Only the Poor have Pre-Paid Water Meters

Monday 17 November 2003, by Dawn PALEY

Another dusty day in Orange Farm, red earth split in cracks, long dry dirt roads lead to the freeway that leads to the city. The sun above is like a grapefruit in the centre of the sky. South Africa. Nothing here, as anywhere else is more vital to life than water, and yet it is here that struggles for access to this basic service are the strongest.

If you travel south of Johannesburg on the Golden Highway, past fields and mines and many many shacks, you will arrive in Orange Farm. Orange Farm became a township in 1997, after having begun as an informal settlement ten years earlier. Today, its population is estimated at between 800,000 and 1.5 million people; many of whom were displaced from Soweto or fleeing political or economic violence in surrounding areas. Most of the population in Orange Farm live in shacks with pit latrine toilets, and unemployment is the norm, as less than half of the adult population has work.

When Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party was elected in 1994, there was great hope for the future of South Africa. Promises of "a better life for all", in the form of the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), were to bring services and housing to poor communities across the country. Those promises have since been forgotten, with the ANC’s adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR) in 1996. GEAR is a familiar set of neoliberal policies that have negatively affected the poor majority here in South Africa.

One particularly disturbing manifestation of GEAR’s agenda is being forced upon the residents in Orange Farm, in the form of pre-paid water meters. Maj Fiil-Flynn of Washington DC based Public Citizen sums up the current situation in South Africa in that "services have improved [since 1994] but prices have increased so much that people can’t pay for them". This is painfully obvious in the case of Pre-paid water meters in Orange Farm.

Nelly has been a resident of Orange Farm since 1990, and has always kept a garden to supplement her pension cheque, which is the sole source of income for her family of seven. This will be the first summer that she has a Pre-paid meter, and the first that she will not keep a garden because she can not afford to water her plants during the long, hot months to come. "We’re suffering", she says, "We like this place because it is our place, but things aren’t going right. We’ve got a problem".

Pre paid water meters were installed in Stratford Four -a district of Orange Farm- in 2002 and 2003. Each of the 1300 houses in Stratford Four, mainly shacks and brick houses with outdoor toilets, has had a pre-paid meter installed. Communal taps -which previously served the community- have been removed, forcing residents to buy water units from corner stores and plug those units into their water meter before water will flow from their tap. Residents are supposed to receive 6000 liters of "free water" a month, but many do not. The water meters are not reliable even when water has been paid for, they are difficult to read and operate, and they effectively remove the right of people to access the most basic element of life based on their inability to pay.

Johannesburg Water is the water service provider in Orange Farm, as in the rest of the greater Johannesburg region. In neoliberal jargon, Jo’burg Water operates as a corporatised public service, which differentiates it from a public service in two ways: one, its business practices are less subject to legislation regarding disclosure of information and two, private corporations are involved in the operation of the service. In the case of Jo’burg Water, these corporations include French owned Suez, a company known for bad business practices throughout the world.

The ANC is letting private companies have their way with SA’s poorest citizens. According to Orange Farm ANC councilor Tumelo Phohleli, "We are not selling water, people are just seeing it differently". He goes on to explain that "75% of people in Stratford Four are not paying for water", which flies in the face of statistics gathered in November of this year, and hides the strong community resistance to pre-paid meters in Orange Farm.

The battle over water is just beginning, with Stratford Four seen by the ANC government as a "pilot project" in water provision. Not far from Orange Farm in Phiri, Soweto, community groups organizing against a similar type of "pilot project" have been subject to arrests and repression by the government. And yet the resistance continues. The Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee continues to organize around the removal of pre-paid meters, touting the slogan "Destroy the Meter, Enjoy Free Water". International lawyers are making the case for the illegality of pre-paid meters based on the rights of citizens to water enshrined in the constitution; a case which was successful in having Thatcher era water meters declared illegal in Britain. It is with vigor that South African communities that lack the most basic resources are organizing to take on corporate power before it is too late.

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