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Troubled Waters

In April last year I went to a public meeting convened by the NGO Equal Education in Cape Town’s best bookshop, the Book Lounge. I have been to dozens of launches and readings and comic book swaps at the Book Lounge, but none of them was as packed as this. There were people squeezed on the floor in between chairs; the crowd was four-people deep in standing room-only areas; people on the pavement outside listened in through the open doors. I climbed up part of a bookshelf to see what was going on. It was so hot and damp with more than a hundred bodies crammed tightly together, that it felt that the shop had developed its own tropical ecosystem.

It says a great deal about the state of South Africa’s education system that a panel discussion about schools in the Eastern Cape – one of the country’s least effectively run provinces – could draw such a large and enthusiastic crowd. Equal Education had recently sent a group of South African luminaries – including constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos, writers Zakes Mda and Njabulo Ndbele, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, and activists Elinor Sisulu and Sindiwe Magona – on a Solidarity Visit to draw attention to the appalling state of school infrastructure.

They described collapsing mudwalled classrooms; inadequate supplies of books and stationery; children without desks; and, most memorably, the disgusting state of school toilets. Children complained of contracting diseases from filthy, broken latrines, and many of them chose rather not to use them at all – either risking their health or relieving themselves in the veldt. It was the toilets that seemed to many to sum up the Department of Basic Education’s lack of respect for the children it is supposed to educate.

It’s been difficult not to think about the Solidarity Visit and its report fairly recently. Last week, a little boy was killed when he fell into a pit toilet at a primary school in Chebeng, a village in Limpopo Province. Referring to a 2011 survey, Equal Education noted:

Of the 24 793 public ordinary schools, 11 450 schools are still using pit latrine toilets and 2 402 schools have no water supply, while a further 2 611 schools have an unreliable water supply.

This death coincided with a series of protests in the Madibeng municipality in the North West, over water shortages, which led to the deaths of three protestors. After an outcry over both alleged police brutality, as well as revelations as to the mismanagement of the municipality, the mayor resigned and water was restored. Residents say, though, that the water remains too dirty to use.

These protests are nothing new. Residents of this and other municipalities in the North West have been demanding a clean, reliable water supply – and it’s worth emphasising that they’re billed for water regardless of whether it flows or not – since at least 2011. As even ANC stalwart Trevor Manuel has admitted, the problem in Madibeng is that a dysfunctional, corrupt local government cannot provide basic services. In 2010, the municipality was placed under administration:

In June 2011, newspapers exposed the fact that the new executive mayor was renting a BMW at the cost of R2,025 per day. In April last year, it was reported that R1 billion of assets, supposedly owned by the municipality, were missing.

The violence of these protests has drawn attention to crises not only in policing (and it would seem that some of the police who were present at the Marikana massacre were at Madibeng too), but also in the regular provision of clean water to South Africans. As both Eyewitness News and an Africa Check have demonstrated, the Department of Water and Environment Affairs’ claim that 94% of South Africans have access to safe drinking water doesn’t, well, hold any water. A 2011 general household survey published by Statistics South Africa reports that:

89.5% of South African households had access to piped water. Breaking that number down, 43.3% had piped water in their homes, 28.6% had access to water in their yards, 2.7% had the use of a neighbour’s tap and 14.9% had to make use of communal taps.

Moreover, South Africans have reported declining satisfaction with the quality of water provided, complaining that in some municipalities it is not clean enough to drink and cook with.


A protestor holds aloft a copy of the constitution. Taken at the Right2Know campaign’s march to Parliament, October 2010.

It is not difficult to understand why communities living in rural areas and informal settlements – those usually with the least access to basic services – protest poor and irregular water supplies with such anger. Usually described as ‘service delivery protests,’ demonstrations over poor municipal governance have, over the past few years, become ever more frequent and violent. But they are more than protests over bad service delivery.

The idea of water as a public good dates from around the mid-nineteenth century, when local governments became interested in ensuring clean water supplies as a way of combating the spread of disease. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world which enshrines the right to access clean, safe water in its constitution. Citizenship is, then, closely connected to being able to fill a pot with clean water from a kitchen tap; to take a shower in a bathroom; and to flush a porcelain toilet. In a country where access to water was, under apartheid, determined by a racist urban planning system, these current service delivery protests are a revolt around the denial of citizenship.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brad Lee #

    It’s very difficult to post a positive comment here, through no fault of the author. Well written and describes the frustrating status quo perfectly! We need articles like this. The government spent an inordinate amount of money and time to rewrite the laws pertaining to water rights. The laws were passed by parliament in 2006, and make the government the de facto owner of all water in SA, regardless of origin. The laws will hamper commercial farmers and industry for generations to come, placing us squarely in the hands of petty officials who can confiscate water rights on a whim. This was done in the name of providing clean water for human consumption….and your article highlights how little has been done with these sweeping powers in nearly eight years.

    February 5, 2014
    • Thanks, Brad – very glad you like the post. -Sarah

      February 5, 2014

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