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Issue 35

Operation Vula Manzi [Open Water]

By Matthew M. Kavanagh

In black townships outside Johannesburg, many residents are forced to choose between buying enough food to eat and buying water for basic hygiene and sanitation. Now that they are forced to pre-pay for any water beyond a basic minimal level, many families worry about how to care for sick relatives or what they would do in the event of a fire. While the water company says that pre-paid meters will help people with water conservation, many in Soweto have opted to illegally bypass the meters to obtain water they could not otherwise afford.

The Right to Water

The African National Congress’ Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), the platform for its victory in the post-apartheid 1994 elections, made many promises for a “better life for all.” Among them was the promise to quickly provide 25 litres of water per person per day for free to all South Africans, while they worked on longer-term solutions. According to the WHO’s Guidelines for Water Quality, 25 litres is thought to be sufficient only for people without sanitation systems — people without toilets who are carrying water to their homes. For homes with “intermediate” service — like most of Soweto — 50 litres is considered the basic amount needed for proper hygiene. Indeed, in the medium-term— which one might expect to have been reached 11 years after democratization — the RDP promised 50-60 litres per person per day.

Yet, under intense pressure from the World Bank and global capital, the minimal promise on 25 litres per day was not implemented until 2001. When it was, though, the “lifeline” amount of water had somehow morphed into 6,000 litres per household per month. Mike Muller of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) explains this number as 25 litres per person per day for an average family of eight. “It is perfectly possible to function in an urban area on a bucket of water per person per day,” he says.

But, as Patrick Bond, Professor at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal notes, urban families often live with many more than eight people. “A household of 16 is not uncommon in the big townships when you’ve got back yard shack dwellers and a granny who is looking after AIDS orphans.”

Paul Mabe, a 64-year-old resident of Naledi, Soweto, is wondering why he is the one that has to tighten his belt from the 20,000 litres allotted under Apartheid. “If you go to Joburg there are so many industries with water running right through, around the clock. People in Santon [a wealthy white area] have got swimming pools everywhere, but it is for the people who are only using water for basic life — we are the ones who are supposed to cut back?”

Indeed, domestic consumers use just 12% of South Africa’s water — with just 1% being used by black households. Despite the disproportionately small amount of water used by black homes, under the management of French water conglomerate Suez, Johannesburg Water (JW) has turned to the black townships like Soweto to launch its 342 million Rand water conservation project called “Operation Gcin’Amanzi” (Save Water).

Conservation for the Poor, Hedonism for the Rich

Perhaps more to the point than simple conservation, “Operation Gcin’Amanzi” seeks to ensure that people pay for every drop of water they use past the free 6,000 litres provided by the government. The problem in places like Soweto and Orange Farm — black townships with levels of development and poverty ranging from bad to horrendous —is that people cannot afford to pay more.

Jennifer Makotsane, 34, is a case in point. All of the adults in her family are out of work in the neoliberalized South African economy which has plagued places like Soweto well over 50% unemployment. Since her father died, she and her nine family members have lived on her mother’s pension of 780 Rand per month (about 120 U.S. dollars). In a country where food, clothing, and basic service costs rival those in the United States, there is just no money left over at the end of the month to pay for enough water.

“It is so difficult to choose between buying food in the house for children and buying water,” Makotsane says. “The government promised when we voted in 1994 that there would be free water, but the 6,000 litres lasts only 14 days.”

In Orange Farm, another focus of JW’s project, the situation is even worse. With over a million people in the township, there is about 70% unemployment. Many people survive on a few hundred Rand in welfare grants per month. “I understand that someone has to pay for water,” says Bricks Mokolo of the Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee, “but people are not working. Where is this money supposed to come from?”

Many people in these communities have run up astronomical debts to the municipality for unpaid basic service bills — into the tens of thousands of Rands. Jennifer’s mother owes over 22,000 Rand (3,400 U.S. dollars) — what she gets in two-and-a-half years of pension payments.

Disconnecting people from water has proved deeply unpopular, sparking major protests. Instead, JW has implemented the novel idea of making people pay for their water ahead of time — a way that forces people to “self” disconnect.

Beginning in Orange Farm and continuing to the present in Soweto, JW has been installing pre-paid water meters. After the 6,000 free litres have been consumed, the meter shuts off water to the house unless the resident goes to the JW office and purchases water units, which are loaded onto a high-tech “key” which they can then insert into their water meter.

The installation of the pre-paid meters has itself led to legal challenges, protests and direct action — objections dismissed by the government. “It’s a question of accepting the management system,” says Muller of DWAF. “What people are objecting to is effective management systems, because people want to use more. People are trying to get more than their fair share.”

