South Africa’s Water Wars

Two of South Africa’s greatest water warriors were not actually killed in conflict, though at the time of their deaths on June 22 and 23, both were furious with their traditional political party home, the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

For Kader Asmal (whom Nelson Mandela once proposed be ANC chairperson), the party’s proposed legislation to snuff state information, nicknamed the ‘Secrecy Bill’, warranted spirited condemnation, and the airwaves rang with his principled liberal critique up through his last week. The day after he died (age 76), the ANC authorized sufficient revision to the bill that he probably would have declared victory. His funeral and memorial were given exceptionally high-profile coverage in the state press, befitting his status as a senior human rights lawyer and party intellectual.

The other, Durban community activist Thulisile Christina Manqele (age 46), had a more profound critique of post-apartheid politics, and no one in authority was amongst 400 mourners at her July 2 community funeral. A former domestic worker, she suffered ill health and lost her job in 1999, at the time looking after seven children including three she informally adopted.

The two old enemies never actually met in person, and since the crucial Durban courtroom fight more than a decade ago, they probably never thought of one another. Yet their lives tell us a great deal about political status, social memory, and a battleground ? Manqele’s water meter ? on which South Africa has won its reputation as among the world’s most conflict-ridden societies.

Manqele, who regularly attended the monthly Harold Wolpe Lecture Series at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, was an ordinary working-class woman, but in 1999-2000, she found herself at the centre of a ferocious struggle for water rights.

Asmal was, from 1994-99, the country’s water minister before becoming education minister (1999-2004), and by the late 2000s he chaired the Wolpe Trust. After I played a minor advisory role for him in 1997, Asmal wrote me an angry letter insisting I cease criticizing government for reneging on the promise in the 1994 ANC campaign platform, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), for a universal free ‘lifeline’ water supply of 50 liters per person per day.

Asmal’s water policy

Keeping that promise would have required a nation-wide water pricing policy with higher unit amounts charged to hedonistic water consumers, especially large firms, mines and (white) farmers, in order to cross-subsidize everyone else and also encourage conservation. To illustrate, state power company Eskom has long been the single largest water consumer, paying low prices to cool coal-fired power plants (supplying the world’s cheapest electricity to BHP Billiton and Anglo), plants that a climate-conscious government would urgently mothball as soon as they can be replaced with renewables. (Instead, the ANC government is building two new ones, the world’s third and fourth largest, to appropriately welcome ‘Conference of Polluters’ delegates to the Durban COP17 summit in late November.)

The post-apartheid balance of forces didn’t permit this sort of reform. “The positions I put forward are not positions of a sell-out,” Asmal berated me in May 1998 after a simple redistributive challenge to his officials. “The RDP makes no reference to free water to the citizens of South Africa. The provision of such free water has financial implications for local government that I as a national minister must be extremely careful enforcing on local government.”

Of course, that was precisely why a national cross-subsidisation policy was required, and still is, so that local fiscal shortfalls don’t continue driving up water prices (38 percent here in Durban on Friday!), causing yet more disconnections for those unable to pay.

More worrying still, the former law dean at Dublin’s Trinity College took a slippery leap of logic to redefine the word ‘lifeline’ to mean, not free, but instead the equivalent of paying the full operating and maintenance costs. Indeed ‘100 percent cost recovery’ was the policy Asmal was persuaded to adopt by bureaucrats in his first White Paper.

The pressure against subsidizing water was intense, and overwhelmed Asmal’s professed social-democratic ideology. Privatisers from Paris and London had been banging down South Africa’s doors even before apartheid fell.

In a 1995 powerpoint presentation to Asmal, the World Bank’s taskmanager of the controversial Lesotho Highlands Water Project made this case: if poor consumers had the expectation of getting something for nothing, municipal privatisation contracts “would be much harder to establish.” So if consumers were not paying their bills, Asmal needed to impose a “credible threat of cutting service.”

He may have disliked the Washington financiers, but Asmal faithfully carried out their advice; in 1999 the Bank bragged it was ‘instrumental’ in his ‘radical revision’ of water pricing. So when word trickled down from Asmal’s ministry that full cost-recovery was the new SA water policy, what had earlier been free ? for example, bantustan-era KwaZulu water supplies in Ngwelezane near Richards Bay ? would now be priced. South Africa’s fabled service delivery protests began in earnest.

Cost-recovery was the reason Ngwelezane’s water administrator disconnected hundreds of households from grid access they could no longer afford in August 2000. Immediately after the victims turned to local river water, Ngwelezane became the epicenter of South Africa’s worst modern cholera epidemic. Hundreds died. (It was only then that Asmal’s successor, Ronnie Kasrils, persuaded party officials to reverse policy and provide a Free Basic Water supply, albeit just half the RDP’s recommended level.)

Manqele’s water war

Meanwhile, a few hours drive down the coast in southwest Durban, Manqele was working closely with the late Fatima Meer, sociologist Ashwin Desai and Westcliff Flats Residents Association leader Orlean Naidoo to help unite Chatsworth’s African and Indian residents in what became the Durban Social Forum, no easy task given the area’s divided history, desegregation dynamics and acute race/class tensions. In 1999, Manqele became ill, lost her job and saw her municipal arrears reach $1300.

