to Death: How a Water Experiment Caused Riots and
a Cholera Epidemic
Free water, he said, "gives the
impression that water is free, service is free
and you can use water as much as you want.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, February
5, 2003 Every morning, as the sun rises
over the Indian Ocean and paints the sky a
brilliant yellow, David Radebe crosses the N2
freeway into another world.
Winding like a black snake
through green sugar cane fields and over rolling
hills, the freeway divides
two very different communities along
KwaZulu-Natal's spectacular Dolphin
Thirty miles (50
kilometers) north of the harbor city of Durban,
the turnoff to the right leads to the resort
towns of Ballito Bay, Salt Rock and Tinley Manor,
where holiday homes of the upwardly mobile and
absentee landlords perch on rocky cliffs
overlooking brilliant white beaches. Radebe comes
here to look for work.
On the other side of the
freeway, heading toward the interior and
scattered between sugar cane estates, lie the
houses and dwellings of small ethnic Indian
communities and three black township settlements
that are home to about 12,000 people. This is
Nkobongo, where Radebe lives.
Rows of new government
housing line the tidy township streets. Roads and
curbs are well maintained. Electrical cables
crisscross the landscape above the tin roofs, and
township kids, dressed neatly in blue uniforms,
make their way to "Indian schools" that
now have been integrated.
But the air of progress
and order belies a quiet desperation. Eighty
percent of township residents live in dire
poverty, well below the minimum living standard
of R800 ($80) per household a month. The mobile
clinic that serves the townships reports an
alarming increase in cases of HIV/AIDS,
tuberculosis and malnourished children. Six in 10
residents say their children went hungry in the
Their biggest problem,
however, is water. Not because of a shortage, but
because they can't afford it.
It was in this stricken
community in 1999 that South Africa initiated one
of five water privatization programs as part of a
government policy aimed at making people pay for
the full cost of having running water in their
homes. The South Africans call it "total
Unlike many countries,
where residents pay only a fraction of the total
cost of having running water in their homes, the
idea behind "total cost recovery"
the brainchild of private water companies
and World Bank economists is
that ending subsidies will help finance improved
waterworks and build the country's economy.
Free water "is not so
good an idea," Yves Picaud, managing
director of Vivendi
Water in South Africa, said in an interview with ICIJ. "It is
better to ask people to pay very little, but to
pay something." Free water, he said,
"gives the impression that water is free,
service is free and you can use water as much as
But in practice, total
cost recovery may have caused more misery than
development. In poor areas where privatization
has been implemented, millions of people have
been cut off because they cannot afford to pay
water bills that often make up 30 percent of
As many as 10 million South Africans have had
their water cut off for various periods of time
since 1994, according to a 2002 national survey
by the Municipal Services Project, a
university-based research center with offices in
South Africa and Canada. Two million people have
been evicted from their homes for not paying
utility bills. Many poor families pay up to 40
percent of their monthly income for water and
The water cutoffs have
forced thousands of poor people to seek water
from polluted rivers and lakes and led to South
Africa's worst outbreak of cholera, in which
thousands of people were sickened and hundreds
died. In the end, the government spent millions
of dollars to control the spread of the disease
and to truck clean water to the stricken areas.
"The cost recovery
program sounds good, but...it forced people to go
back to the original sources of water, polluted
streams and rivers and the like," said David
Hemson of South Africa's Human
Sciences Research Council, Africa's largest
and most-respected social science research
"That was the direct
cause of the cholera epidemic," Hemson said.
"There is no doubt about that." [Listen
to David Hemson]
"People are saying: I
have to choose between water and food or
between electricity and sending my child to
school," said Canadian researcher David
McDonald. When it comes to cost recovery,
McDonald observed, "Nobody really ever
bothered to find out if people could afford these
services. And, as it turns out, people
Soaking the poor
In South Africa, total
cost recovery has been implemented in different
ways. Some local governments have privatized
public utilities by awarding water concessions to
foreign companies. Others have transformed their
utilities into profit-driven, publicly owned
In Nkobongo, where David
Radebe lives, the French water company Saur won a
30-year concession in 1999 to provide water and
purification services to the area's diverse
population of 40,000. Saur formed a local company
in consortium with four South African companies,
called Siza Water Company. Saur was the majority
shareholder, while the majority black South
African companies shared the rest.
