Gauteng and NW Province

The battle over water in South Africa

By Patrick Bond

South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries. After a successful fight against racial apartheid, it is no surprise that the sphere of economic rights is also being contested. With liberation from many government regulations, neoliberal water industry actors began pushing for deregulation and privatization. Intense grassroots critiques of water disconnections, pre-paid meters and privatisation emerged from many communities, including the Johannesburg townships of Soweto and Orange Farm.

Municipalities have begun working to turn debt?ridden and inefficient water utilities into profitable operations that could attract private investment. A handful have already granted long?term management concessions to private multinationals…

‘Privatisation is a new kind of apartheid,’ said Richard Mokolo, leader of the Crisis Water Committee, which was formed to resist the privatisation effort in a township called Orange Farm, 25 miles south of Johannesburg. ‘Apartheid separated whites from blacks. Privatisation separates the rich from the poor.’

South African officials say the change in policies has helped expand water services to 8 million of 13 million people who did not have water when apartheid ended. But the statistics have not added up to progress in many poor communities, which have won their first reliable water services but now struggle to pay for them.

The issue of access to services has become an explosive new cause in the same urban townships and rural squatter camps that were principal battlegrounds in the fight against apartheid. During the World Summit on Sustainable Development thousands marched from the tin shacks of Alexandra past the elegant mansions of Sandton to protest, among other things, water and electricity cutoffs and evictions. Their cry: ‘Water for the thirsty. Light for the people. Homes for the homeless…’

Leaders in sprawling townships including Soweto, Alexandra and Orange Farm have encouraged people not to pay electricity and water bills. They have organised teams of bootleg plumbers and electricians to reconnect utilities when they are cut off. Political rallies and demonstrations have turned into street fights.

On the dirt streets of Orange Farm, where state?of?the?art water meters have been installed in front of lopsided tin shacks, people foresee a human disaster. Because of its location, it is known as the ‘deep south.’ However, it seems a fitting nickname in other ways.
Officials at Johannesburg Water acknowledged that in communities like these, billing people for water has been like squeezing water from a stone. In addition to the limited resources, a culture of nonpayment lingers from the years when people refused to pay utility bills, usually a flat fee for water and electricity, in support of boycotts against the apartheid regime.

Africa’s worst-ever recorded cholera outbreak can be traced to an August 2000 decision to cut water to people who were not paying a KwaZulu-Natal regional water board.

After the African National Congress promised free basic water supplies in December 2000, during a municipal election campaign, the same bureaucrats responsible for water disconnections began redesigning the water tariffs. In July 2001, revised price schedules provided a very small free lifeline, 6 000 litres per household per month, followed by a very steep, convex curve , such that the next consumption block becomes unaffordable, leading to even higher rates of water disconnections in many settings. The 6 000 litres represent just two toilet flushes a day per person for a household of eight, for those lucky enough to have flush toilets. It leaves no additional water to drink, wash with, clean clothes or for any other household purposes.

To fully comprehend the water apartheid problem requires us to travel from Johannesburg’s local circumstances up to the global scale to consider neoliberal capitalism’s basic processes, and then back to local struggles. In general, the obvious reason for squeezing water supply to the poor is to keep prices for rich people and big business as low as possible. In this sense, the logic of the Washington Consensus was superimposed upon the ANC’s free water policy.

Services are the ‘greatest challenge’ to living a decent life in Johannesburg. There is only one recent (2000) official survey that systematically measures citizen satisfaction with water services, and it is not flattering: ‘There is a strong indication that residents from all areas are beginning to feel a heightened sense of frustration and decreased sense of control that they have over their communities and the city due to perceptions of the council’s decreasing ability to manage the services under their jurisdiction.’  Among their top five complaints, residents listed electricity (48%), water (42%) and toilets (33%) as three of the five worst problems. The other two were the city’s failure to create jobs and maintain health clinics.

The 2000-03 move to commodify Johannesburg’s water through outsourcing to an international water corporation brought with it several new profitable techniques: revised tariffs that appeared to provide free water, but didn’t; pre-paid meters aimed at self-disconnections; and no-flush sanitation of an appallingly low, gender-biased standard. But because Johannesburg workers and poor people, especially women, are amongst the most politicized in Africa, protest was inevitable. In 2006, Suez may well find that the failure to have its contract with Johannesburg renewed is the price it pays for imposing neoliberalism on angry, desperate communities, whose vision of a better life includes water as a human right, not a commodity.

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