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Sep 28 2004
Supplied or written by Dale T. McKinley Sep 17 , 2004

(Anti-Privatisation Forum & Coalition Against Water Privatisation)

In 1955, the main liberation movement in South Africa, 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.”
The majority of South Africans, made up of the poor and working class, fought and died not just for political freedom from apartheid, but for socio-economic freedom and justice, for the redistribution of all ‘national wealth.’ An integral part of that ‘national wealth’ is water, a natural resource that is essential to all life. When the vast majority of South Africans gave political victory to the ANC in 1994, they were also giving the new ANC government the power to fulfil the Charter and ensure that natural resources like water would be controlled by, and accessible to, all citizens irrespective of race or class. This popular mandate was captured in the Reconstruction & Development Programme (RDP), which formed the basis of the ‘people’s contract’ with the new democratic government. However, it did not take long for the ANC government to abandon that popular mandate by unilaterally deciding to pursue a water policy that has produced the exact opposite result.

Before the end of 1994, the South African government had introduced its policy on water in direct violation of the RDP commitment to lifeline supply. This gave the water bureaucrats the authority to provide water only if there was a full cost recovery of operating, maintenance and replacement costs. The adoption of a new macro-economic policy framework, in the form of the Growth, Employment & Redistribution (GEAR) policy in 1996 located the policies of water and other basic needs within a neo-liberal framework.

Following the neo-liberal economic advice of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and various Western governments (and heavy lobbying by private multinational water companies, such as Suez and Biwater), the South African government drastically decreased grants and subsidies to local municipalities and city councils and supported the development of financial instruments for privatised delivery. This effectively forced local government to turn towards commercialisation and privatisation of basic services as a means of generating the revenue no longer provided by the national state. Many local government structures began to privatise and/or corporatise public water utilities by entering into service and management ‘partnerships’ with multinational water corporations.

The Impact
The immediate result was a massive increase in the price of water that necessarily hit poor communities the hardest. The neoliberal-inspired, cost-recovery policy - i.e., making people pay for the associated costs of water infrastructure - meant a dramatic increase in the price of water for the poor across South Africa. Under apartheid (1993), the black townships in The Eastern Cape town of Fort Beaufort paid a flat rate of R10,60 for all services including water and refuse removal. Under privatisation (Suez) from 1994 to 1996 the services charges were increased by 600% to R60 per month. A hundred percent increase for water connections costs was also imposed. In another Eastern Cape town, Queenstown a similar picture emerged with a 150% increase in service costs. In the Northeastern town of Nelspruit (Biwater), where the unemployment rate hovers around 40% and average black household annual income stands at a paltry R12000, the price of water delivered to black communities increased up to 69%! The cost recovery policy caused a national affordability crisis for black townships as well as rural communities

These early price increases were only further catalysed by the need to ‘recover’ additional huge costs associated with the World Bank-funded Lesotho Highlands Water Project (with damns built to provide water to South Africa’s largest city – Johannesburg – and surrounding large-scale mining and manufacturing industries). The first price hike instituted by the newly privatised water service in Johannesburg (in the form of Johannesburg Water Company and Suez’s South African subsidiary) was an astronomical 55%. Despite vigorous opposition from the union movement - especially from the South African Municipal Workers’ Union - and from newly emergent (mostly urban-based) social movements, the ANC government persisted in its pursuit of privatisation of water.

Taking on board the World Bank’s advice to introduce a "credible threat of cutting service", the Johannesburg and other city councils across the country began cutting off the water services of poor people who couldn't pay the increased prices. The ‘full cost recovery’ model punted by the World Bank – i.e., tariff revenue sufficient to meet operations and maintenance costs, without any public subsidies to keep prices in check – has seen the water services of over ten million poor South Africans being cut-off by the latest count. Additionally, over 2 million have been evicted from their homes, often as a part of the associated legal process to recover debt from poor ‘customers’. Those poor communities without previous access to clean water have either suffered the same fate once infrastructure was provided or have simply had to make do with sourcing water from polluted streams and far-away boreholes.

The collective impact of water privatisation on the majority of South Africans has been devastating. The desperate search for any available source of water has resulted in cholera outbreaks that have claimed the lives of hundreds. In the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa’s biggest cholera outbreak occurred in 2000 as a result of changing the free communal tap system to a (privatised) pre-paid metering system. Over 120 000 people were infected with cholera and over 300 people died.
Not long after the French water multinational, Suez took over Johannesburg’s water supply, an outbreak of cholera in the township of Alexandra affected thousands of poor families. In both cases, it was only after the national government was forced to step in as a result of community mobilisation and struggle that the cjolera outbreaks were brought under control. Additionally, inadequate hygiene and ‘self-serve’ sanitation systems have led to continuous exposure (especially for children) to various preventable diseases. There has been an increase in environmental pollution and degradation arising from uncontrolled effluent discharges and scarcity of water for food production. And, the human dignity of entire communities has been ripped apart, as the right to the most basic of human needs, water, has been turned into a restricted privilege available only to those who can afford it.

Community struggles
In response to these water privatisation measures, poor communities in large urban areas such as Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and many other smaller towns and peri-urban areas across South Africa have responded with active resistance. One of the new social movements that have arisen to lead such resistance is the Anti Privatisation Forum (APF), an umbrella organisation for grassroots community groups mostly located 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 a fundamental human right, not a privilege to be enjoyed only by those that can afford it.