Water that once was free
for the poor suddenly carried a price tag.
Initially, families such as Radebe's could afford
it. Pleased to have cool, fresh running water in
his new home for the first time in his life,
Radebe gladly paid the connection fee and his
first water bill totaling 63.58 Rand
($6.40) a copy of which he retains as a
But in 2001, Radebe lost
his job as a gardener at a construction company.
School fees, food costs and rising water and
power rates quickly drove the family into debt.
The household's electricity was cut off, and the
water stopped flowing. Radebe tried to install a
pipe to bypass his water meter but was arrested
and released on a warning. He had to beg the
school headmaster to reschedule the kids' school
fees. With no water, his vegetable patch dried
out and the electric stove of no use since
the electricity had been cut was
Radebe told city officials
he would never be able to pay. So they removed
his water meter altogether. Many of his neighbors
and friends also have been cut off. Ninety
percent of township residents now access water
from sources other than the Siza Water Company,
according to Hemson.
Facing mounting losses,
Siza Water Company did what most private and
public water utilities are doing. It raised water
rates by between 98 percent and 140
percent since the inception of the concession
nearly four years ago.
Other, more inventive
tactics are being employed across the country.
Many townships have put
meters on communal taps. To access them,
residents must buy a prepaid water card, which
works like a phone card. The customer slips the
card into a meter and takes water from an
activated tap. The water stops when the card is
removed. When the card runs out, the customer has
to buy another. Trouble is, people like Radebe
can not afford $4.02 for a prepaid water card.
The prepaid meters are
"the most insidious device," said
McDonald, who co-directs the Municipal Services
Project, a research center based at University of
the Witwatersrand in South Africa and at Queens
University in Kingston, Ontario. "People
won't buy what they need they'll buy what
they can afford. So people are simply cutting
themselves off rather than having the state come
in and do it."
Some of the metered
communal taps have been vandalized. Others just
don't work; they eat the water cards so that
customers not only lose their money, they lose
any chance for water.
Another tactic of water
control involves a simple disc with two tiny
holes, called "the trickler." When people
miss a certain number of payments, the water
company inserts a disc into a valve, causing
water to trickle through to their pipes at
greatly reduced pressure. Residents can still get
a minimum amount of water but only once or
twice a day.
Although Section 27 of the
South African Constitution guarantees citizens
access to sufficient food and water, families
like Radebe's have neither.
desperate for water in Nkobongo turn to the
nearby Mhlali River and other streams. Radebe
said he borrows drinking water from neighbors
when he can, but at times he has had to send his
kids to the river with plastic buckets to fetch
The trouble is,
KwaZulu-Natal's natural water resources can be
19th century epidemic, 21st
There was a time, said
Wilson Xaba, when the taps in the Ngwelezane
township just ran and ran. The water was clean
Ngwelezane is a two-hour
drive north of Radebe's township of Nkobongo in
the former homeland of KwaZulu. Of a population
of 1.5 million people, 79 percent do not have
access to clean water, according to Edward Cottle
of the Rural Development Services Network, a
private group that conducts research on social
Xaba leads a community
group called Shona Khona, which means "Go
There." It was started in response to the
community's dissatisfaction with increasing
service cutoffs by the municipality's
In 1982, KwaZulu suffered
a major outbreak of cholera. More than 12,000
cases were reported, and 24 people died. As part
of a relief program, nine communal taps were
erected by the apartheid government on the border
It was a historic
milestone for Ngwelezane. For the first time,
residents were able to access purified water.
According to Xaba, some residents made personal
connections to these taps and had running water
in their houses. For the next 17 years, the
community had free water.
Until 1998, the
municipality covered all costs of water from the
nine communal taps. But then the town council
introduced measures for more rigorous financial
Residents were required to
pay a flat monthly rate of $4.50 for water and
electricity. At the end of 1998, the nine
communal taps were converted to prepaid meters.
