Water struggles in South Africa

An article on struggles over water supplies in South Africa since 2000

“As much as water is a basic human right there is a cost to recover and if no payment is made the Metro Council disconnects,” Trevor Bonhome, council official, 2000. By 2002, over a million people across South Africa had been disconnected from water since 1994 because they couldn’t pay; 40,000 children were dying form diarrhoea caused by dirty water every year. Cholera returned with a vengeance, infecting over 100,000 people in Kwa-Zulu Natal alone.1 In urban areas, the people do not have the access to communal water supplies that those in rural communities still do. “In cities, all taps have an owner”. Biological necessity would sooner or later have sparked massive resistance.

Thulisile Christina Manqele left her job as a domestic worker after 12 years, due to ill health, at aged 28. She did not even receive one month’s severance pay. She has four children of her own and permanently looks after three others. In 2000, already behind with her rent and without electricity, her water was cut off. She turned first to neighbours, then, as their water was cut off too, to a leaking pipe and then a stagnant, contaminated stream. The Westcliff Flats Residents Association took the case to court as a test case. The Water Services Act gives everyone the right to a ‘basic water supply’ and 6 kiloliters of water free of charge. But the council argued that Thulisile had previously illegally re-connected her water; that she had given water to neighbours; that the council could not police the restriction of use to the free amount; and that the court had to consider the 8,000 other households that would want their water turned back on in order to have the free 6 kiloliters. The courts ruled against Thulisile, and her water was disconnected as a ‘credit control’ mechanism.

Desai criticises court cases as consuming energy and deflecting from mass mobilisation. But he says they also generate publicity, provide focal points for mobilisations and can help link communities similarly affected by service cuts in other areas of the country.

When the water company came to disconnect the water in another house in Bayview, in Chatsworth, the community turned up en masse and formed a human wall around the targeted houses. “The security company withdrew. There was a mood of elation and militancy… with people dancing in the cul-de-sacs between the rows of flats to music hastily improvised… This was now the fifth battle in a row they had won against those who would either evict them or cut off their water…. Chatsworth was fast becoming a theatre of defeat for the Metro Council…. The next day… an agreement was reached that the water cut-offs would be stopped… Accounts would be frozen with no further interest charged on arrears, and the water could be turned back on. On the day the Bayview water case was to be heard, 200 people from Umlazi arrived at the High Court. Their water had also been cut…. They had come to protest in solidarity.”

Struggle plumbers abound – and are not prosecuted. The council re-disconnects, and the struggle plumbers dis-re-disconnect. “The Durban Council is thus creating mass lawlessness by the sheer scale of its acts of oppression, which are bound to breed resistance.”

  • 1. Desai, page 11. During the first half of 2000 in Durban, 23,786 households have had their water cut off owing to non-payment. This will almost certainly amount to more than 130,000 people without water at all.