Throughout the privatisation process, the APF (alongside other social movements in South Africa – and to a lesser extent, the union movement) has mobilised and organised poor communities and organised workers in resistance. Educational and legal initiatives have been combined with regular mass struggle and have been aimed at empowering ordinary South Africans to reclaim the right to free basic services (water, electricity, education & housing). As a result of these struggles, the Coalition Against Water Privatisation (CAWP) was formed in late 2003, bringing together a range of social movements and progressive NGOs in a collective effort to turn the tide against water privatisation.

With the assistance of the APF and CAWP, poor township residents have launched a campaign called Operation Vulamanzi (‘water for all’). The campaign has helped residents physically bypass certain privatised water ‘control’ measures, such as pre-paid meters, trickler systems and re-routed water piping in order to freely access water and, in the process, strike a grassroots blow for the immediate ‘decommodification’ of water and simultaneous self-empowerment of the community. In some poor communities, residents have actually destroyed pre-paid metres as an overt act of defiance against privatised water delivery.

Displaying their contempt for the constitutional and general human rights of the poor in South Africa, ANC politicians and government bureaucrats have publicly labelled community residents resisting privatisation as ‘criminals’ and ‘anarchists’ trying to institutionalise a ‘culture of non-payment.’ These attacks have been accompanied by a large-scale crackdown on community dissent/resistance. Over the last three years, hundreds of activists and community members have been arrested and imprisoned.

While anti-privatisation struggles have not yet succeeded in halting the privatisation process, popular pressure/struggle forced the ANC government to implement a partial free water policy in late 2002. However, there are millions who still are not receiving the scheme’s ‘free’ allocation of 6,000 litres of water per household per month, an amount that comes nowhere close to meeting even the basic sanitation requirements of the average poor household in South Africa (the World Health Organisation has set a minimum amount of 100 litres per person, per day and if we take an average South African (black urban and rural) household size of 8 people, then the minimum amount would be at least 24 000 litres per month per household).
Additionally, grassroots opposition to privatisation has contributed to both the failure and or re-negotiation of many South African water privatisation projects.

It is within this context that the APF and CAWP continue to intensify the campaign against privatisation of water in all its forms and it through these campaigns that the poor majority in South Africa have once again moved to the forefront of the struggle to reclaim their basic human rights and dignity.

Planting the seeds of an alternative
In South Africa, the struggles against water privatisation continue to plant the seeds of an alternative. The first of those seeds is to be found in the organised ability of poor communities to both politically and physically undermine privatised delivery at the point of ‘consumption’. Not only is this an act of self-empowerment at the most basic level of reproductive life, but provides the foundation upon which the majority of South Africans can pursue the demands for policy and structural changes in the ownership and distribution of water and other basic services essential to life.

At present, these demands, which continue to be pursued by both the APF and CAWP include:

šThe criminalisation of dissent and opposition to the privatisation of water must be immediately stopped
šPre-paid meters be immediately outlawed and removed from all poor communities where they have been installed and be replaced with an uncontrolled-volume, full-pressure water system for which a basic flat-rate charge of R10 per month is levied,
šThe government reverse its policy of privatising water and all other basic needs by cancelling all ‘service’ contracts and ‘management’ agreements with private water corporations
šA policy of cross-subsidisation (from corporate business and wealthy individuals to poor communities) be immediately implemented in order to effectively subsidise the provision of free water services to the poor. This should be complemented by the government’s repudiation of the apartheid debt and the use of subsequent monies to assist in delivering free basic services
šThe government make a firm political and fiscal commitment to rollout universally accessible infrastructure (especially in the rural areas) that is completely divorced from any ‘cost-recovery’ mechanism and that is paralleled by meaningful participation from popular, community organisations located in those areas most in need of infrastructure
šThe government publicly affirm the human and constitutional right of all South Africans to water by ensuring full public ownership, operation and management of public utilities in order to provide free basic services for all. Over time, such ‘public ownership’ should take the form of public-community and public-worker partnerships in which community organisations and public sector workers have equal participation and democratic control

International solidarity
It is unfortunate that many progressive, international NGOs, social movements, political parties and community organisations continue to support the socio-economic policies of the ANC government in the mistaken belief that they are a genuine reflection of a ‘continuing national liberation struggle’. The APF, CAWP and other allied organisations and movements in South Africa urge those that are part of the global justice and anti-capitalist globalisation movements to act in solidarity with us. The first act of such solidarity should be increased contact, sharing of information and the content/character of mutual struggles. Spreading the word about privatisation in South Africa, engaging in protest actions at South African embassies/consulates and messages of solidarity would be most welcome. The writing of political articles in both progressive and mainstream print media is also encouraged. Very crucial at this stage of the anti-privatisation struggle in South Africa is the need for legal defence funds. The APF and CAWP struggle to provide such funds to defend the many activists who are arrested and face court action - the intensification of the struggle will ensure that the need for legal defence funds is going to become even greater in the coming period.

Across the world, people have begun to unite in defence of their human right to water. Whether in Cochabamba, Bolivia, or Accra, Ghana or Atlanta, Georgia, or Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Manila in the Philippines, or Johannesburg, the ongoing anti-privatisation campaigns for water access are resonating with struggles in other places to decommodify water and institute public sector services in which genuine democratic participation and control is exercised in order to meet people’s needs.

Written by Dale T. McKinley (Media-Information Officer for the APF and Acting Chairperson of the CAWP)

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