To access water, residents had to pay a
connection fee of $5. Only 700 households could
afford the registration fee. Two-thousand
families remained unconnected.
"They came to us and
said we are wasting water," Xaba recalled.
"We were not consulted, they just told us.
For those houses with taps, they put meters in.
Then they put the prepaid meters in. We said 'no'
and then they cut our water. They said the water
belonged to the municipality. They used a phrase,
'No money, no water.'"
In August 2000, at least
four of the meters stopped working. "We
could not get water from anywhere. Nobody
explained anything. It took three weeks before
the meters were working again. The boreholes were
dry. We had no choice but to get water from the
A survey by the Municipal
Services Project found that 11 percent of
Ngwelezane's residents said they got water from
the river as a result of the cutoff.
They started using ponds
and streams contaminated with cholera bacteria,
and the disease spread like wildfire. The
Ngwelezane/Empangeni municipality, which includes
the mostly white town of Empangeni, had $10
million in reserves that could have been used to
address the crisis, according to Edward Cottle
and David Hemson. But the municipal government
remained "impassive" in the wake of the
outbreak, Cottle said.
"There had been no
attempt to subsidize the extension of services to
poor communities," Cottle told ICIJ.
"The municipality rather sought to impose
prepaid water meters on the existing free water
supply and to subsidize industry through the
introduction of tax breaks and incentives."
The first cholera case in
Ngwelezane was reported in August 2000. Within
four months there were
thousands of cases of the disease, which spreads
through food or water contaminated with cholera.
The causes of cholera have been understood since
the mid 19th century.
The disease ultimately
spread to the Eastern Cape and then to the
capital, Johannesburg, becoming the largest
cholera outbreak in South African history before
it ended in early 2002.
According to government
figures, about 120,000 people were infected and
265 were killed. Hemson, who was sent by the
government to investigate the outbreak, disputed
the official figures and said more than 250,000
people were infected and just under 300 people
Hemson said he discovered
that the municipal government had put locks on
people's taps, forcing them to take water from
the lake and river. "That spread this
cholera epidemic throughout the entire
community," he said.
The local council
eventually reacted by removing the prepaid meters
from communal taps and charging people a flat
rate of $2 to $2.50 per month for water. The
South African government gave KwaZulu-Natal $2.5
million in emergency funds to fight cholera in
the province. It also trucked water into the
affected areas at a cost of $45,000 per month.
"It is hard to fathom
how a democratic government, which prides itself
with promoting seemingly progressive water
legislation, could experience one of the biggest
outbreaks of cholera," Cottle said.
Unless the government gets
rid of its policy of cost recovery, "cholera
will continue to haunt South Africa for a long
time to come," he said.
And it will be costly. As
a result of trying to recoup its water costs, the
state is now paying "tens if not hundreds of
times more dealing with the health crisis,'' said
David McDonald of the Municipal Services Project.
Despite best intentions, the ANC blunders
Ronnie Kasrils got the
first hint that his government's cost recovery
policy was not working in 1999 during a visit to
a village in the former homeland of Transkei.
Kasrils, once a committed communist and soldier
in the African National Congress' armed wing, had
just become the minister of Water Affairs and
His department was
coordinating a project in the village of
Lutschenko in which each resident was
contributing 10R ($1) a month to receive basic
water service. While touring the village,
according to press reports at the time, he came
upon a woman digging in a riverbed.
"You don't have to do
this anymore we have this project
"I have to," she
replied. "I haven't got 10 Rand."
In February 2000, Kasrils
issued a new policy, giving six cubic meters
(1500 gallons) per month of free water to every
household in the country. But he failed to
provide rules to implement the policy.
