With Mangaung hurtling closer and after having reshuffled the deck, President Jacob Zuma's out to win the hearts and minds of South Africans. In his quest to find the truth about service delivery, Zuma's going to meet one problem again and again. In South Africa, way too many people are close to dying of thirst.
These days, Zuma's into the "kissing babies and pressing flesh" part of his campaign to secure the presidency at Mangaung. Much of his time, to date, has been consumed by messy power battles and chopping out clumps of corruption from his Cabinet. (Those that have been caught like rabbits in the spotlight of the media and the public protector, mind you.)
But the ANC presidency isn't wholly secured at top level. It is largely won at ANC provincial and branch level, where those in local government sit at the coal face. Here the phrase coal face is a euphemistic term for service delivery protests bearing down on municipal or council offices.
The flesh-pressing tour began this week in Pretoria, where Zuma took public transport from Pretoria to Soweto, which, for most South Africans who can't afford the luxury of the Gautrain or taxis, means Metrorail.
When he arrived on the other side Zuma told Soweto citizens that he was on a personal fact-finding mission.
"Writing a report is easy. You can send someone to write a report for you and they tell you that all is well," Zuma told the media contingent present .
"We have now come to check if what we have been told is true."
After he had come and been, the Centurion station was abuzz with talk about Zuma catching the train with everybody else. He'd seen the suffering of the everyman and woman. Surely now the death-traps that are the ageing Metrorail locomotives, unchecked crime and just plain mismanagement would soon become a thing of the past?
Metrorail had indicated to the media that the new locomotives to replace the dangerous old ones were only due to be delivered in 2015 .
The terrible crush of too few locomotives and way too many commuters was surely destined to continue for at least another few years.
iMaverick quizzed a commuter about Zuma's power to deliver. "Nee, nee, nee," (No, no, no,) said the man in protest as someone would to an invader crushing a hopeful dream. "Die treine sal kom. Zuma kan alles regmaak." (The trains will be delivered. Zuma has the power to make everything right.)
The man then told a story, one of the many tragic tales you hear if you talk to Metrorail commuters. He described how people were trampled and killed in a surging crush at a nearby station. He shook his head sadly.
But he again said that Zuma was going to fix this, now that the president himself had been on the trains.
Earlier in Soweto, Zuma had told people that he was there to listen and make changes. "We have come today to hear what the communities feel," he said to the crowds that had gathered. "There are national ministers here, the premier and your councillors. You should always get the chance to (speak to) government and express your grievances."
One of the issues raised by the crowd -- and one that Zuma will hear often during his flesh-pressing tour -- is that of water. But water and environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa was not on hand.
"I have heard there are challenges around the provision of water. I could not leave (bring) the minister responsible for water (Edna Molewa) when I came to meet you. Whatever questions you have, she will answer," Zuma promised.
But Molewa is a busy woman. She looks set to face a massive law suit brought on behalf of the people of Carolina by the Legal Resources Centre and Lawyers for Human Rights. Business Day reports that about 17,000 people in Carolina have been without safe drinking water since January because of seepage from mines. Heavy metals from at least four separate mines have contaminated the local water supply.
This is where Zuma's mettle will really be tested. Here, like so many other parts of government, constituents clash. There are the miners who are Zuma's benefactors, friends and at times even family. And the people who voted him into power. The latter mostly get the thin edge of the wedge of a power struggle that favours the wealthy elite that buoys Zuma's power base.
Zuma's presidency is increasingly being marked by agonising incidents of people suffering because of failed municipal services, experiences that become the fodder of daily news, and sit uncomfortably alongside stories of elitist greed. And, too many of these news stories have to do with that basic substance required for human survival -- water.
In the North West, in a small place called Jericho Village, Daily Sun reports that old women have to dig deep pits in the Sandsloop River with their hands to get at water because taps in the area have been dry for two years. "I know if the sand falls in, I could be buried alive, but I must take that risk because we have no water," 61-year old Mary Phatheng told Daily Sun. The women say it takes about 45 minutes to dig further down into the 2m-deep holes to get water. The response from local government is of the order of "please be patient, we have a problem."
In the Limpopo villages of Madandila and Mhinga, people wash themselves and their children in the Luvhuvu River at the peril of contracting bilharzia, typhoid or cholera. Fourteen-year-old Thonifhani Munyai told Daily Sun: "We are forced to come here as we have been without water for a whole month." Again, the local municipality is aware that the people have no water, but has offered nothing more but promises to resolve the critical problem.
And as people in rural areas battled for their daily supply of water, Molewa admitted that in KwaZulu-Natal, 40% of the local water supply was being lost because of leakage, "illegal abstraction", or water that was simply not being billed for.
Zuma has started his "truth seeking" cum spin-doctoring campaign for votes in the mighty metropolises of Pretoria and Soweto, where people have greater access to amenities and the media. It is in cities like these where service delivery problems are a lot more visible.
Away from the glare of media lenses that focus on national issues almost to the exclusion of rural life, the lived reality is summed up by the daily struggle for water. There our president will need a lot more than promises and propaganda to quench the thirst of those whose pleas for basic amenities are being ignored.*_DM_*