Johannesburg Water Denialism Attracts Street and Court Protests

 South African neoliberal state brutality was on display last week in the famous Soweto suburb of Kliptown – where the African National Congress (ANC) "Freedom Charter" was signed 53 years ago – as the municipal-owned but commercially-oriented Johannesburg Water (JW) company felled a low-income resident with contaminated water. Cholera and E.coli scares spread across the city. Soon after, in nearby Lenasia, cops shot mercilessly at shackdwellers who were nonviolently protesting denial of water/sanitation services.

Says Dale Mckinley of the Coalition Against Water Privatisation, "Despite all efforts undertaken by the poor residents of Kliptown to get its attention, the City continues to turn a blind eye. So many marches, people’s inspections and invitations sent to mayor Amos Masondo to come and witness the living conditions have gone by unanswered that it’s no use counting. The lesson is clear that quiet restraint wins no concessions from those in power and more direct action is needed."

Indeed the Lenasia protests on April 21 were amongst an average of 10 000 demonstrations that have occurred annually since 2005, according to SA police statistics. This is a dramatic increase from mid-2000s rates.

South Africa’s class war is getting hotter, and water supply is one battleground.

According to Nithia Naidoo, a Lenasia community leader, there were 23 arrests: "People who are with me [in jail] at the moment are injured after they were shot with rubber bullets. Police also fired live ammunition."

As a resident of Joburg for more than a decade, and once a University of the Witwatersrand professor whose classes were populated with Joburg municipal bureaucrats, I have to assume the worst: in league with far more powerful constituents – big business and rich ratepayers – ANC government officials don’t really care whether poor people get services.

If this assumption is true, a matter which is hotly disputed, we can examine in gory detail how officials cut water provision in low-income neighbourhoods to a bare minimum.

Joburg is currently being sued by a civic group – supported by some of the country’s top lawyers, including advocate Wim Trengove, Jackie Dugard and the Wits Centre for Applied Legal Studies – for violating Soweto residents’ constitutional rights to water. After a well-publicised hearing in the High Court last December, Judge Moroa Tsoka will deliver his decision on April 30.

The 4000 pages of litigation can be found at http://www.law.wits.ac.za/cals/phiri/index.htm – and an earlier report on the controversy is here:  http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2003-08/04bond.cfm

A tangential warning to readers: government’s trivial defense includes an effort to expel me from the case as an "expert" insofar as my "views are irrelevant" and that I "make assertion and draw inferences without any factual basis whatsoever," to quote the affidavit of the then leading national water regulator, Barbara Schreiner. Adds Johannesburg Water lawyer Karen Brits in her affidavit, my analysis is based upon "hearsay, rumour and conspiracy theories about the functioning of bureaucracy in South Africa which has (sic) no foundation and so cannot be coherently answered."

Actually, as a structuralist, I try to avoid conspiracy theories, but nevertheless let’s consider the way a multinational corporation, Suez of Paris (the main manager of JW from 2001-06), might engineer – hand-in-hand with neoliberal municipal officials – a water crisis for Sowetans, as reflected in Kliptown and Lenasia last week.

The malevolent objective in 2001: establish five delivery tactics whose effects are to lower poor people’s water consumption:

1) impose prices that soar after a very small, token Free Basic Water amount of roughly two toilet flushes per day for 8-member households, so that the next block of consumption becomes unaffordable. This "convex"  tariff pricing formula was adopted in 2001 to compensate JW for the free water; in contrast, water activists demanded a concave tariff that would punish hedonistic consumption.

2) disconnect people who are too poor to pay for any water beyond the 6000 liters provided free each month. At their peak, Johannesburg water and electricity services disconnections reached 20 000 per month during 2002, the Council revealed just prior to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, and now pre-paid water meters have achieved less conflictual self-disconnections once people have consumed their minimal free supply.

3) offer the tokenistic Free Basic Water on the basis of a household as a unit, rather than the ANC’s 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme promise of 50 liters per person per day. That way, there is a bias against larger families and those who have backyard shackdwellers or tenants who also draw upon the per-household supply.

4) install low-quality water and sanitation technology to tens of thousands of poor households, with the objective of reducing consumption. The technology includes pre-paid water meters (which are banned in Britain as a health threat); trickler devices that slow water flows; chemical toilets; Ventilated Improved Pit Latrines; and "shallow sewage" systems featuring smaller pipes and lower gradients, no cistern for flushing, and the unclogging of faeces by hand when pipes periodically clog. Activists respond by ripping out the water-limiting devices and resorting to a "bypass" – illegal plumbing connections – to avoid metering.

