

"We better be eaten by the crocodiles than staying at home without collecting our pensions. Others stay with orphans here and they have to collect child support grants to ensure that there is food for the children in the house," said Mthonti.

Mthonti said grannies formed a human chain and rolled their clothes up to their breasts before crossing the river.

It was either that or the grannies, some with walking sticks, have to walk more than 45 km to a bridge.

But the journey does not stop after they have braved the crossing of the river - they must then walk another 10km to reach the pay point.

Zandile Nkala, 17, carrying her six-month-old daughter, Ayanda, said she has crossed the river several times with her child to collect her grant.

"I used to cross the river here to go to school and now I have to do the same for my child to have food. It's dangerous," she said.

"Every day when my siblings leave for school, my parents stand in the yard to watch them until they have crossed safely.

"Parents wait for calls from the schools to find out if their children arrived safely.

"This river is evil. Many school children and adults have drowned there. But no one cares about our lives."

Local mayor Joshua Sikhakhane was "shocked" to hear from The Times of the pensioners' plight.

"If I had known, I would have asked the previous social development MEC to assist us," he said.

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