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At Issue

The battle over water in South Africa
by Patrick Bond

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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.

The battle turns violent

The murder of well-known 61-year-old Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee activist Emily Lengolo, in her sleep at 1:00 am on 8 February 2003, is still unsolved. But witness reports of the killer’s chilling remark at the scene – ‘This is the one we are looking for’ – suggest it was a political hit job. A front-page New York Times report by Ginger Thompson on 29 May 2003 seemed finally to draw the attention of water minister Ronnie Kasrils:

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 last August, 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.

The highest costs to poor communities have come in the form of disease and mass disconnections...

“‘Privatisation is a new kind of apartheid,’ said Richard Mokolo... ‘Apartheid separated whites from blacks. Privatisation separates the rich from the poor.’”

Thomson moved to Orange Farm for a close up view:

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.

The township has become a microcosm of the nation’s most pressing social problems, including high rates of unemployment, violent crime and HIV‑infections.

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.

‘The problem is not that we do not want to pay for water,’ said Hilda Mkwanza, a 45‑year‑old mother of six who lives in Orange Farm. ‘The problem is we cannot pay.’

Interviews with her and other Orange Farm women, who live by doing other people’s laundry, said they barely had enough money to pay for food and school fees. Many have prepaid electricity meters in their homes, and they say their families end up in the dark for several days each month.

Mr. Mokolo, a veteran of the anti‑apartheid movement, urges people not to pay. ‘The government promised us that water is a basic right,’ he said. ‘But now they are telling us our rights are for sale.’1

Kasril’s response

In a letter to the Times the following week, Kasrils replied: ‘We seek, in a practical, nonideological way, sustainable solutions. We work in partnership with those who can help achieve our objectives. The result is not millions of people cut off.’ Actually, a 2001 survey showed an estimated 10 million households experienced cutoffs. Kasrils then described the pre-paid water meter system as ‘an example of how South Africa is harnessing home‑grown technology for development.’2 Again, a dishonest reply, because such meters were introduced en masse in Britain during the 1990s, and by the end of the decade had been banned, because they presented a public health risk. Resort to this kind of sophistry reveals the pressure Kasrils was under, but that was nothing compared to the pressure on people like Mokolo, whose life was periodically threatened, and who remained on the front lines of the Johannesburg water war.

“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.”

Kasrils’ most urgent challenge is, no doubt, halting the disconnections of water that resulted from people’s inability to pay high bills. There have been approximately 10 million people affected by the disconnections, and 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 (see Figure 1), 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.

Optimally, a different strategy would provide a larger free lifeline tariff, ideally on a per-person, not per-household basis, and then rise in a concave manner to penalise luxury consumption (Figure 1). Johannesburg’s tariff was set by the council with help from Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, a Paris-based conglomerate, and began in July 2001 with a high price increase for the second block of consumption. Two years later, the price of that second block was raised 32%, with a 10% overall increase, putting an enormous burden on poor households which used more than 6 000 litres each month. The rich got off with relatively small increases and a flat tariff after 40 kilolitres/household/month, which did nothing to encourage water conservation.

Figure 1: Divergent water pricing strategies
Johannesburg (2001) vs. ideal tariff for large household

The global roots of privatization

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.

Official documents reflect the debate. Early interventions by the World Bank included a 1993 study of services backlogs and the 1994 Municipal Infrastructure Investment Framework. More recently, according to the Bank, Johannesburg’s vision strategy document for 2030 ‘draws largely on the empirical findings of a series of World Bank reports on local economic development produced in partnership with the municipal government during 1999–2002, and places greater emphasis on economic development. It calls for Johannesburg to become a world-class business location. ’ In turn, the Bank insists, businesses, not low-income consumers, should be allowed benefits that might later trickle down: ‘The ability of the city to provide services is related to its tax revenue base or growth. The municipal government does not consider service delivery to be its greatest challenge to becoming a better city... The city finds further support for its Vision in a survey that suggests that the citizens are more concerned about joblessness than socio-economic backlogs.’ Bank staff cited ‘the World Bank’s local economic development methodology developed for the municipal government in 1999,’ which ‘sought to conceptualize an optimal role for a fiscally decentralised municipal government in the form of a regulator that would seek to alleviate poverty... through job creation by creating an enabling business environment for private sector investment and economic growth in Johannesburg’ (emphasis added).3

“Chippy Olver, then the government’s chief infrastructure official, told the Mail & Guardian : ‘... It’s a fact that international capital holds sway as we come to the end of the 20th century.’”