By the end of 2002, 57
percent of all South Africans were getting the
free water, but fewer than a third of them were
poor. The remainder didn't need free water,
according to Kasril's department. And millions of
poor people still did not have the clean water
The ruling African
National Congress makes impressive claims for its
record on water delivery. When it took power in
1994, 13 million South Africans did not have
access to clean drinking water. By February 2002,
the government said, it had reduced that number
to 6 million. Kasrils has promised "basic
supplies" of water and electricity for all
by 2008. [Listen
to the government's water promotion]
But the ANC's progress
report seems exaggerated. According to Cosatu,
South Africa's biggest trade union, 98 percent of
whites, but only 27 percent of blacks, had access
to clean water in their homes in March 2001. In
rural areas, only 2 percent of blacks had indoor
Despite South Africa's
rating by the United Nations Development Index as
a middle-to-upper-income country, one child in
every 22 dies before reaching the age of 1.
Diarrhea is a frequent cause of these deaths and
often is directly attributable to poor water and
sanitation. In many ways, South Africa still
remains two countries. The 13 percent white
minority is 18th on the Human
Development Index, equal to New Zealand. The
dominant black majority is 118, in line with
Of all the countries in
the world, in 2001, only Guatemala had a wider
gap between rich and poor than the one that
exists in South Africa.
The World Bank takes credit
According to a 1999 World
Bank strategy report, the bank played an
important role in charting South Africa's
It used South Africa as a
sort of test laboratory to "pilot our
evolving role as a 'knowledge bank,'" the
"The Bank has
provided technical assistance and policy advice
in virtually all sectors of the economy,"
Pamela Cox, World Bank director for South Africa,
wrote in the introduction to "South Africa
Country Assistance Strategy," a bank report.
The report stated that the Bank's International
Financial Corporation has played an "active
role in the further development of infrastructure
in South Africa and promote the increased
participation of the private sector in this
It goes on to say that the
bank's primary objective in influencing South
African policies was to "help reduce the
apartheid legacy of poverty and inequality."
Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way.
The bank sent its own
experts and brought in others to help South
Africa fashion a new economic policy that
involved decentralizing power partially through
Patrick Bond, a professor
at the University of the Witwatersrand in
Johannesburg who has written extensively on water
privatization and the World Bank, told ICIJ that
the Bank sent what he called "reconnaissance
missions" in the 1990s to prepare the new
ANC government for privatization and
By the time the ANC took
over, World Bank advice was explicitly biased
By November 1994, Bank
staff, led by the deputy resident representative,
Junaid Ahmed, had drafted the main sections of
South Africa's "Urban Infrastructure
Investment Framework." A final draft was
issued four months later under the auspices of
the Reconstruction and Development Ministry in
the office of President Nelson Mandela. The
framework provided for communal taps and for pit
latrines in areas where households earned less
than $80 a month, Bond said.
In October 1995, the World
Bank's main water expert on Lesotho and South
Africa, John Roome, advised then-Minister of
Water Affairs Kader Asmal to make several policy
changes. These included introducing a
"credible threat of cutting service" to
In 1996, total cost
recovery became an official policy of the
government when it adopted its fiscally
conservative Growth, Employment and
Redistribution macro-economic policy, known as
GEAR. The central features of the policy are a
reduced role for the state, fiscal restraint and
the promotion of privatization.
director-general of the Department of Water
Affairs and Forestry, acknowledged the bank's
contribution but added: "The policy for cost
recovery has been in place long before the World
Bank was allowed to come here. And it's an
absolutely sensible way of running a water system
and the way most water systems are run in the
Bond disagrees. "Much
of cost recovery to date in South Africa has been
driven by a blind ideological faith in
neo-liberalism," he told ICIJ. "There
has been no effort to explore alternatives."
Call me a Thatcherite
After taking office as
president in May 1994, Nelson Mandela proclaimed,
with a nod to Britain's proponent of
privatization, former Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher, "Privatization is the fundamental
policy of our government. Call me a Thatcherite,
if you will."
Thabo Mbeki, who at the
time was Mandela's deputy president and succeeded
him in 1999, agreed with that position.
Municipalities have used
harsh tactics to enforce total cost recovery. In
certain towns in the Eastern Cape the
traditional heartland of the ANC
municipalities resorted to "apartheid
style" tactics to force people to pay. In
Stutterheim, streetlights were switched off to
"punish" non-payers. In Queenstown,
special debt collectors and private security
firms were appointed to collect arrears and cut
off water of errant residents. In Fort Beaufort,
local council officials refused to collect
sewerage buckets in so-called
"squatter" camps where the
poorest of the poor live in tiny tin shacks.