The first water disconnection by city authorities was in January 2000. Manqele explained in the documentary film Plumbing the Rights, “That man came now to close the water. I haven’t got water after that I haven’t got food too, and then I’m thinking one way may be to sell my body there, I’m thinking food again to I’m thinking I can’t got there to prostitute me I’m old. All night I can’t sleep and high blood pressure is high.”

Chatsworth activists then helped Manqele illegally reconnect the pipes, allowing her and the seven children to consume more than the 25 liters per person (two flushes of the toilet each) that the city was allegedly supplying free each day. But as Naidoo recalled, the water only kicked in once arrears were cleared: “What kind of free water service is that ? when people can’t afford to pay their daily bill, how are they going to pay off their arrears to get their free water? So that’s just a false hope.”

The turn to illegality was demonstrated on film by Chatsworth organizer Brandon Pillay, later elected an ANC city councilor: “There’s a copper disc that’s placed inside of this pipe and that actually shuts off the water so what we do is we just try to open up this pipe, and on opening this pipe we just remove the disc and then we have water.”

Manqele told the filmmaker a few months later, as cholera joined the diarrhea and AIDS pandemics, “That’s why me now I go back there to open the water? I’m scared for the cholera and then I need the water because me my condition? and I’m worried for the children, the suffering of the children, that’s why now if I never did that thing [illegal reconnection] now I’m going to die, I can’t stay without water.”

In March 2000, Manqele’s lawyers won an injunction against the city, raising expectations for a more sustained challenge to Asmal’s legacy. But Manqele’s move to claim her constitutional water rights in the courts was foiled in July, for as Bristol University law professor Bronwen Morgan reported, “Extensive evidence was brought by the water company about the fact that she had tampered with the network, which was defined as criminal activity” and allegedly, “the judge’s attitude was sharply altered by the evidence of her dealings with moonlight plumbers.”

Facing more than 10,000 Durban township residents recently disconnected, the political implications of the case loomed large. Mass organizing was kicking off across SA’s biggest cities and new urban social movements arose, encouraged by the grassroots-women’s strength and inter-ethnic unity symbolized by Chatsworth’s water war.

Although the court ultimately ruled against Manqele, municipal water authorities shifted tactics, announcing that instead of outright disconnections, ‘flow limiters’ would be installed, an important distinction, but these too were often removed by local activists. Disgusted with national policy and the legal system, Manqele’s legacy was to keep the community movement sufficiently strong to enforce street-level power of water reconnection ever since.

(She can be seen here.)

False hope legacy

Some of us should have listened and learned more from Manqele because three years later, while based at the University of the Witwatersrand Graduate School of Public and Development Management in Johannesburg, Sowetans asked for my advice and I naively suggested they take their water case to the courts.

In Joburg, Asmal’s influence was also decisive, in encouraging water commercialization ? the city’s failed 2001-06 contract with Suez ? at the same time he authorized an ecologically-damaging and socially-dislocating mega-dam (Mogale) in corruption-ridden Lesotho, where a dozen multinational corporations, including a Suez subsidiary, were prosecuted for bribery during the Katse Dam’s late-1990s construction. Joburg water supply costs quintupled.

(Ironically, Asmal chaired the quite balanced World Commission on Dams at the time. It was yet another contradiction internalized in his complicated life.)

Like Manqele, the Soweto activists initially won minor ‘false hope’ victories in the Joburg High Court in 2008 and SA Supreme Court in early 2009, but their case for doubling daily free water to a modest 50 liters and prohibiting pre-payment meters was overturned by the Constitutional Court in September 2009. Asmal was quiet. So much for human rights law, and for our faith in liberal public-interest institutions.

A member of Manqele’s legal team, Heinrich Bohmke, remarked that her case was “an early warning ? for those who would hear it ? of the dangers of construing demands for the bare necessities of life in terms subject to constitutional adjudication. The case was lost, the Westcliff Flats Dwellers Association was demobilized while judgment was awaited and, in fact, came to think of itself as a collection of good if victimized citizens.”

Human rights law was now useless, Bohmke continues: “After the loss, survival again meant illegality and abandoning the passive comforts of victimhood. It was only because of the strength, resilience and expedience of people like Christina that the strategy of legalism was disavowed and the organization was rebuilt.”

Manqele was a salt-of-the-earth activist, a great woman active in her residents’ committee until last week. Asmal will be remembered fondly by many, especially for his strong recent stand against Israeli apartheid. Once you lose power, Asmal (as well as Kasrils) proved, your best instincts can flower.

Yet his legacy includes water disconnections and privatization, Lesotho megadams and devastating inattention to household sanitation, municipal sewerage and Joburg’s Acid Mine Drainage crisis; the neoliberal “Outcomes Based Education” curriculum fiasco, notorious doctoring of matriculant Pass Rates to make it appear he generated improvement, and highly dubious university merger decisions now being reversed; and in 2003 a key role providing ethical cover for state munitions sales to Washington-London’s Iraq War belligerents.

But in taking sides with neoliberalism in the country’s world-famous water wars, Asmal met his match: an overburdened woman in a Durban community willing and able to fight back. And when the courts were as full of hot air as was he occasionally, it was in her turn to self-generated justice that we gain permanent inspiration from Christina Manqele.

Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society.






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Patrick Bond (pbond@mail.ngo.za) is professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance in Johannesburg. He is co-editor (with Ana Garcia) of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, published by Pluto (London), Haymarket (Chicago), Jacana (Joburg) and Aakar (Delhi).

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