National water shortage arrives

goflo-300x298WE CAN’T say we weren’t warned. In fact, we’ve had adequate time. But it has crept up on us, as these things do, while we put it out of our minds as one of those tiresome things that can be dealt with later. But later is now and the great national water shortage has arrived.

South Africa has been protected in recent years by reasonable, though not bountiful, rains. Some areas, where drought has intensified, haven’t been so fortunate.

Water deprivation, the vagaries of the weather aside, has its origin in the state’s lack of technical capacity. The “state” in this sense means all its organs, from central government to municipalities. An unstable or dangerous situation now persists in the water sector, reflected in widely trumpeted stories of failures in service delivery.

In effect, a vacuum has been created, much of it related to the absence of people equipped with the requisite technical knowledge — engineers, qualified blue-collar workers and the like. Into that vacuum have moved two quite different groups, diametrically opposed to one another but curiously sharing similar objectives. The first is a collection of high-minded, morally activated nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). They are motivated by morally defensible reasons — care for people generally, concern for the poor, the need to ensure those living in conditions of squalor aren’t deprived of their dignity and rights as human beings.

To a significant degree these organisations have shouldered their way into the areas populated by the regulatory authorities, over which they sometimes exercise unusually effective powers of persuasion. There is evidence that NGOs have become de facto regulators; they have taken over enforcement on the state’s behalf.

In some cases this is the outcome of vigilante activism, a phenomenon that is the subject of academic interest and investigation. I intend to return to this in later columns.

The second group is a cluster of disparate but profit-motivated rent seekers. They sell water, by tankers, buckets or in bottles. The objective they share in common is the accumulation of money, and it is in their interest to sabotage infrastructure. The one thing they don’t want is the taps to be turned on and water to flow. Heaven forbid.

This is not dissimilar to episodes of cable theft. When Mogale municipality (Krugersdorp) was struck by an epidemic of this, it responded by outsourcing repair and maintenance to a different contractor. The number of blackouts promptly fell.

A case in point is the disaster that passes for the Madibeng municipality, which encompasses Brits, Hartbeespoort and others. How this gangrenous portion of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) body politic has been permitted to get away with its endless larceny defies explanation. In April last year, a report surfaced to the effect that R1bn of municipal assets were missing. In June 2011, the new mayor rented a BMW for more than R2,000 a day.

But there’s no water. The municipality said it was a “mechanical problem experience” and was unable to say when the problem would be resolved.

Two weeks ago, two of Brits’s residents were shot dead by police while demonstrating against their living conditions, specifically water shortages. That’s one way of resolving the problem. A local pastor, Joel Chauke, told the SABC last year that people “have to depend on water dropped off by trucks which are not clean at all”.

“Nine days without water,” wrote a resident (December 18). “Vote EFF for a change,” suggested someone else. “F*** u Madibeng,” probably summarises the collective opinion.

Back in 2012, the Carolina community went to court to force the state to comply with its responsibility. The court found the responsibility was actually that of the municipality — and gave it 72 hours to get water to the community.

Last July, protesters marched to the Masilonyana municipal offices demanding an end to water shortages in Brandfort and surrounding areas. At end-September, residents of Mooiplaas, near Centurion, staged a violent strike demanding water, electricity and housing.

Given how water deprivation features so prominently in the repeated failures of cadre-managed municipalities, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe should institute a repair and recovery programme. It’s an election year, after all.  (by David Gleason).


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