Township protests broke
out around the country, with people demanding an
end to prepaid electricity meters and water
cutoffs. The demonstrations turned violent in
some areas, as protesters clashed with the
"People are very,
very angry," McDonald, of the Municipal
Services Project, said. "We're starting to
see a ground swell of opposition."
The project, surveying the
impact of cost recovery on the poor, found that
more than a third of the 2,530 respondents
interviewed in July 2001 said they could
"not afford to pay for these services no
matter how hard they try" or that they could
pay only if they "cut back on other
essential goods like food and clothing."
In March 2000, one month
after Kasrils promised free water, the World Bank
released its "Sourcebook on Community Driven
Development in the Africa Region Community
Despite the hardships
already evident from total cost recovery
policies, the bank's report advised:
"Promote increased capital cost recovery
from users. An up front cash contribution based
on their willingness-to-pay is required from
users to demonstrate demand and develop community
capacity to administer funds and tariffs. Ensure
hundred percent recovery of operation and
McDonald said officials
disregarded the reality on the ground.
According to his research,
only 50 percent of households are capable of
paying a "reasonable fee" for services
such as water and electricity. Seventeen percent
of households can pay for services only if they
cut down on essentials, such as food and
clothing. Eighteen percent said they cannot pay
"Ability to pay is at
the root of the payment crisis, not a culture of
non-payment. You cannot squeeze blood from a
stone," McDonald said.
Menahem Libhaber, the
World Bank's senior water and sanitation engineer
in Latin America, told ICIJ there are thresholds
beyond which people simply cannot pay.
"Look, we can raise
the tariffs only by a socially acceptable amount
3 to 4 percent of income if you get
to more than that, they will not pay,"
Libhaber said. "The World Health
Organization suggested you could go to 7 percent,
but to me just 5 percent. South Africa is paying
A countrywide study
released in December 2002 by the Department of
Local Government shows that many municipalities
are charging unaffordable and unreasonably high
service rates and people simply can't afford to
South Africa's 300 local
councils are owed $670 million in outstanding
water payments, the study said.
The French connection
While privatization was a
post-apartheid policy, one French company already
had established deep roots in the country.
Lyonnaise des Eaux, now Suez,
was the first water multinational to create a
presence in South Africa and it didn't
wait for the coming of democracy in 1994.
Ten years earlier, at the
height of apartheid, French foreign trade advisor
Henry Castelnau and two advisors to Lyonnaise des
Eaux's chairman, Jérôme Monod, arrived in South
Africa for talks with the government and local
Through its wholly owned
subsidiary of Lyonnaise Water Southern Africa,
Suez bought interests in South Africa's largest
construction company and a pipe manufacturer in
the early 1990s. It then placed all of its South
African interests under Water and Sanitation
Services South Africa, a wholly owned subsidiary.
By 1995 the new firm,
known as WSSA, had management contracts in three
Eastern Cape towns: Queenstown, Stutterheim and
To drum up business, the
company used what Witwatersrand University
political scientist Greg Ruiters calls a
"panic strategy." Ruiters has
extensively researched the concession for the
Municipal Services Project.
WSSA officials met with
Fort Beaufort council members before the 1994
democratic elections and warned them that the
post-apartheid era was going to bring about
"demanding consumers, a payment crisis and
militant unions." The company claimed it
could help the three local councils solve these
pending problems, as well as provide substantial
savings and a world-class service. The Suez
subsidiary said consumption would rise and
consumers would start paying as they became more
aware of the "value" of water.
A secrecy clause was
written into the contracts preventing any member
of the public from seeing them without the
explicit approval of Suez, according to union
officials and Ruiters.
By 1996, the WSSA could
boast in its annual report: "Whilst these
are early days in winning their acceptance, we
now have the support of the government. We helped
draw guidelines of private sector management of
water and sanitation services and are now helping
with a regulatory framework."
