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Running Dry

South Africa’s water policy results in cutoffs, evictions and disease

In 1955, the African National Congress (ANC) adopted the Freedom Charter as a popular expression of the desires of the majority of South Africans. One of the most important clauses in the Charter—which the present-day ANC government still claims as their guiding manifesto—states that “the national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people.”

When the vast majority of South Africans, made up of the poor and working class, gave political victory to the ANC in 1994, they were also giving the new government the power to fulfill the Charter and ensure that natural resources like water would be accessible to all citizens, irrespective of race or class. Despite this popular mandate, the ANC unilaterally decided to pursue a water policy that has produced the opposite result.

In 1996, the ANC adopted the “Growth, Employment and Redistribution Programme” (GEAR), the government’s macro-economic policy framework. GEAR effectively turned water—a resource essential to all life—into a market commodity to be bought and sold for profit. Since then, South Africans have witnessed the gradual commercialization and privatization of water, a development that has increasingly been met with mass, organized resistance.

Cutoffs and Cholera
The privatization of water in South Africa began in earnest when the ANC—under pressure by multinational water companies and the World Bank—halted subsidies and other financial support to local governing councils. Previously, governing councils had received the vast majority of their revenue from the central government. When the ANC took over in 1994, their challenge was to redistribute these subsidies to benefit the black majority. Suspension of the subsidies, however, forced the councils, with Johannesburg at the forefront, to turn toward commercialization and privatization of basic services to generate the revenue that was no longer provided by the state.

The immediate result was massive increases in the price of water that hit poor communities hardest. The price increases were exacerbated by the government’s goal to “recover” additional costs associated with the World Bank-funded Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which included dams built to provide water to the Greater Johannesburg area. The first price hike instituted by the newly privatized water service in Johannesburg was an astronomical 55 percent. 

Following the World Bank’s advice to introduce a "credible threat of cutting service," the Johannesburg council began cutting water supplies to tens of thousands of people who couldn't afford the increased prices. The “full cost recovery” model—including an International Monetary Fund-promoted legal process to recover debt from “customers”—has also resulted in the forced evictions of tens of thousands of poor people across South Africa. In Johannesburg alone, nearly 100,000 people suffered from water and electricity cutoffs during the first half of 2002. Nationally, the privatization program has imposed water cutoffs on more than 10 million South Africans as well as evictions on more than 2 million. Both the urban and rural poor have suffered tremendously as a result.

In addition to the cutoffs and evictions, privatization has triggered several outbreaks of cholera. Not long after Suez, a French multinational corporation, took over Johannesburg’s water supply in 2001, a cholera outbreak sickened thousands of poor families who had resorted to drinking from polluted streams in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra. The same year, more than 200 people from the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal died of cholera. The epidemic was brought under control only after community mobilization forced the national government to step in. 

Despite these problems, the latest weapon in the arsenal of water privatizers has been the widespread introduction of pre-paid water meters, devices that are installed on an individual’s property. To access water, residents must buy tokens, of varying values, to insert in the meters. The amount of water they get depends on the value of the token inserted. As soon as the value is spent, the meter automatically shuts off. Most recently, the privatized Johannesburg Water Company embarked on the installation of pre-paid water meters in the sprawling settlement of Orange Farm (south of Johannesburg), as well as in the Phiri section of Soweto.

Water as a Human Right
In response to these water privatization measures, poor communities in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and other smaller towns and peri-urban areas across South Africa have responded with active resistance. One of the new social movements that has emerged is the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), an umbrella organization for grassroots community groups in the Gauteng Province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria. Formed in 2000, the APF’s guiding principle has been that basic needs, such as water, are fundamental human rights, not privileges to be enjoyed only by those who can afford them.

With the assistance of the APF and other progressive organizations, township residents have launched a campaign called Operation Vulamanzi (Water for All). The campaign has helped residents defy certain privatized water “control” measures, such as trickler systems, or devices that severely limit the amount of water flowing from a tap, and rerouted piping. Residents bypass these controls by tampering with the trickler systems or by laying pipes to access water from central mains. Led by the APF, residents in Orange Farm and Phiri communities have destroyed the pre-paid meters.

Yet, ANC politicians and government bureaucrats have publicly labeled community residents who resist privatization as “criminals” and “anarchists” trying to institutionalize a “culture of non-payment.” These attacks have been accompanied by a large-scale crackdown on dissent. Over the last three years, hundreds of activists and community members have been arrested and imprisoned. While repression has not prevented continued resistance in poor communities, the resistance has also not stopped the ANC government, along with the privatized water entities, from continuing their onslaught.

While anti-privatization struggles have not yet succeeded in reversing the privatization process, popular pressure forced the ANC to announce, in late 2002, a partial free water policy plan. However, the plan to allocate 6,000 liters of free water per household, per month, comes nowhere close to meeting even the basic sanitation requirements of the average poor household in South Africa. The World Health Organization has set a minimum standard of 100 liters of water per person, per day. That means that for the average South African household (black urban or rural), which includes eight people, the minimum would be at least 24,000 liters per month. 

For these reason, the APF continues to intensify the campaign against privatization in all its forms. Through the APF and other groups, the poor majority in South Africa has once again moved to the forefront of the struggle to reclaim basic human rights and dignity. Water is life and life can never be a privilege. 

Dale T. McKinley is media/information officer and spokesperson for the Anti-Privatisation Forum in South Africa.