Amanzi ngawethu! (the water is ours!):

singing against privatisation in South Africa

Friday 14 September 2007

Young plants need rain, businesses need investment. Our old industries are like dry crops and privatisation brings the rain. When the harvest comes, there is plenty for everyone. [...]

Electricity to light our homes. Safe water for our families to drink. Telephones to call our loved ones far away. Ports and railways to bring us wonderful things, and to sell our goods to the world. We need these things. Our children need these things. Privatisation will provide them.

These were the lyrics of a pop song written by Tanzanian singer Captain John Komba in which he badly tried to get Tanzanians on board for a massive privatisation exercise in 2001. The pro-privatisation campaign was managed by the British free market think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute, and funded with 250,000 by the Department for International Development (DfID). However, soon after in early 2005, the ambitious privatisation programme collapsed when City Water, a joint venture involving British water company Biwater, was kicked out of the country on the grounds of poor performance.

From a recent trip War on Want made to South Africa to visit its partner organisation, the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), it has appeared that privatisation has not quite brought ’plenty of rain for everyone’ in South Africa either, and music is APF’s newest weapon in the struggle against privatisation of public services such as water, electricity, education, housing and health care. During its Annual General Meeting (AGM), which took place from 13-15 April 2007 in Johannesburg, the APF launched its new CD Songs of the working class.

In the song Amanzi Ngawethu ("Water is ours" in Zulu), APF activist-cum-singer Patra calls on the ANC government, local authorities and private water companies to accept that access to water is a basic human right and therefore should not be privatised. Privatisation of water delivery was introduced in South Africa in 2001 when Johannesburg Council created Johannesburg Water, a private company which subsequently became responsible for water provision in the capital, and outsourced a number of essential services and their management to private contractors.

The establishment of Johannesburg Water resulted in the introduction of cost-recovery policies and delivery of basic services along business principles. In order to prevent households from incurring debts and to avoid ’visible’ disconnections, Johannesburg Water in September 2003 launched Operation Gcin’amanzi [Operation "Conserve Water" in Zulu] which led to the instalment of prepaid water meters at most of Soweto’s 151 000 stands. Branded as an exercise in saving water, the measures have been disastrous for poor communities in South Africa.

The Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), with whom War on Want has been working since 2001, has since been actively campaigning against the instalment of prepaid water and electricity meters. The umbrella body, which unites different community-based residents organisations from the wider Johannesburg region, was established in July 2000. While music played a key role in the struggle against apartheid, the APF has continued this tradition - but now to raise awareness with the ANC government on the negative impact of privatisation.

APF’s CD includes songs which were sang during the anti-apartheid struggle such as the song We Nyamazane Yiyo Ehlala Ehlathini ("A Buck Lives in the Forest" in Zulu) which tells the story about the liberation fighters who often spent long stretches of time in the forest. The song has been adapted to call on the government to remain serious about improving the living conditions of the poor, increasingly hampered by the introduction of neoliberal policies such as privatisation.

Recent research has shown that the installation of prepaid water meters has resulted in a severe decline in the quality of people’s lives in South Africa. Water has become so expensive for many people and this has had serious repercussions for their health and hygiene habits. With a HIV prevalence rate of 18.8% in 2006, adequate access to water for carers of HIV patients is crucial in South Africa. A new research report by the Municipal Services Project found that prepaid water meters have had disastrous consequences on people’s hand washing habits, raising the risk of water-borne disease and lowering people’s hygiene conditions in lower-income communities. Out of those respondents never washing their hands, 77% had prepaid water meters in their homes, suggesting they were not able to afford normal hygienic habits. While the City of Johannesburg has now agreed to offer a free basic water allowance of 6,000 litres per household per month, this only enables a household of 8 people to flush the toilet once a day.

Households have literally starting locking their taps as water has become such a precious commodity that people have started stealing water from each other. While the 2010 World Cup has brought hope to South Africa’s business community, Soweto residents are not convinced. Members from APF’s affiliate, the Soweto Concerned Residents (SCR), will most likely not afford to attend the soccer matches that will be held in Soweto’s Orlando Stadium. Let alone that they will be able to benefit from the newly planned luxury train Gautrain, which will connect Oliver Tambo International Airport to central Johannesburg and the well-off Sandton suburb in the north of the city.

All they may get is a three-month contract to assist the government in building roads as part of the Expanded Public Works Support Programme, aimed to improve roads with the expected traffic increase during what has now popularly become known as ’2010’ in mind. Even those unemployed who have tried to raise their own incomes are not having an easy time. Unemployed youth on Orange Farm, a township 45 kilometres south of Johannesburg, were shocked when recently the City decided to install prepaid water meters at a site where they were offering car washing services to the local community and in this way tried to scrape a living together.

Arguing that water is a basic human right, a number of residents in Phiri, Soweto, backed up by the Coalition Against Water Privatisation (of which the APF is a member), launched a legal challenge in the Johannesburg High Court in July 2006 against Johannesburg Water, the City of Johannesburg and the Minister of Water Affairs & Forestry. The case seeks to declare the instalment of prepaid water meter as unconstitutional and unlawful and a court date is expected in 2007. Until then, water is certainly not theirs for South Africa’s poor communities.....

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