Others suggest that pre-paid meters — which have been banned in the UK — are simply inhumane. Those with larger families or who perhaps need more water to care for one of the 370,000 people who die each year of AIDS must cough up more money or go without. People who run out of money for water units may simply be too poor to do things like bathe, care for the sick, or put out a house fire. Indeed, in one recent Soweto case, two children, 10 and 6, died in a shack fire when owners and neighbors ran out of water trying to put out the fire.

“When my father got sick last year we had to use a lot of water we could not afford,” says Makotsane. “We needed water to bathe him, to wash his dressings daily, to wash his blankets. We had to bathe ourselves daily [to prevent infection], to drink, to cook with because he had to eat certain kinds of food. It became difficult because the 6,000 litres was so insufficient that in 9 days it would run out. We would have to go and buy water and keep on buying and buying.”

“With pre-paid meters people won’t owe anything to the company, it’s true, but they won’t have water either,” says Jabu Molobela, a member of the Phiri Concerned Residents Committee.

“This is not what people were expecting after struggling for liberation,” says Orange Farm’s Mokolo. “During apartheid we were struggling against a system that developed only for the White communities. But under apartheid there were no water cut offs. They come only since the ANC … and the local governments began outsourcing water management to the multinational companies. Now those who do not have money cannot access water, it is only those with money who can enjoy and drink water. This is a new kind of apartheid.”

The government and JW argue that that theirs is a progressive policy. Indeed, the price per litre increases as more water is consumed — money that Muller says cross-subsidizes small users. “Every time I see a nice green garden in a rich community I say, ‘fantastic, that’s ten communities they’re cross subsidizing,’” says Muller.

But the Johannesburg-based Coalition Against Water Privatization and others suggest that the policy is hardly progressive. With the “free basic water” policy, came sharp yearly increases in prices for those using a few more liters. Those using just 10,000 litres — still under the recommended 50 litres per person per day — have seen the price of their water increase 56% since 2002. Large users, however, have seen only a 29% increase — which is much more easily absorbed in families that actually have disposable income.

 “The government is cross subsidizing people a little bit, but the question is how much?” asks Professor Bond, who has argued unsuccessfully for a much more progressive system. “The tariff system doesn’t really hurt the rich who are consuming hedonistically and have big green lawns and swimming pools and really abuse the scarce water. If those wealthy hedonistic users of water could be charged much higher rates then there’d be much greater subsidies to give everyone a much greater amount — to save more lives and hopefully not to build more dams.”

“It really is outrageous when a Mike Muller, who has such great power to regulate the system and punish municipalities, is simply sitting back and letting a kind of water apartheid to continue and pretending it’s helping the poor when so much, much more could be done,” says Bond.

Resisting False Scarcity

Apart from the technical arguments about cross subsidization and liters per day, activists in South Africa are questioning the very basis of the system of water in the region.

In Johannesburg, after much marching and filing of lawsuits, activists have begun reconnecting their communities to free water supplies they say they deserve. “Each and every human being has a right to sufficient and clean water,” says Phiri’s Molobela. “We are resisting the installation of pre-paid water and reconnecting the community because no one can survive without water. They say it’s illegal, but we say it’s illegal for them to disconnect water.”

The result has been a running war since 2002 between the municipality and the residents, with wins and losses on both sides. After the initial Gcin’Amanzi project in one section of Orange Farm, activists used education and direct action to successfully block the installation of pre-paid meters in the rest of the township. “We have a slogan,” says Mokolo, “‘Destroy the meter, enjoy free water’ and we have been very serious about this.”

The repression has been substantial: Many activists have been arrested blocking the installation of pre-paid meters in their homes or for reconnecting people to the water system — meeting with exorbitant bail costs and time in jail. In Orange Farm, a leading activist was shot dead in her home at the height of the struggle there — a crime as yet unsolved. Activists have been called anti-development terrorists and demonized as common criminals.

Still, the activists are unbowed. After reconnecting dozens of residents to water in Naledi, Soweto this August, activists from the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee marched to the office of the city councilor and dumped the destroyed meters in a pile. “Down with pre-paid meters, down,” shouted one old woman. “The water does not belong to the councilors, and if you don’t learn that soon we’ll be back for your house!” Having disconnected the mayor of Johannesburg’s water two years back, it is unlikely these grannies are making idle threats.   

Matthew M. Kavanagh is an activist and educator working, at the time of this writing, with several social movement organizations in South Africa. He has written for Clamor and Z Magazine as well as education and law journals. He is currently working on a radio-documentary about water struggles in Southern Africa and moving back to DC to work with the NGO Global Justice.

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