When the taps run dry – capitalism and climate change in South Africa

In Nelson Mandela Bay, in South Africa, climate change has exposed apartheid’s economic roots barely concealed by a so-called democratic political structure. Compounded by corrupt leadership, a five-year drought has triggered an unparalleled disaster for the city’s poor. Tony Martel and Siyabulela Mama write how more than a million people now face a Day Zero when their household taps run dry.

By Tony Martel and Siyabulela Mama

Almost thirty years ago, the South African apartheid regime administered a tyrannical state designed to profit off the subjugation of the non-white population. Today, the tyrannical regime is but a memory, and yet democracy has brought no material benefit for this same subjugated population. While a small minority of South Africa’s non-white population has ascended into the middle and upper classes, with struggle veterans in political leadership, the capitalist state ostensibly takes one step forward democratically to take two steps back into privatization and corruption. In the words of Zac de Beer, former executive of the South African mining corporate, Anglo-American, “we dare not allow the baby of free enterprise to be thrown out with the bathwater of apartheid”. A meta-racism replaces apartheid, with black political and economic elites in charge, producing a situation that is materially as bad if not worse than it was during apartheid.

In one South African city, Nelson Mandela Bay, climate change has exposed apartheid’s economic roots hidden beneath South Africa’s democratic political structure. A five-year drought, exacerbated by an ineffectual and corrupt political administration, has led the city into an unmitigated disaster. 1.2 million people now face a Day Zero when their household taps run dry. Over the years, Nelson Mandela Bay’s water system has fallen into disrepair as service provision was hijacked by politicians seeking material gain through a network of patronage.

Teenagers have made a wheelbarrow so they are able to easily fetch water when the water tanker finally arrives.

The forecast for the city’s population looks bleak as the effects of climate change could predictably extend this drought until 2028. Neoliberal economic policies and chronically underfunded municipalities have undermined a democratic South Africa from fulfilling its promises to a dignified life for its people. Climate change might very well turn this human disaster into a survival situation.

Water systems in democratic South Africa

From democracy’s outset, municipal service delivery was destined to fail. Following the 1998 White Paper on Local Government, municipalities were ordained with special authority to provide wall-to-wall services for its residents, funded through property rates and affordable tariffs. However, providing these services came at a drastically underestimated cost, rendering them inaccessible for most poor and working-class people. In effect, municipalities were driven to focus their efforts on recovering costs over providing basic services. In the case of water, “while more homes have access to basic water supply now than in 1994, as a percentage of all homes fewer households have water now than at the end of apartheid”. Rate payers, mainly white middle and upper-class homeowners, become the primary benefactors of basic services.

In 2022, one in ten South Africans, 6 million people, do not have access to infrastructure capable of providing adequate water supply. If this was not enough, the water infrastructure accessible for many millions more cannot reliably supply safe water. The precise number is up for debate, and the available statistics for access to a steady and clean source of water are likely a low estimate if we interrogate the government’s definition of reliable and safe. Surely the reality expressed by ordinary South Africans portrays a reality that is much starker when measured against the government’s numbers.

The South African government’s failure to deliver water, a basic need, tells us South African democracy does not reach far below the surface. The Departmental Water Services Database indicates there are 5,336 communities in urban areas (including metros), 64% of South Africa’s population, with 98% access to basic water supply. 22,750 rural communities, accounting for 36% of the population, have 82% access to basic water supply. Eight metros that represent 42% of the population have 100% access to basic water supply.

Waiting in despair as the water tanker does not look like it will arrive, and no communication from the municipality as to what is going on.

Despite this, it was noted in 2019 that 59.9% of households in South Africa are serviced by water systems rendered unsustainable because of climate change. One-third of these households required on-site sanitation. Future projections of water supply indicate there will be a 17% deficit by 2030. On the surface, South Africa’s water system appears satisfactory where nearly everyone is serviced with a basic supply of water, but upon further investigation it is evident that the situation is becoming untenable for many people. The future certainly does not look bright.

In South Africa, there are less than one hundred Dam Safety Approved Professionals, and more than 66% of these professionals are older than sixty. This needs to change if we are serious about fighting the water crisis in South Africa. In Nelson Mandela Bay, there is not a single registered professional engineer employed in the Department of Water Services. With an unemployment rate hovering around 35.7% in the city, there is little reason why the municipality does not shift toward reskilling its workforce for its jobless population to begin repairing the water system. Could it be that employing the city’s working people undermines the municipal government’s other constituency, wealthy rate payers and industry?

Listen to the water experiences from people across the municipality and see for yourself.

Water crisis in the townships vs. the suburbs

In Chris Hani Township, situated in the northern periphery of Nelson Mandela Bay, residents have been without running water for six months. The streets are active with people walking back and forth carrying water jugs. Shopping carts pushed by children crowd the area’s sole half-filled water tank. To reiterate, in an area of 5,000 houses, there is only one half-filled water tank. A water tanker arrives daily to administer water to this tank, but when asked, the driver says he only delivers to this area because he lives there. Residents may get 1.2 litres of water per day if they are lucky. Without running tap water, residents are forced to make hard decisions in their daily lives. Whether to fulfil household chores, clean their clothes, flush their toilets, or take their medicine are weighed in the balance.