But Ruiters said water
privatization in the three towns proved to be
disastrous. His research showed that water
tariffs increased up to 300 percent between 1994
and 1999. The municipalities did not derive a
cent of profit from its water revenue; all
increases went to paying off WSSA charges.
According to Ruiters, Fort
Beaufort paid $40,000 a month to the company.
By 1996, a typical
township household was paying up to 30 percent of
its income for water, sewerage and electricity.
Average income in the area at the time was less
than $60 per month, with more than 50 percent
The majority of township
residents couldn't pay their bills and were dealt
with ruthlessly. Queenstown appointed special
debt collectors and introduced a re-instatement
fee that was almost twice the average township
The assistant treasurer
for Fort Beaufort, now called Nkonkobe, said in
his 2000 municipal report: "The majority of
debtors against whom action was taken are
pensioners or unemployed."
By the late 1990s,
old-style, anti-apartheid resistance tactics were
reemerging in the communities, with
stone-throwing and violent confrontations between
local authorities and angry communities,
protesting the electricity and water cutoffs.
Ruiters said the WSSA
showed "remarkable tenacity" in
clinging to its three contracts in the eastern
Cape. The company said in a 2000 monthly report:
"Based on our experience, we know that
revenue can be gathered humanely and
But something had to give.
By 2000, Fort Beaufort municipality no longer
could pay the management fees to WSSA, and in
December 2001 it persuaded a High Court judge to
cancel its contract with the company. WSSA was
given two weeks to vacate the municipal offices
that they were occupying.
War by water pressure
In Nelspruit, a three-hour
drive east of Johannesburg, the water providers
and the water drinkers have had quite enough of
Henry Nkuna, for one, is
Nkuna was once a combatant
in the Azanian People's Liberation Army, the
armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress, which
continues to be a leftist political party
favoring land redistribution and black
empowerment. The armed Pan Africanists gained
notoriety during the apartheid struggle for
masterminding attacks on whites in churches, bars
and on farms.
Now, Nkuna is declaring
his readiness to respond to new water policies
with violence. "If you dare to do cost
recovery in the townships, it will spark a
fire," Nkuna warned in a November 2002
interview. "It will be something you will
Nkuna's new enemy is the
Greater Nelspruit Utility Company (GNUC), a
consortium of the British water company Biwater
and a local black empowerment company, Sivukile
Holdings, which has a 30-year concession to
provide water and sanitation services to a
population of 240,000.
Brian Sims, GNUC's
managing director and head of Biwater in South
Africa, is a veteran water man. He has worked all
over the world: New Zealand, Australia, the
Philippines. "Name it, I've been
"Never in my life
have I seen such a culture of non-payment than
here in Nelspruit," Sims said in disgust.
"People simply don't pay. We are suffering
In the summer of 2002,
GNUC instructed its lawyers to proceed with legal
action against 796 households in Nelspruit
that were more than $300 in arrears on their
"Letters of demand
have been sent out. This is the beginning of a
process to break the culture of non-payment in
the townships," GNUC commercial manager
Harold Moeng said in a November 2002 interview.
Nkuna and his
Anti-Privatization Forum are fighting to force
the municipality now called Mbombela
to cancel the GNUC contract and introduce
a flat rate of $3 a month for all municipal
services in the municipality and its surrounding
townships and villages.
"If it's necessary,
we'll use violence," he warned. "If
they [GNUC] come into the township to cut our
water supplies or take our goods, we'll vandalize
their cars and beat up their workers."
The threat of violence is
the latest in a series of obstacles and setbacks
for the concession, which has seen youths
marching on councilors' houses in the townships,
the destruction of water meters, illegal water
connections and one of the highest rates of
non-payment in the country.
Like the rest of
South Africa, Nelspruit
is really two cities. Old Nelspruit is
white and prosperous with average annual
incomes of $13,000. The surrounding
townships are poor. About 60 percent of
households have an income of $100 per
month or less.