This short-term commitment to what planners term ‘urban entrepreneurialism’ negates poor people’s needs for effective municipal services, paid for through cross-subsidies from business. Johannesburg would become less competitive as a base within global capitalism if higher tariffs were imposed. Among Pretoria’s technical strategists, this was a well known problem. By December 1996, Chippy Olver, then the government’s chief infrastructure official (and later the director-general of environment), told the Mail & Guardian why he and Department of Finance officials refused to consider widescale redistributive national tariffs through cross-subsidies mandated in the 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme: ‘If we increase the price of electricity to users like Alusaf, their products will become uncompetitive and that will affect our balance of payments... It’s a fact that international capital holds sway as we come to the end of the 20th century.’4

To what extent did international capital hold sway in Johannesburg when it came to providing water to the vast majority of the city’s residents?

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.’5 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. For black African Johannesburg residents, the figures were, respectively, 58%, 53% and 45%, ranking as the first, second and fourth worst problems.6

A key player in the delivery of water services is a Suez affiliate, Johannesburg Water (JW), an arms-length ‘private company with limited liability.’ It serves as the operating vehicle for both the City of Johannesburg and Suez.7 JW purchases nearly a billion rands worth of water from the Rand Water Board each year, and records turnover of R2.1 billion. More than 9 500 km of water pipes and 9 000 km of sewers, 86 reservoirs and 33 water towers lead to six treatment plants. The company was established on 1 January 2001, after a sale of assets (R1.6 billion) and debtors books (R573 million). The company pays Johannesburg R60 million in interest and R40 million redemption on the purchase loan each year. Capital investment for 2002 was R187 million, but this commitment fell 38% in 2003 to R116 million.

The mandate the company has from the city is ‘to provide an efficient and cost effective service for the city to attract economic growth and development. JW must provide sufficient lifeline and subsidised tariffs at the lower level of consumption to maintain social stability among the populace.’8 JW has 550 000 domestic, commercial and industrial customers, but only takes billing responsibility for the top 15 000 consumers leaving the rest to the city. The deal with Suez lasts until 2006, when it could be renewed for more than two decades.

Advocates of a neoliberal approach to water provision and pricing, ranging from World Bank advisors to JW’s management, have introduced several unsound features. JW’s pricing strategies fail to incorporate eco-social factors, including public health, gender equity, the environment or economic benefits such as employment generation or stimulation of small-scale enterprises. Johannesburg’s narrow financial-rate-of-return policy fragments city services, disengaging civil servants in the water or electricity or waste-removal sectors from those in the health sector, for instance.

Governance deficits have also been serious. JW refused to provide Wits University researcher Ebrahim Harvey and his allies at the Freedom of Expression Institute with information on their contract bid or the controversial Orange Farm pilot projects, a refusal Harvey and the Freedom of Expression Institute are contesting legally. In addition to the debates over pricing and disconnections, there are three other areas in which problems can be observed: inadequate existing standards of water and sanitation services; installation of pre-paid water meters; and new sanitation systems.

Suez: pre-paid meters, VIPs and shallow sewers

Growing dissatisfaction with water services was recorded in the Johannesburg Metropolitan Council Attitude Survey in 2000. The nearly one million people living in informal settlements continued to suffer intense inequity in the delivery of water: 65% used communal standpipes, 14% yard standpipes and 20% water tankers. For sanitation, 52% had only pit latrines, 45% chemical toilets, 2% communal flush toilets and 1% ablution blocks.9 The threat of service disconnections due to poverty was severe for those with their own water taps.

Because disconnected water pipes were increasingly (unlawfully) reconnected by the Anti-Privatisation Forum and informal township plumbers, thousands of pre-paid meters were installed in Johannesburg. The R342 million, five-year operation, termed ‘Gcin’amanzi’, Zulu for ‘conserve water’, was aimed at ‘self-disconnection’ as the solution to durable non-payment problems in Soweto, Orange Farm, Ivory Park and Alexandra. The fight against pre-paid meters began in Orange Farm in 2002 and by 2003 created havoc in the Phiri section of Soweto, where repeated arrests did not succeed in normalising the JW strategy.

Another Gcin’amanzi strategy addressed sanitation. JW’s objection to installing full sewage is the ongoing operating expense, the 12 litres per flush of conventional toilets. A somewhat lower capital cost for JW’s ‘shallow sewer’ reflects the lack of water inflow piping. Hence instead of cisterns, buckets are used for flushes to limit water flow-through. However, in the field of sanitation, money saved in one area may be lost elsewhere. To take one example, the installation of Ventilated Improved Pitlatrines (VIPs) was agreed upon by Johannesburg’s Transformation Lekgotla in June 1999 without public participation. But in budgeting R15 million worth of pit latrines from privatisation revenues, instead of water-borne sewage, which would save money for the soon-to-be corporatised JW, city officials failed to factor in the environmental or public health implications of E.coli flooding through the Jukskei River and into the water table of Sandton, the city’s wealthiest suburb.10

“The shallow sewer system is also attractive to the company... The most extraordinary feature is that pipes are regularly blocked with excrement, not by accident but as a matter of deliberate cost-savings.”