In Zwide Township, water turns off during the day for hours at a time. In the streets, leaks from pipes form small estuaries that have existed for so long that residents have made crossings with rocks and other debris. Reported leaks go unattended for weeks. The municipality is working from a repair backlog in the order of thousands with new pipe bursts popping up daily. Parents keep their children home from school because they fear there might not be enough water to carry the students throughout the day. It becomes necessary to fill water jugs in the morning before leaving the house. Neglecting this newfound responsibility could lead to grave consequences upon returning home with no water to drink.

Community meeting on what needs to be done.

Residents in all Nelson Mandela Bay townships report they are getting sick from their tap water. Parents report taking their children to the hospital in the middle of the night when the children fall ill with nausea and diarrhoea. Many residents are unemployed and cannot afford the electricity to boil their water, nor can they afford a cleaning agent, nor water bottles. In this event, residents are forced to drink dirty water without an alternative.

In the suburbs, water is rarely a concern. Shutoffs are less common, in some areas non-existent, and there are communal taps constructed in the event water does run out. If this is not enough, many residents have dormant swimming pools filled with water, an open-air water tank, if you will. Once treated, this water is suitable for drinking. On occasion, it is possible to see borehole trucks coming out of someone’s yard. In effect, where there is concern, suburban households have the resources to provision their own alternatives. For the middle and upper-class, predominantly white, water service delivery is at its best, mitigation strategies are in place, and households have personal resources at their disposal.

The pattern of water service delivery in the townships measured against the suburbs displays an uneven infrastructural development, and an unequal provision of water. For example, water flows from taps in a wealthy suburb like Summerstrand uninterrupted in anticipation of Day Zero, and on the other side, Chris Hani has been facing Day Zero for six months. In short, the water servicing the wealthier rent payers in the suburbs comes at the expense of poor and working-class residents in the townships.

The municipality against the Water Crisis Committee

At present, the municipality is betting on large infrastructure projects to meet the city’s water demand. Desalination is being marketed by water experts as the only viable option to build a sustainable water system. These experts are also selling desalination as a sound investment strategy for the municipal economy with its prospect for reindustrialisation and job creation. Taking the lead from the business lobby, the municipal council has signed and approved a desalination plant, as the plant will purportedly fight unemployment and bring investment into the municipality. Without consultation, the municipality approved the project, once again overriding its mandate to serve its residents, by instead serving industry with market solutions.

Working class communities in Nelson Mandela Bay, represented by the Water Crisis Committee, say new techno-utopian infrastructure projects will not solve this crisis. Although deindustrialization is a key driver of unemployment, it is caused by the financialization of the global economy. Subjecting water to market fundamentalism transforms a basic right into an exclusive privilege. Marketization will create the same insecurity we face with food, which only worsens unemployment, poverty, and inequality.

Community Member of Chris Hani pouring water from a water tanker.

Desalination also comes with significant environmental costs and financial risks. It is the opposite of the low carbon reindustrialization promoted by the national government. Furthermore, this desalination plant will primarily service water to the municipality’s industrial development zone, and not households in the townships. For the municipality, addressing this water crisis means solving the crisis for big business. In post-apartheid South Africa, capitalism reigns supreme, and this means the economy and businesses comes first.

The constitution endows South African citizens with an inalienable right to access clean and sufficient water. The right to water is fundamentally intertwined with environmental rights also outlined in the constitution. There is a clear mandate within the constitution for the provision of these basic rights, which the evidence above demonstrates, have been ignored. Apartheid ended with high hopes for a democracy where everyone had access to a decent  life based on equality of services.

In 2022, it appears South Africa’s constitution has been traded in for capitalist markets, and in effect survives as a zombie apartheid state. South Africa teaches us that capitalism is apartheid.

Apartheid afterlives

How can it be that a liberation movement, so ardently opposed to its people’s oppression, now perpetuates the same material deprivation as the previous oppressor? In brief, capitalism was never fundamentally challenged by the main organisations of liberation. Instead an elite formation composed of former leading activists, at one time willing to sacrifice everything, have ‘taken payment’ for their former ‘sacrifices’ by reaping the economic fruits of a hard-fought democracy. A culture of corruption within politics develops, abetted by secretive business deals and veiled threats from bankers and heads of state in the Global North.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, the municipality has faced  internal corruption and chronic underfunding, which has led them to seek solutions from the business sector. Instead of honouring its mandate to the people, the municipality has given away control to an unaccountable enterprise,  the Amatola Water Board. Capitalism forecloses the possibility of building the democracy fought for during the anti-apartheid struggle.

The struggle for water in Nelson Mandela Bay is waged against the commodification of this basic resource. The poor and working-class people of Nelson Mandela Bay are demanding they have a water tank for every household – the people themselves must control the water system. It is on this frontier that Nelson Mandela Bay fights for real democracy. True democracy is measured by our ability to access the basic resources and decision-making power to both shape and enjoy the world.

The water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay reverts South Africa to its tyrannical, apartheid past while the struggle for the decommodification of water is an advance toward an eco-socialist future. A dignified life in South Africa is one in which direct democracy and the control of basic resources wins over authoritarian racial capitalism.

Quite literally, the ultimatum before Nelson Mandela Bay is eco-socialism or death.

Tony Martel is a member of the Nelson Mandela Bay Water Crisis Committee and a PhD candidate at Nelson Mandela University. Siyabulela Mama is a member of the Water Crisis Committee, a researcher at the Centre for Post-School Education and Training, Nelson Mandela University, and an activist at the Assembly of the Unemployed.

Featured Photograph: Members of the Chris Hani Community, Saxwila Street, returning home without water in their buckets (all photographs taken by the Water Crisis Committee in 2022).


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