Minister of Water and Energy Affairs Edna Molewa may have made quite sure she was as far away as possible when she quietly announced, on the sidelines of the World Water Forum in Marseille, France, recently, that the government wanted foreign companies to assist in a R25 billion overhaul of South Africa’s stressed water-supply infrastructure.
Photo: Flickr, Marc Falardeau.
For an ANC government to be seen to be raising the neo-liberal white flag on so emotional a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle as access to water should have been an embarrassing policy climbdown. Instead, it hardly raised a murmur, and was taken as almost inevitable, given the declining state of water service infrastructure and management in too many of South Africa’s municipalities.
“Adequate investment is vital to keep the sector running,” Mike Muller, water expert and Development Bank of Southern Africa advisor told Business Day
. “The longer it’s left, the greater the backlog becomes. The problem we’re worried about is that not enough of this routine maintenance and refurbishment is being done. This will lead to further deterioration, which will increase costs in the long run.”
Muller says Molewa’s plan is not “privatisation”, but rather “simply using companies as specialist service providers to government in an area where we know the municipalities are simply not able to do the job properly.”
And the Cosatu was subdued in reaction, noting: “In principle, we’re opposed to the privatisation of public works, but we would have to review the details, and take it on a case-by-case basis.”
Such a case, for instance, might be the Mpumalanga town of Carolina, which suffered the fate threatening many municipalities when its water supply systems caved in, leaving the town without water for weeks.
Whether it is privatisation or not, it is clear that certain hard realities are making themselves apparent, the most obvious being towns and their citizens left without water. In the longer term this could have serious repercussions for the ANC if it wants to remain the ruling party and be able to claim victories in its war on poverty.
The ANC government’s advances in water provision have been well-documented, but they tell only half the story. A 2009 study by Mvula Trust’s Laila Smith for the DBSA says water services have been extended to an additional 18.7 million people.
“While these achievements in coverage have been impressive, the overarching pressure on municipalities to achieve targets within short time frames have had several unintended consequences,” she says.
Squeezed between the demands placed on them by the central government to deliver – a demand enforced by a system of conditional provincial and central grants – municipalities tend to be more concerned “with the number of taps put into the ground or the number of buckets removed, rather than focusing on infrastructure quality and service performance”, according to Smith. This has consequences for sustainability.
Smith also warns of an “increasingly technocratic approach” to water-service delivery, and a lack of basic knowledge among users about water systems – payment of bills, leaks, usage levels – which does not foster a culture of payment for services. This, in turn, further handicaps cash-strapped and underskilled municipalities in their water and sanitation tasks. Mushrooming informal settlements, often unacknowledged, add unplanned-for complications.
Unspoken, perhaps, is the extent to which the general unaccountability of the local government political system – and the ANC’s policies of cadre deployment – have added to the combustible mix in what is, after all, a water-stressed country. The ANC may be reaping the whirlwind in its neglect of the water sector. Most notable in this breakdown is the extent to which water users – actual people – appear to have been left out of the water equation, and the ANC seems to rely on a sense of innate loyalty when the taps run dry. But this is wearing increasingly thin as the realities of mismanagement sink home in more towns across the country, taking the form of delivery protests.
If the breakdown in local water systems and treatment plants is bad for the inhabitants of the towns affected, it represents a growing threat to the country’s river systems, and the country’s water as a whole.
Says the DA’s water spokesman Gareth Morgan: “The state has proved that it cannot manage the task alone.” He quotes a Department of Water report of 2009 that says 95% of waste-water treatment plants in Limpopo were exceeding their capacity and, in the Free State, 90% of them did not meet effluent standards.
So it may well be a case of the private sector coming to the rescue and, in a roundabout way, to the political rescue of the ANC itself.
Even though the ANC can claim credit for the fact that basic water services are now made available to more than 80% of the population, much of this extra provision was, in fact, made possible by decades of investment and expertise in building South Africa’s water-supply backbone in dozens of small towns in the decades before 1994. Much of this expertise has been lost, or driven out for ideological motives.
The haphazard extension of water services has often come at a high cost. Says the South African Institution of Civil Engineers, in its State of Municipal Infrastructure in SA in 2011 Report: “Free services, regrettably, result in non-payment of the real costs of water (in some cases, unknown), encouraging wastage and non-accountability. The focus has been on building new water infrastructure. Unfortunately, this is frequently at the expense of maintenance; hence the sustainability of water services in many areas is in doubt.”
The ‘water cause’ has, more often than not, fallen to those prepared to take unpopular stances, and in this the civil rights group AfriForum has played a big part. Late in 2011, for example, AfriForum took the Free State’s Tokologo municipality to court, eventually reaching a settlement that obliged the municipality to repair borehole pumps, connect and activate new reservoirs and repair the existing reservoir. According to AfriForum local government spokesman, Cornelius Jansen van Rensburg, “the reason for the problems was nothing more than lack of maintenance”.
More recently, AfriForum questioned the government’s sincerity on the water crisis, as South Africa ‘celebrated’ National Water Week from 5–11 March. “The government is not managing the water supply and infrastructure properly, and it seems as if every problem is regarded as an opportunity for job creation and equity sharing, instead of solving the problem,” AfriForum noted.
Ironically, it is South Africa’s constitution and the idea of localising authority – often to appease conservative whites – which led to South Africa adopting a system of devolving such extensive and exclusive powers and responsibilities to ill-equipped local government. This has encouraged a culture of unaccountability and also fed conspicuous consumption among local leaders amid official neglect. Perhaps resorting to the private sector to help pull South Africa’s local authorities out of the mire is recognition at last that the old way has not worked. The question is whether the new way will have any more success in eliciting the public support and approval it needs if it is to succeed. Patrick Bulger is a senior assistant editor at Business Day.