Another dusty day in Orange Farm near Johannesburg: red earth split in cracks, long dry dirt roads leading to the freeway that leads to the city. The sun above is a huge fiery ball sucking up whatever moisture its rays fall upon. Africa. Nothing here is more vital to life than water, and yet it is here that struggles for access to this basic “staff of life” are the most desperate.
If you travel south of Johannesburg on the Golden Highway, past fields and mines and many, many shacks, you will arrive at Orange Farm. Orange Farm became a township in 1997, after having begun as an informal settlement 10 years earlier. Today, its population is estimated at between 800,000 and 1.5 million, many of whom were displaced from Soweto or fled political or economic violence in surrounding areas. Most of the population in Orange Farm live in shacks with pit latrine toilets, and fewer than half of the residents have paying jobs.
When Nelson 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 essential services and housing to poor communities across the country. Those promises have since been forgotten, with the ANC instead adopting a Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR) in 1996. GEAR is the all-too-familiar set of neoliberal policies promoted by the World Bank and IMF that have made life vastly worse for the poor majority in South Africa.
One particularly harmful part of the GEAR agenda is being forced upon the residents of Orange Farm: pre-paid water meters. Maj Fiil-Flynn of the Washington DC-based Public Citizen sums up the current situation in South Africa: “Services have indeed 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. The summer of 2004 will be the first summer that she has to use a pre-paid meter, and the first summer that she will not be growing a garden because she won’t be able to 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 1,300 houses in Stratford Four--mainly shacks and brick houses with outdoor toilets--has had a pre-paid meter installed. The 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 taps. Residents are supposed to receive 6,000 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 have access to the most basic element of life, regardless of 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 corporatized public service, which differentiates it from a public service in two ways: 1) its business practices are less subject to legislation regarding disclosure of information; and 2) private corporations are involved in the operation of the service. In the case of Jo’burg Water, these corporations include the French-owned Suez, a company known for its bad business practices throughout the world.
The ANC government is letting private companies have their way with South Africa’s poorest citizens. According to Orange Farm ANC councillor Tumelo Phohleli, “We are not selling water; people are just seeing it differently.” He goes on to claim that “75% of people in Stratford Four are not paying for water,” which flies in the face of statistics gathered last November, and hides the strong community resistance to pre-paid meters in Orange Farm.
The battle over water in South Africa 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 for the removal of pre-paid meters, adopting the slogan “Destroy the Meter, Enjoy Free Water.”
International lawyers are making the case for the illegality of pre-paid meters based on the right of citizens to water as enshrined in the constitution. A similar legal challenge was successful in having Thatcher-era water meters declared illegal in Britain. It is with the same vigor and resolve that South African communities lacking the most basic resources are organizing to take on corporate power before it is too late.
(Dawn Paley, originally from Maple Ridge, B.C., is now living in Johannesburg on a journalism internship.)