When Nelson Mandela came to power he made the right to water a part of South Africa’s constitution. Water had been distributed unequally under apartheid. But when it ended in 1994 Mandela announced his Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) to ensure “water security for all”. Water became a symbol of equality.

But something went terribly wrong in the meantime. It goes by the name of economic apartheid. By 2004 people were protesting and rioting in the streets about water, housing, and sanitation issues.

In fact, the quality of life of black South Africans is worse today than under apartheid. The country is overcome with income inequality, unemployment, and increased mortality, including deaths from drinking dirty water. South Africa is currently one of the most unequal societies in the world.

How did economic apartheid contribute to this situation? Why didn’t South Africa become a better place to live after segregation ended? The problem has to a large extent been caused by the World Bank and IMF taking an economic opportunity where they could find it when South Africa opened its doors to foreign investment. The two organizations have been instrumental in shaping the country’s economic policy, including its water policy. The new government also agreed to conditions that were attached to IMF loans. These conditions included austerity measures requiring the repayment of the apartheid government’s debts, as well as a privatization plan – the neoliberal agenda. The end result was water inequity.

Other factors have also been at play. During apartheid South Africa had good union leadership, but the union stronghold has not been able to stop the workings of the World Bank and IMF. Also, the western world has been unsympathetic to South Africa’s demands for economic equity, mistaking the quest for racial economic equity for communism.

By 1996, the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution program (GEAR) was the new economic plan for water. It allowed the taking of foreign bids to run municipal water supplies and operated on a “cost recovery” model with the public paying for infrastructure costs. The result was companies like Suez holding black communities to ransom, demanding the repayment of apartheid-era debts for water services.

People responded with boycotts causing whole neighborhoods to have their water supply turned off. Because water bills were combined with rent payments, evictions also became a common occurrence. More and more people were forced to drink water from polluted rivers which resulted in cholera outbreaks.

To add salt to the wound Suez then introduced prepaid meters to deal with the nonpayments. These “self-disconnection systems” required tokens to turn on the water. If people refused to pay to have the meters installed their water was turned off. In many cases fire outbreaks subsumed whole neighborhoods where there was no water or firefighting services.

The interference of the World Bank and IMF in South Africa’s affairs has introduced a global economic orthodoxy which has obstructed the country’s ability to overcome it apartheid-era racial inequality. Despite the disarray, many who fought apartheid are now fighting against privatization – a different kind of beast.


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