Municipal elections won’t appease furious South Africans

The run-up to March 1 elections for 284 South African city, town and district councils provides a good opportunity to review the state of social struggle, and the character of neoliberalism.

The ruling African National Congress will win the vast majority of seats given the lack of left electoral opposition. An ANC vow that half of its new councilors will be women is quite an astonishing show of progress – but only if we ignore the actions of these politicians.

Last time around in 2000, the ANC promised free ‘basic’ water, electricity and other municipal services. This should have been a great success, combining patronage with good public policy.

It isn’t. South Africa has been rocked by unending strife over appalling township and shack settlement services. In what may be the best case, Durban, official data show that poor people are actually paying far more for their water, and cutting down consumption notwithstanding health risks.

There are an average of 16 protests in South Africa each day, minister of safety and security Charles Nqakula conceded in parliament last October. Of protests recorded in 2004-05, 13% were deemed ‘illegal’, with 66 police injured.

No public records exist of protesters’ fatalities and injuries. However, here in Durban, the name Marcel King – a teenager fatally shot in the face by municipal security contractors when he came to his mother’s aid, nonviolently, during an electricity disconnection in 2004 – resonates as a next-generation Hector Peterson (the first lad killed during June 16, 1976 uprising in Soweto, when police snuffed a thousand young lives).

Activist networks have arisen in major cities since 2000 – such as the Anti-Privatisation Forum in Johannesburg, Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town and Abahlali base Mjondolo shackdwellers movement of Durban – and continue to express grievances. But far beyond traditional left strongholds, revolts ratcheted up in intensity and frequency since 1997, when the first round of high-profile community dissent over post-apartheid municipal services began in Johannesburg’s El Dorado Park.

In what the New York Times described a month ago in a full-page article as ‘an ominous signal to this nation’s leaders, sprawling shantytowns have begun to erupt, sometimes violently, in protest over the government’s inability to deliver the better life that the end of apartheid seemed to herald a dozen years ago.’

For example, Durban’s impoverished Foreman Road shack settlement has a single water tap and four padlocked, scrap-wood toilets serving more than 1000 households. Nearby Kennedy Road has six nonworking toilets serving 6000 people.

According to the Times, ‘Residents say Obed Mlaba, the mayor, promised during his last election campaign to erect new homes on the slum site and on vacant land opposite their hillside. Instead, however, the city proposed to move the slum residents to rural land far off Durban’s outskirts. In an interview that he cut short, a clearly nettled Mlaba argued that the protest was the work of agitators bent on embarrassing him before local elections.’

Perhaps the highest profile agitator has been Trevor Ngwane of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. Once head of the ANC’s regional Soweto branch and a Johannesburg city councilor, Ngwane was fired by the party in September 1999 because he wrote a newspaper column against looming water commercialisation.

Not long after, his council colleagues flew to Buenos Aires on a fact-finding tour of the world’s most famous municipal water outsourcing project. The company that financed the trip, Paris-based Suez, was soon chosen to become Johannesburg’s water manager, in the single largest municipal supply contract in Africa.

At the same time, a corruption scandal was brewing in nearby Lesotho over Africa’s largest dam, from which Johannesburg draws water. A Suez subsidiary was accused of bribing a key official, Masupha Sole. After a long investigation, Sole is now in jail and several of the companies have been successfully prosecuted, with more in process.

Johannesburg’s municipal workers union had long warned against Suez’s role, but a 20,000-strong protest in late 1999 didn’t dissuade the ANC’s neoliberal bloc from proceeding.

Johannesburg’s outsourcing exercise is revealing not only for these unseemly origins, but also because Suez was booted out of Buenos Aires last September. Argentine president Nestor Kirchner accused the firm of ‘taking $5 billion from the country while failing to make infrastructure investments’.

A few weeks later, a delegation of top French municipal authorities led by Danielle Mitterrand (widow of former president François Mitterand) advised the Uruguayan government to also expel Suez, in the wake of that country’s October 2004 constitutional referendum providing that water and sanitation services be supplied ‘directly and exclusively’ by the state. According to Mitterrand, water privatisation ‘was born in France and proved to be ineffective and unfair; it only benefits those who can afford paying’.

In Durban, even without adopting formal privatisation, Mlaba and city manager Mike Sutcliffe benefit the rich in part by denying shackdwellers water and sanitation – as well as their civic rights. Sutcliffe banned Abahlali base Mjondolo from peacefully marching into town last November 14, and the police arrested and injured dozens when several thousand gathered at Foreman Road to defy the ban. The activists responded with a Campaign for the Human Dignity of Shack Dwellers, and vowed, ‘No house, no vote!’ in the coming election.

They are fed up with a series of uplifting but ultimately broken promises. The 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme offered, ‘in the medium term,. to provide an on-site supply of 50 – 60 liters per capita per day of clean water.’ (For a household of six, that amounts to nearly 11 kiloliters a month as the minimum free lifeline supply.)

In 1996, the South African Constitution confirmed, in the Bill of Rights, that ‘everyone has the right to have access to… sufficient water’.

With citizen alienation worsening in 2000, a new promise was broadcast far and wide: ‘ANC-led local government will provide all residents with a free basic amount of water, electricity and other municipal services, so as to help the poor. Those who use more than the basic amounts will pay for the extra they use.’

