Rolling Back Water Privatisation

Another water war is brewing here in Johannesburg. If local and international trends are anything to go by, the people could defeat capital.

During the last decade’s transition from racial to class apartheid, Soweto residents have shown that wherever capital commodifies, the masses can strike back, through ‘decommodification’ strategies and tactics that some observers celebrate as ‘autonomist’ (though others simply call stealing).

Flashbacks to the 1976 anti-apartheid intifada aside, township activists are again highly regarded around the world for liberating electricity and water from expensive (and unreliable) meters; advocating (and partially winning) access to free basic ‘lifeline’ electricity and water; campaigning to produce or import cheap generic anti-retroviral medicines that fight AIDS (especially for pregnant women and rape victims); invading land and housing during an era of massive displacements by the state and capital; helping put the demand for a Basic Income Grant ($12/month) on the national agenda; insisting on free primary education for all; and, thinking globally, demanding that George W. Bush leave Africa and the rest of the world alone (http://southafrica.indymedia.org).

(For background on one Sowetan’s role, see the interview of Trevor Ngwane in the current New Left Review, at http://www.newleftreview.net.)

Since the post-apartheid government’s neoliberal macroeconomic strategies chopped a million jobs and reduced the income of the masses of black people by more than a fifth (according to even government statistics), this kind of resistance is to be expected. In the case of electricity, the illegal reconnection of thousands of Sowetan households forced the national power company Eskom to pledge it would no longer disconnect supplies, and would write off $190 million in customer arrears.

It is heartening to see similar patterns across the world, especially in the crucial water sector. The balance of forces has shifted considerably over the past year, since the privatisers solidified their hold on water at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. (There, the UN allowed ‘Type 2’ partnerships with big capital to prevail over genuine state service provision.)

To be sure, neoliberals have held firm to the principles of commodification. At the Davos World Economic Forum and G8 Evian summit, South African officials more aggressively punted the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, which calls for ‘public-private partnerships’ in water infrastructure, including controversial mega-dam projects.

And a pro-privatisation water financing commission was headed by the ex-managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Michel Camdessus. He gathered together a coalition of the ‘Global Water Partnership,’ presidents of the major multilateral development banks, Citibank, Lazard Freres, the US Ex-Im Bank, private water companies (Suez, Thames Water), state elites (from Egypt, France, Ivory Coast, Mexico, and Pakistan) and two sellout NGOs (Transparency International and WaterAid).

Yet in March, the World Water Forum multi-stakeholder summit in Kyoto witnessed a stalemate between Camdessus and the well-coordinated anti-privatisation lobby of social and labour movements (see, e.g., http://www.canadians.org). Even though South African water minister Ronnie Kasrils endorsed Camdessus and chaired his Kyoto panel, Kasrils’ main official, Mike Muller, publicly lamented ‘the aggressive push by international water and financial interests for private engagement’ which ‘has been working to their ultimate detriment. The pendulum is swinging against too great an involvement of the private sector.’

This is important because next month, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats) will come under discussion in Cancun at the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial meeting. Constipation over agriculture subsidies and intellectual property rights grips US trade representative Robert Zoellick and his EU counterpart, Pascal Lamy. In this context, the failure to advance the Gats agenda could provide otherwise weak-kneed Third World negotiators more confidence with which to resist the charms of companies like Paris-based Suez Lyonnais des Eaux.

Even if ruling elites continue to turn over water to French, British, US and German profiteers, local people and the progressive international community are ready to fight. A coherent, interlocking set of demands is emerging, boiling down to the insistence that ‘our water is not for sale.’

The strategies have evolved in water conferences ranging from Porto Alegre and Accra, Ghana each year to Vancouver (2001), Johannesburg (2002) and Florence (2003)–but they mainly take their direction from grassroots/shopfloor movements in particular settings: union battles to halt the degradation of public services; consumers fighting against higher prices, lower quality and disconnections; women’s struggles to get clean water into their houses or yards instead of walking miles; campaigns against mega-dams; attempts to block cross-border bulk water sales and water-sucking timber plantations; movements to stop pollution of rivers, lakes and water tables; and even efforts to reclaim the spirituality through which so many indigenous people have mediated their use of water.

Amongst the most inspiring struggles at present are in India, where the group Narmada Bachao Andolan, led by Medha Patkar (and documented beautifully by Arundhati Roy), is resisting submergence that will displace more thousands from riverbanks. In Kerala, communities are fighting Coca Cola over massive water extractions that threaten local agriculture. With the World Social Forum moving to Mumbai early next year, internationalists must become more aware and active in solidarity with Indian movements.

As for Suez, a showdown in Soweto could begin in coming weeks, knocking a final nail into Gats’ Cancun coffin. Already, as the London Observer reported just prior to the Kyoto meeting, ‘Suez, the biggest water company in the world, is reducing its exposure in developing countries by a third’–including Argentina and the Philippines.

In Jo’burg, Wits University student Ebrahim Harvey recently completed a masters thesis that unveils what Suez’s local manager calls his ‘make or break’ crusade to force Sowetans to pay more for their water.

