The Politics of Water in South Africa

The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee's fight to reaffirm the constitutional right to water for all South Africans.

Johannesburg street scnee. Image: kool_skatkat (Flickr CC).

For the next two days South Africa’s Constitutional Court (the equivalent of the Supreme Court) will hear “… the final appeal in a case brought by five Soweto residents challenging Johannesburg’s discriminatory prepaid water meter system. Their six-year legal battle would reaffirm the constitutional right to water for all South Africans.”

The short film, Amanzi Ngawethu (Water Is Ours), by Christina Hotz of Friction Films, is a good primer into the politics of water in South Africa after Apartheid.

Background at Links.

In a long essay accompanying the film, academic Patrick Bond, summarize what is stake. Here’s the introduction:

In South Africa, major advances in health and the environment during the 2000s were only won by social activists by removing the profit motive; the challenge will be to combine their forces, to link some of the world’s most impressive social movements by “connecting the dots” between their sectorally discrete problems, ranging in scale from the status of women and children in the household to climate change mitigation.

Because the activists only began the work described below roughly a decade ago, the period since the end of apartheid (though starting in the 1980s) has witnessed the degeneration of the society’s health, as reflected in the dramatic decline in life expectancy, from 65 years at the time of liberation to 52 years a decade later, largely because of AIDS (Statistics South Africa, 2004). In addition, ecological problems have become far worse, according to the government’s own commissioned research in the 2006 Environmental Outlook report, which according to the leading state official (Yako, 2007), “outlined a general decline in the state of the environment”.

The most hopeful antidote to these problems is the power of social activism. The most important victory to date was access to free AIDS medicines, requiring the defeat of a formidable capitalist/state bloc comprising the US Clinton/Gore and South African Mbeki regimes, and the “Big Pharma” group of pharmaceutical firms which holds intellectual property rights over anti-retroviral drugs. After a brief review of the Treatment Action Campaign’s work, we turn to the subsequent cases where red-green campaigning by environmental justice movements has made a difference to constituents’ health status in terms of water and electricity access, less pollution and action on climate (though the latter is only in the very early stages). Interconnections between health and environment that these activists address include respiratory illnesses and water-borne diseases which have worsened especially in areas characterised by poverty, the resulting disconnection of water and electricity, and ongoing industrial pollution.

[Via Blacklooks]

Further Reading