"Break the Meter - Enjoy the Water"

Thursday 24 April 2003, by François L’ÉCUYER

Photo : Indymedia South Africa

When Johannesburg Water started installing pre-paid water meters in their community in the weeks running up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), residents of Orange Farm in South Africa got a taste of today’s conception of "sustainability:" privatization of basic services, cost recovery policies, and tariff increases. For the one and a half million people living in Orange Farm, an informal settlement 50km south of Johannesburg where unemployment reaches 80 percent, these policies mean cut-offs and evictions. A harsh reality for an increasing number of people in the new, neoliberal South Africa.

In August 2002, the pre-paid water supply system for was still in a "pilot" phase, implemented only in one section of Orange Farm, Drieziek Extension 4. But people didn’t wait for the pre-paid meters to be imposed on the rest of the town before organizing themselves. The Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee (OWCC) was created by local activists and started mobilizing the community. There were public meetings and mass rallies, along with taxi and church gatherings, to inform people about the reality of pre-paid meters. The spread of protest graffiti helped foment awareness and resistance.

"We had to fight against a lot of misinformation," says Bricks Mokolo, a member of the OWCC. "Our municipal councillor and his clique were telling the people that the water was ’pre-paid,’ so already paid by the government. And when the Johannesburg Water technicians came in Drieziek Extension 2 to install the pre-paid meters, they also lied to the residents, telling them they were installing sanitation!"

People living in Orange Farm and elsewhere had high expectations of the 1994 democratic elections. The African National Congress (ANC) promised "a better life for all," including the provision of water, electricity, sanitation, and proper housing, and - most importantly - jobs for their community. The 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), drafted by the unions and fully endorsed by the ANC as its electoral manifesto, established a commitment to meet two major challenges head on: the government would simultaneously create jobs while extending basic services to the newly enfranchised majority.

But Mandela and his government quickly changed their mind. By 1996 Thabo Mbeki, then Vice President, imposed GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), a financially orthodox macroeconomic strategy of privatization and cuts in social spending. Facing a huge demand for quality housing and access to electricity and water, the ANC believed that only the private sector could efficiently reverse the inequalities left by a century of segregation and apartheid.

Following the policies prescribed by GEAR, the Johannesburg Metropolitan Council initiated its own restructuration. 8 000 municipal workers were retrenched in 2000-2001 after most municipal services were farmed out to private contractors. In January 2001 a new company, Johannesburg Water, was created by the city of Johannesburg to provide water and sanitation.

Only one month later, a 5-year contract for the management and billing of water services in Johannesburg was awarded to Water and Sanitation Services South Africa (WSSA), a subsidiary of the French water giant Suez - Lyonnaise des Eaux.
Following the implementation of these privatization policies throughout the country, the attacks on South Africa’s poor only worsened. In 2000, pre-paid water meters were introduced in KwaZulu-Natal. Facing recurrent cut-offs because they were unable to afford the pre-paid cards, people had no other choice than to get their water from surrounding rivers. The result was catastrophic: 300 people dead and more than 120 000 infected in the biggest (and ongoing) cholera outbreak in South African history.

Since 1996, more than 10 million South Africans have lost their access to water, a direct consequence of the privatization and cost recovery policies which have incrased tariffs up to 600 percent.

When OWCC activists heard that Ronnie Kasrils, the Minister of Water Affairs, was coming to Orange Farm on October 1 to officially launch the installation of pre-paid water meters all over the township, they didn’t miss the occasion. Strong from their mobilizations during the WSSD, they organised a mass meeting two days before the Minister’s visit. The message sent to the local ANC councillor by over 3 000 attendees was clear: Orange Farm citizens don’t want pre-paid water. The minister’s celebratory launch had to be cancelled though the program is still going forward. Meanwhile, the graffiti still spoke simply, demanding "Free Water for All!" or urging residents to "Break the Meter - Enjoy the Water!"

François L’Écuyer, Alternatives Newspaper

The author is a project officer for Africa at Alternatives.

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