Along with the City of Johannesburg, Suez takes part in disconnections which, in a just society with a courageous water minister, would be deemed unconstitutional. According to the most recently published data (May 2002), more than 20,000 households per month had their power and water cut–making mockery of the claim on Kasrils’ website (http://www.dwaf.gov.za) that Johannesburg offers 100% of its residents their first 6,000 liters per household free each month.

Contrary to the municipality’s claims (http://www.johannesburg.org.za) that ‘Services is not the greatest challenge facing Johannesburg in its drive to become a “better” city,’ the 30% of Jo’burg’s 3.2 million residents who live in informal shack settlements still suffer indignity and inadequate hygiene: 65% use communal standpipes and 20% receive small amounts from water tankers (the other 15% have outdoor yard taps). For sanitation, 52% have dug pit latrines themselves, 45% rely on chemical toilets, 2% have communal flush toilets and 1% use ablution blocks.

Needless to say, these conditions are both particularly hostile to women and children, and breed disease at a time when Jo’burg’s HIV+ rate has soared above 25% and when cholera and diarrhoea epidemics are still spreading. Moreover, in an obvious case of eco-blowback, effluent from pit latrines has raised the e.Coli count in the Jo’burg water table to such dangerous levels that even the suburban residents of bourgeois Sandton now require water filtration systems for boreholes.

For municipal bureaucrats and Suez profiteers, the point of maintaining such low water/sanitation standards so long after liberation is to save money. Suez and the City are well aware of micromanagerial techniques for lowering operating/maintenance costs–or rather, for shifting the varied costs of water apartheid to the most vulnerable people. Activists anticipate conflict over pit latrines, a new ‘shallow sewage’ system, and ‘pre-paid’ water meters.

Suez intends to spend more than $2 million constructing 6,500 latrines over the next three years. Shallow sewage is also attractive to the company, because maintenance costs are transferred to so-called ‘condominium’ residential users, where a very small water flush and slight gravity mean that the pipes must be manually unclogged every three months (or more frequently) by the residents themselves.

In this case, Suez tells customers to: ‘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.’

In addition to such dangerous (gender-biased) methods for removing human excrement, pre-paid meters are at the core of a $50 million, five-year Suez operation termed ‘Gcina Manzi’ (Zulu for ‘conserve water’);. Aimed at solving non-payment problems in Soweto and other townships, Gcina Manzi is identified as a ‘Mayoral Strategic Priority.’

Suez intends lowering the rate of ‘unaccounted for water’ in Soweto from 62% (68 billion liters a year) to the standard 21% loss experienced elsewhere. But most of the leaks are not within yards and houses, but rather in apartheid-era bulk infrastructure–over which residents have no control.

A grassroots campaign against pre-paid meters has been launched by an affiliate of the Jo’burg Anti-Privatisation Forum at a pilot project in impoverished Orange Farm township south of Soweto. According to a front page New York Times story (29 May), Suez officials ‘acknowledged that in communities like these, billing people for water has been like squeezing water from a stone… 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 of them already have prepaid electricity meters in their homes, and they say their families end up in the dark for several days each month.’

Resistance is already impressive, as documented by the Times. One of the Orange Farm activists, Briggs Makolo (a leader of Kyoto demonstrations against Camdessus and Kasrils), quotes the popular graffiti slogan: ‘destroy the meters and enjoy the water. The government promised us that water is a basic right. But now they are telling us our rights are for sale.’

Such language infuriates Kasrils, who in an attempt to distort the organic reality, used his June 6 parliamentary budget speech to shift blame to ‘phony revolutionaries’ and ‘North American populists’ who research these issues (http://www.queensu.ca/msp), including yours truly. Kasrils wrote to the Times (June 4) that the pre-paid water meters were ‘an example of how South Africa is harnessing home grown technology for development’–even though they were declared illegal in Britain after public health problems during the 1990s.

Harvey, meanwhile, is being denied access to basic information by Suez’s local people on grounds of client confidentiality. With the support of the excellent Freedom of Expression Institute, he hopes the court system will uphold South Africa’s Provision of Access to Information Act and rule that data on Suez’s Orange Farm pre-paid meter experimentation and the firm’s original bid for the Jo’burg contract be made public.

Suez’s record of failure across the world, added to concerns about corruption, mean that the reverberations of this Soweto struggle, like 1976, will be felt nationally and internationally.

More to the point, if the campaign for water as a human right, not a commodity, interlocks with other demands for a decent society, such as an end to Mbeki’s genocidal AIDS policy, then I think we’re talking something much bigger than autonomism. This is, ultimately, an attempt to retake the core philosophy associated with state power, by forging redistributive social policy from below, and in the process ‘deglobalising’ water out of the hands of capital.


(The updated edition of Patrick’s book *Against Global Apartheid*, published by Zed Press and University of Cape Town Press, will be launched in London on Tuesday August 5 at 6pm at the Africa Book Centre, 38 King Street, Covent Garden. Join us.)

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