This year, the ANC manifesto has more promises: ‘No community will still be using the bucket system for sanitation by 2007. All communities will have access to clean water and decent sanitation by 2010. All houses will have access to electricity by 2012. There is universal provision of free basic services.’

These are all excellent sentiments. Two features of the ‘free basic water’ pledge stand out: it is based on a ‘universal entitlement’, so that basic needs should be met (regardless of income or ‘indigence tests’);, consistent with the Bill of Rights; and the promise also means that those who consume more should pay more per unit after the free basic supply. This happens through ‘cross-subsidies’ (i.e., redistribution) and hence also promotes conservation.

Durban pioneered the free 6 kiloliters/household/month during the late 1990s, and its experience justified then-water minister Ronnie Kasrils’ announcement six years ago that the whole country would change water pricing to include a free lifeline: ‘It would save money because local authorities would not be saddled with the problem of administering large numbers of small accounts.’

Unfortunately, Kasrils’ money-saving rationale goes to the heart of the problem. If a metered consumer uses, say, 6001 liters in a given month, there emerges very same problem of ‘administering large numbers of small accounts’ (in this case for just 1 liter above the free lifeline amount).

The only way to understand Kasrils’ mandate is that municipalities may charge that consumer for 6001 liters – not 1 liter. Hence the originating rationale for free basic water becomes a direct refutation of the spirit of free basic water.

In this and other ways, municipal officials set out to sabotage the ANC’s 2000 campaign promise. A recent MBA thesis at the University of KwaZulu-Natal by Reg Bailey (who administers Durban’s municipal tariffs) reviewed the impact of water price changes from 1997-2003, as free basic water was implemented. In three categories of metered customers divided by wealth (measured by value of houses), Bailey showed that the doubling in price of water from R2/kiloliter to R4 during those seven years adversely affected poor people much more.

Their consumption dropped from 22 kl/month to 15 kl/month, a stunning decline of nearly 1/3. This is deeply worrying, since water is so crucial to good hygiene, especially during the ongoing AIDS pandemic and periodic cholera and diarrhoea outbreaks. These water cutbacks are also particularly onerous for women within households.

(As the price of Durban water doubled, the middle-income group of households cut back only from 24 kl/month to 22 kl/month, and the wealthiest third of metered households – many with swimming pools and English gardens – dropped from 35 kl/month to 33 kl/month.)

Johannesburg’s record is similar. Rich residents barely noticed the increased water price, as Lesotho dams gradually affected their bills. During the late 1990s, those using a small amount suffered a 39% increase in water bills, while the highest-volume users were charged only 24% more.

Then in mid-2001, Johannesburg officials transformed a relatively slow-rising tariff curve inherited from apartheid into an extremely ‘convex’ curve, which soars quickly and then levels off, so hedonistic users have little incentive to conserve.

The effect for low-income households was that after consuming the inadequate 6 kl/month for free, often by large families with several backyard tenants, water bills jumped sharply. For many, this left the overall cost higher than before the free basic water promise.

Supported by the Freedom of Expression Institute, a national campaign lobby against water privatisation is taking Johannesburg Water to court next month, arguing that residents’ constitutional rights are being broken. They also argue against pre-paid water meters, and request that the Suez contract should be terminated.

The ANC has reacted in the erratic manner we’ve come to expect. Protesters are periodically villified as a ‘third force’, i.e., a conspiracy of shadowy ‘counterrevolutionaries’, or ‘ultraleftists’.

Last June, Kasrils – promoted in 2004 to minister of intelligence – first denied to the Sunday Times that the National Intelligence Agency had been sent in: ‘There is no truth to the allegation that the NIA is being employed to investigate legitimate protests.’

The reporter pressed on: ‘But the NIA has been involved, hasn’t it, to see if these protests have been orchestrated?’ Answered Kasrils, ‘Well, I’d say that’s its mandate. And wouldn’t you, as a citizen and a taxpayer in this country, want to see your intelligence service alert to any eventualities?’

The reporter asked, ‘Have you found any suggestion of a third force behind these protests?’ Kasrils replied, ‘No, I haven’t had any indication of that. That doesn’t mean there might not be opportunists there, with the municipal elections coming up, who might have an agenda to manipulate the situation.’

For housing minister Lindiwe Sisulu, the cause lay elsewhere: ‘If there are protests, then it is possible we are not communicating properly.’

The man in charge of state communications, Joel Netshitenzhe, wrote in the Sunday Times just prior to the April 2004 presidential election, that ‘rigour in research does matter: . ten million people [were] connected to water which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be compared with the few households occasionally cut off.’

A ‘few’? The chief water bureaucrat at the time, Mike Muller, acknowledged two months later that according to a 2003 national survey, ’275 000 of all households attributed interruptions to cut-offs for non-payment’, meaning roughly 1.5 million people lost their home water access that year.

In short, a central reason behind dissent is, in a word, ‘micro-neoliberalism’: the application of the market as far into the terrain of human rights as people will permit.

At election time, the harsh taste of being poor in South Africa is obscured by sweet words. But the upsurge of activism reminds us that from the death of racial apartheid rose another problem: the birth of class apartheid, even down to the drops of water we need simply to live.


Patrick ([email protected]) directs the Centre for Civil Society (http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs)

Leave a comment