[DEBATE] : From Soweto water victory to Durban?
pbond at mail.ngo.za
Tue May 13 05:24:16 BST 2008
Eye on Civil Society column
Partial victories for civil society
May 13, 2008 Edition 1
Patrick Bond and Orlean Naidoo
Last July, we wrote an Eye on Civil Society article, "Water policies hit
the poor of Durban", that now deserves a partial retraction.
Only partial because on the one hand, Mercury journalist Tony Carnie's
column last week warned of municipal crony capitalism: "Many ratepayers
have been pillaged by the new rate randage determination, while most
businesses and industries quietly count their blessings."
On the other hand, there are two processes under way which show civil
society can cajole the state into sensible water services delivery.
First is the historic April 30 judgment in the Johannesburg High Court
outlawing pre-paid water meters and mandating 50 litres for everyone
free each day, as a matter of constitutional rights.
Behind the case were five Soweto residents, the national Campaign
Against Water Privatisation, the Wits University Centre for Applied
Legal Studies and advocate Wim Trengove. They persuaded Judge Moroa
Tsoka to finally give teeth to the Bill of Rights water clause.
An earlier judgment guaranteeing emergency services - the Grootboom case
of September 2000 - was vague and hence useless for citizens' rights.
Second, local government is bending under citizen movements' pressure.
In the Chatsworth neighbourhoods of Bayview, Crossmoor and Westcliff,
for example, water is now flowing where once it was restricted.
The reason is a 10-year mobilisation by the Flatdwellers' Association,
initially supported by the Durban Concerned Citizens' Forum organised by
Prof Fatima Meer.
Strategies and tactics in the water wars ranged from street protests and
widespread illegal reconnections to intense negotiations with state
These engagements bore fruit last year, when deputy city manager Derek
Naidoo agreed to a moratorium on evictions and services disconnections.
The city also began rehabilitating leaky plumbing and faulty electrical
wiring throughout the flats. Additional refurbishment and upgrading of
infrastructure in these three neighbourhoods is under way, budgeted for
at least R38 million.
Chatsworth activists have won some battles but face others because after
upgrading the city will install built-in restrictors on consumption.
Likewise, Johannesburg Water had imposed pre-paid water meters on
Soweto, and not on the northern suburbs.
Judge Tsoka declared this racist: "I am unable to understand why this
credit control measure is only suitable in the historically poor black
areas and not the historically rich white areas. Bad payers cannot be
described in terms of colour or geographical area."
In contrast, eThekwini city manager Michael Sutcliffe observes that
Durban shunned this technique.
"We do not agree that is the way to go," he told Business Day last week.
"We replaced all our prepaid water meters when we created the new
However, if citizens wish to file a similar lawsuit against eThekwini
Water and Sanitation, they would easily find other low-quality water
technologies only in poor and working-class areas, including urinary
Consider, for instance, the thousands of 200-litre yard drums for which
Durban water manager Neil Macleod wins international acclaim. The drums
also fail the race/class fairness test. How many are there in
Starting on July 1, if the council approves his proposal, Macleod may
have an answer. Rather than replace the low-pressure drums with regular
connections so as to meet Judge Tsoka's standards, instead the
municipality will fill them up not only once each evening, but again
with 100 litres extra during the day.
However, for homes with more than six people that is still short of the
50 litres per person recommended by international health experts, an
amount promised back in the 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme.
One tempting short cut - albeit one which will do enormous damage - is
to try limiting free basic water to people judged "indigent", a classic
technique of poverty "targeting" promoted by the World Bank.
Given how volatile income can be in the informal sector, this is an
administrative nightmare. How does a woman selling tomatoes prove her
income? Means testing also stigmatises beneficiaries.
Instead, Macleod is considering using a house value of R190 000 as a
cut-off to determine which "indigents" receive free water. But that too
is a thorny approach especially in light of the municipality's rates
valuation debacle and South Africa's real estate bubble.
Moreover, because the number of people living in each home is not
recorded, the bias is towards small households. Yet larger households
with tenants and Aids orphans most need the extra free water.
Macleod's plans should be scrapped in order to comply with the RDP, the
constitution and the ANC December 2000 municipal election promise. "All
residents", said the ANC then, will receive "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".
Serving "all residents" could be accomplished with an additional record
for each household in the billing database, showing how many residents
there are, by using ID numbers and other means of unique identification,
updated once a year, so there is no cheating.
To defeat diarrhoea, cholera and other waterborne diseases, and to
achieve fairness and gender equity (because women suffer most when water
is short), we need a universal entitlement to water.
It should be paid for by cross-subsidisation: ie, an ever-higher price
for luxury levels of consumption. Those using more than 30 kilolitres
per household per month are, in our view, consuming hedonistically, and
should pay handsomely for the privilege in an era of growing water scarcity.
Judge Tsoka's ruling should be heeded by Durban officials to avoid the
embarrassment and expense of a court challenge, one aimed merely at
getting ANC politicians to remember pledges.
At a time Sutcliffe and Macleod are criticised for inadequate sanitation
coverage and broken pipes that spoil beautiful Blue Flag beaches,
expanding free basic water would show compassion and common sense.
# Patrick Bond is director at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.
Chatsworth activist Orlean Naidoo is a community scholar at the centre.
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