When GNUC took
over in 1999, residents in the old town
enjoyed First World living conditions:
wide and well-maintained tree-lined
streets, libraries, parks, superior
medical facilities, good schools and a
high-level of municipal services. By
comparison, non-existent or low-level
basic services, dirt roads and inferior
schools and medical facilities
characterized the townships.
privatized its water operation because it
needed $38 million to bring water and
sewage networks to the townships. Since
then, GNUC said it has laid 90 kilometers
(55 miles) of new water pipelines and 17
kilometers (10 miles) of new sewage
pipelines. It has installed 7,240 new
water meters and made 5,000 new water
acknowledge in an interview that Biwater
is at a "crossroad" in its
operations in South Africa. Sims said
Biwater can no longer afford to implement
its full obligations under the water
concession, and the company has suspended
all capital expenditure programs. Even
with the suspension, water rates
increased in 2002 by 18 percent.
Sims blamed the
problems on the "culture of
non-payment" in the township, fueled
by trade unions and their allies like the
Pan Africanist Congress.
It costs the
consortium $111,000 every month to supply
clean water to Kanyamazane township,
which is part of Nelspruit, Sims said,
but the consortium receives only $5,584
in revenue. Only about 20 percent of
residents pay their bills. They
collectively owe the utility $1.8 million
in unpaid water bills.
only one solution: we have to get people
to pay," Sims said, adding that even
those township consumers who can afford
to pay for water don't.
But a journey into
the poor areas of Nelspruit tells a
different story. It becomes clear that
most people, at least, don't pay because
they cannot afford to pay.
People were used
to a flat rate of about $7.50 for all
services before privatization, said Sam
Sambo of the South African Municipal
Workers Union, a trade union that stands
at the forefront of the
anti-privatization campaign in South
Now, they get
individual water bills of up to $20.
"It's beyond their ability to pay
and that's why only one out of every five
residents pays their bills," Sambo
The Pan Africanist
Congress initiated a campaign in 2001
called "Operation Vulamanzi,"
or Operation Open Water, to reconnect
water to all residents who had been cut
off for not paying their bills. Even so,
"debtors" receive their water
through the so-called "trickler
system" in which GNUC installs a
disc-like device with two tiny holes that
allows water only to dribble into the
still access their free [6 cubic meters]
of water every month. In fact, they can
get even more," said Harold Moeng,
GNUC's commercial manager.
But the trickler
makes life very unpleasant for those who
can't pay. Call it war by water pressure.
have to get up at 3 a.m. to get water
before they go to work and then wait
again for the pressure to build up,"
He said GNUC's
attempt at total cost recovery is war on
the poor. "We will resist it with
every possible means we have."
Nkuna rattles his
saber: "If they continue on this
path, we will start with meetings and
rallies and rolling mass action. Things
can turn ugly. We will meet violence with
The water miracle?
Sitting in his
office outside Johannesburg Development
Bank building, James Leigland the
man who brokered the privatization deal
in Nelspruit is convinced that the
process has ground to a halt.
privatization of water? It's not going to
happen in the near future. There will be
no new Nelspruits or Dolphin Coasts.
There is too much of a downside," he
represents the Municipal Infrastructure
Investment Unit, which the government
created in 1997 to "encourage and
optimize private sector investments in
local authority services." He
praised the local achievements of Biwater
and GNUC as numerous and said that
bringing water to the poor in Nelspruit
has been very successful. "This
would not have been possible without
privatization. We couldn't have done it
acknowledged the concession is "very
companies were anxious to get a foothold
in the country," Leigland explained.
"They are still very eager, and I
don't think they have been totally
discouraged. But there is a lot of
mistrust towards them."
foreign multinationals appear to be
reassessing their position in southern
Saur has withdrawn
from Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Suez has
not appealed the cancellation of its
Nkonkobe contract in the Eastern Cape.
Biwater says it is committed to
Nelspruit, but is not seeking any further
Water has no presence in the country.
Vivendi's one executive seems wary of the
"To be very
honest, the municipal market is not
ready," said Picaud, the managing
director of Vivendi Water in South
South African researcher David Hemson
next to a destroyed water meter. (Photo: Bob