Notwithstanding the dangers, according to JW business plans, the company intends to spend R16 million constructing 6 500 VIPs from 2003 to 2006 in several informal settlements. The shallow sewer system is also attractive to the company, because the maintenance costs are transferred to ‘condominium’ residential units. Residents — and particularly women — are instructed on how to clean the system every three months in a manner that threatens public health. The most extraordinary feature is that pipes are regularly blocked with excrement, not by accident but as a matter of deliberate cost-savings. JW provides ‘Maintenance Procedure’ instructions for the unfortunate residents:

  • Open all inspection chambers
  • Wear gloves
  • Remove all solids and waste from the inspection chambers
  • Do a mirror test for each chamber-to-chamber section
  • If waste material is found in a section, bring in the tube from the upstream inspection chamber until it comes into contact with the obstruction
  • Block off the outlet from the downstream inspection chamber with a screen that allows water to pass through but not solids
  • Push the tube until the material is moved to the downstream inspection chamber
  • Wear gloves and remove waste material by hand
  • Pour a large quantity of water through the section between the two inspection chambers and check for cleaning
  • Repeat the mirror test
  • Close the inspection chambers
  • Inspection chambers must be kept closed at all times except during cleaning operations.11

Conclusion: limits of commodification

Controversies over such features of Johannesburg-style water apartheid are increasingly common in sites of corporatisation and commodification in Latin America, Africa, Asia and even advanced industrial countries. The most fundamental contradiction can now be addressed: the desire to limit water cross-subsidisation by corporations and rich people to low-income consumers. The global-local connection is not merely, as Olver suggested, about the importance of ‘competitiveness’ for Johannesburg businesses, hence their desire for lower water prices. By buying into the logic of global neoliberalism, the ANC government reproduces and amplifies class apartheid in its municipalities.

The distortion of market prices by cross-subsidy is also a deterrent to further water privatisation, as World Bank water official John Roome was quick to point out in his 1995 advice to then minister Asmal. Roome’s power-point slideshow, which he later claimed was ‘instrumental’ in a ‘radical revision’ of Asmal’s water pricing policy,12 argued that municipal privatisation contracts, ‘would be much harder to establish,’ if poor consumers had the expectation of getting something for nothing. If consumers didn’t pay, Roome continued, Asmal needed a ‘credible threat of cutting service’.13

“Because Johannesburg workers and poor people, especially women, are amongst the most politicized in Africa, protest was inevitable... (Their) vision of a better life includes water as a human right, not a commodity.”

The logic played out over the subsequent eight years. 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.


1. Thomson, G. (2003), ‘Water Tap Often Shut to South Africa Poor,’ New York Times , 29 May.
2. Kasrils, R. (2003), ‘South Africans’ Water,’ New York Times , 5 June.
3. World Bank (2002), ‘South Africa: Monitoring Service Delivery in Johannesburg.’ Washington, pp. 1-9.
4. Mail and Guardian , 16 November 1996.
5. Johannesburg (2001), ‘Johannesburg Metropolitan Council Attitude Survey,’ pp. 8-9.
6. Johannesburg’s white households ranked as their main grievances job creation, community litter, emergency services, pollution and parks/public transport. Johannesburg, ‘Johannesburg Metropolitan Council Attitude Survey,’ pp. 14-17.
7. Johannesburg Water has a performance contract with the city and primary owner, Jowam, a joint venture made up of Northumbrian Water Group plc (51%), Water and Sanitation Services SA (Pty) Ltd (29%) and Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux (20%). In turn, however, Suez controls 100% of Northumbrian and 49% of Water and Sanitation Services South Africa. For Suez, this appeared a potentially lucrative proposition in the medium-term, even though the bid for the initial ‘loss-leader’ contract called for low returns. The business plan for Johannesburg called for (after-tax) profits to increase from R3.5 million in 2000-2001 to R419 million in 2008-2009.
8. Johannesburg Water, 2002.
9. Harvey, E. (2003), ‘A Critical Analysis of the Decision to Corporatise the Water and Wastewater Services in the City of Johannesburg’. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Graduate School of Public and Development Management, Masters Dissertation, Jowam data cited in Table 2.
10. The World Bank advocated this method of sanitation in South Africa for 20% of all citizens since its late 1994 Urban Infrastructure Investment Framework, on grounds that if people are too poor to pay cost-recovery tariffs for water, they should be denied the opportunity to flush. The R15 million was allocated from the sale of R76 million worth of fixed property, according to the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council Budget Estimates.
11. Cited in Harvey. ‘A Critical Analysis of the Decision to Corporatise the Water and Wastewater Services in the City of Johannesburg’.
12. World Bank (1999), Country Assistance Strategy: South Africa , Washington DC, Annex C, p. 5. The issue is discussed in detail in Bond, P. (2002), Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest , London, Merlin Press and Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press, Part Three.
13. Roome, J. (1995), ‘Water Pricing and Management: World Bank Presentation to the SA Water Conservation Conference’, unpublished paper, South Africa, 2 October.

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