5) provide differential technology according to class and race. The hardware listed above is only imposed on people in black townships and informal settlements, who then suffer additional transport and time-wasting costs acquiring meter cards, not in the formerly all-white suburbs where people (like me) can make direct bank account debit payments to save our time and effort.

Last month, four further innovations were announced:

1) recommit to the failed "indigency register" – which records only a small proportion of the city’s poor – for services, in contrast to mandates in the RDP, Constitution and ANC municipal campaign promise of Free Basic Services during the December 2000 election. This in turn means that a huge group of low-income people will not be included in free water allocations, including those Johannesburg residents who lack formal papers either because of Home Affairs Department sloth or foreign origin.

2) further stigmatise poor people via "means testing", since gaining indigency status entails accepting invasive – and inevitably inaccurate, ad hoc often whimsical – state surveillance. Wild plans are being made to link up various state departments’ records so as to monitor poor people’s consumption under a microscope.

3) terminate universal free services for all, even if that directly contradicts the ANC’s 2000 municipal election promise that says "all residents" will receive free services. In the process, divide consumers into stratified classes, a technique which in turn will eventually diminish political support for Free Basic Water.

4) rely even more upon prepaid meter technology for low-income consumers, and do not offer an alternative conventional meter option in many low-income black townships.

To disguise the impact of these nine anti-poor strategies, Johannesburg Council now "talks left" about moving to a more redistributive, pro-poor, and conservation-minded pricing system. However, the factors described above cancel out the marginal progressive revision of the tariff blocks.

Hence even if the newly-announced 2008/09 prices include above-inflation increases for higher blocks of consumption, a large proportion of Johannesburg’s water-neediest residents will suffer.

Will marginally higher tariffs for Joburg’s large-volume household consumers contribute to a "culture of conservation", as the Council claims?

The best data I know of to answer this question come from Durban. An MBA thesis by former city official Reg Bailey shows that water "price elasticity" – the negative impact of a price increase on consumption – for the city’s highest-income third of the population is -0.10.

Thus a doubling of the real (after-inflation) water price from 1997-2004 generated less than a 10% reduction in use.

What is proposed by Johannesburg for high-volume users is not a 100% increase, as in the case of Durban, but a 3% increase. No conservation can be expected from hedonistic water guzzlers, if Durban is any guide.

Instead, the impact of higher prices will mainly be felt by low-income people, whose budgets are so stretched that they will not afford the increases.

In Durban, the lowest-income third of regular bill-paying consumers had a -0.55 price elasticity, meaning that when the price of water doubled from 1997-2004, they cut back their consumption dramatically, from 22 kl to 15kl per household per month.

The result in Joburg will be further water deprivation for the masses alongside excess consumption in the white suburbs’ English gardens and swimming pools. This in turn will create demand for another multibillion dollar addition to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, the corrupt megadam system which supplies Joburg with much of its water. In turn, this will raise the raw price to Joburg, and the adverse cost impact of new dams will, in turn, will be felt mainly by those who cannot afford to pay, as well as by thousands more Basotho highlands residents displaced from their homes and fields.

The kind of social resistance witnessed in Lenasia shack settlements and in regular Anti-Privatisation Forum protests will only become more common, as a result.

The alternative is to follow the course set out by the national Coalition Against Water Privatisation and Soweto residents in the court case heard against the city last December.

That strategy would prohibit pre-paid meters and other discriminatory technologies aimed at limiting low-income people’s consumption. It would end the ineffectual indigency policy and provide a much larger block of free basic water on a per person (not per household) basis.

And to pay for this, a fair pricing policy would charge rich residents and businesses a far higher amount for their consumption, so as to both achieve serious conservation and raise funds for cross-subsidies to everyone else.

On April 30, the judge will announce a decision. But it’s most likely that whomever wins the case, an appeal will be filed, so the Constitutional Court will have to tackle the question: are Sowetans’  rights to water being violated?

More generally, it is often rumoured that South Africa’s politics will shift leftward thanks to growing labour and communist influence within the ruling party. But cynics will argue that when you look at the neoliberal devils in the detail, more typical is Johannesburg Council’s latest move: talk left accompanied by a "turn right", as water taps are closed for the poor.

(Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society – http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs – and on April 30, from 7-9:30pm, is giving a talk international protest movements and water to the group Mass Global Action in Boston: 3 Harrison Ave, 5th floor. Mass Global Action – http://www.massglobalaction.org/home/ocow/index.htm and http://www.encuentro5.org/ – joins a growing number of US groups engaged in the new water wars.)  

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