If you would like to buy a copy of this book
click here


Down To The Waterline

Privatisation In South Africa

In 1994 the first 'free elections' were held in South Africa, the ANC were swept to power, Nelson Mandela became president and apartheid was dead. Nice one. But as soon as they were in power the ANC were visited by the big boys of global capital (World Bank, IMF etc) to be told that they had inherited a $25 billion debt from the apartheid days (it was money used to prop up that regime). The new ANC government were also told to adapt to the 'realities of the global economy', paving the way for the country to start 'modernising' with new infrastructure (read: new loans needed for new roads and power etc to attract more transnational companies to come in and extract more resources). The gist of this is that South Africa is another country in debt with the IMF, and paying this money off on the IMF's terms - which includes mass privatisation of its public utilities. These policies get results alright - the standard of living in South Africa is lower than during the apartheid days.


In September 2001 when something happening in the US was taking all the headlines 1800 houses in Tafelsig, South Africa had their water cut off because they couldn't afford to pay the bills the recently privatised water company was demanding. People who resisted the cut offs were shot with live ammunition. Plumbers disconnected the pipes under the guard of riot cops. After the cut-offs the Unicity Council installed taps in the middle of some of Tafelsig's streets as an emergency water supply. More than 40 houses were forced to share each tap. The mayor of Western Cape Province, Gerald Morkel, went on radio to say that the people of Tafelsig don't pay for water because they spend all their money in casinos! The real situation is that most families of seven or more people in Tafelsig survive off a pension or disability grant from one family member - little more than R500 (32) per month, and after the privatisation of the water system some families got water bills of more than R800 (51). In a country with 45% unemployment these bills simply could not be paid. The communities formed the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) to make their voice heard.


Meanwhile the recently privatised electricity company Eskom started cutting off the electricity of people who couldn't pay their massively increased bills. Poor communities in South Africa organised a boycott of their Eskom payments and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) began illegally reconnecting the power of families who were left in the dark. For nine months, it organised a boycott of electricity payments to Eskom, with around eighty per cent of Sowetans taking part. Then there was the SECC's Operation Khanyisa - a campaign to illegally reconnect peoples' power. All this has worked and last October Eskom announced it would no longer disconnect those who couldn't pay:

"Peoples' Power was responsible for Eskom's U-turn. We mobilized tens of thousands of Sowetans in active protests over the past year. We established professional and intellectual credibility for our critique of Eskom, even collaborating on a major Wits University study. We demonstrated at the houses of the mayor, Amos Masondo, and local councillors, and in the spirit of non-violent civil disobedience, we went so far as to disconnect the electricity supplies of the mayor and councillors to give them a taste of their own medicine." (Trevor Ngawane SECC)

The success of the campaign inspired a similar boycott of water payments, and thousands of Sowetans took to the streets since SECC and the APF merged to form a joint political front. Trevor Ngwame said: "We decided to broaden our struggle to include a demand that all basic services in South Africa should be free - water, housing, electricity, healthcare, education and transport."


And the privatisation fun doesn't stop there. The South African telephone system has also recently been privatised and now 40 percent of the new phone lines that the company Telkom has delivered have been disconnected because the people can't afford the new rates. While the company is rolling out new phones, basic rentals and local call costs have gone up by 35% pushing telephones beyond the reach of many South Africans. In contrast, the price of domestic long-distance and international calls, used more by the richer population who can afford to pay the new rates, became cheaper by 40 per cent. To stay competitive and make a profit the phone company is weeding out the people who can't pay, and making calls cheaper for the people who can.


Communities are being shafted as their housing get subjected to privatisation. On the 8th of November 2001 Cape Town Unicity tried to evict people from houses they own, for non-payment of rent?! Residents who own houses in Mitchell's Plain, specifically Tafelsig, Montrose Park, Lost City and Silver City, were understandably shocked to receive final demands for rental arrears. They were given one week to pay or face eviction. These 'arrears' goes back to money owed from the apartheid days, debts which were supposed to be annulled by a 1994 law. As well as fighting this, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and National Housing Department are investigating the way Unicity pockets the R7500 (485) government cheques meant for each household.

On the 6th of March 2002 over 1000 People living in the semi-privatised GEMS scheme houses in Hanover Park, Woodlands, Portlands, and Mitchell's Plain marched on parliament, to the Provincial MEC of Housing and then to the Unicity council offices. The families were angered that they were moved into so-called starter homes on the basis that they would pay bonds of between R150 - R350 (10-22) per month. They found the homes to be substandard and their bonds rapidly increased up to R1000 (64) per month. They have been boycotting further payments since November and are currently involved in legal action with the GEMS scheme directors over breaches of contract. "These are supposed to be starter houses for the poorest of the poor and we hear that GEMS receives R25 million from government every year to help the poor get homes, but all we are getting is corruption. These privatised homes are no good," (Ishmael Petersen - Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign.)

Private Hell

On the 21st of March The Kathorus Concerned Residents group led a march with the Anti-Privatisation Forum to the Ekurhuleni mayor and on the same day in Soweto, the SECC and the APF marched to the UBC council offices in Jabulani.

On the April 9th, after hundreds of residents were issued with eviction and water cut-off notices people in the communities of Mandela Park and Lingelethu West in Khayelitsha, CapeTown took their protests against evictions water cut-offs and privatisation directly to the council. A new magistrate's court has been built in Mandela Park. Although it is not yet open, the cleaning services have already been privatised! The community has marched to the court and protested outside three times to stop the privatisation and keep the few jobs in the area within the community. Other residents occupied the municipal offices to demand an affordable flat rate basic payment for services.

On the 12th of April after months of resisting privatisation the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC) received a memo from mayor Gerald Morkel which claimed that nobody will be evicted or face water or electricity cut offs if they make arrangements to pay. What was all the fuss about eh? Maybe the mayor forgot that the reason so many people are being turfed out of their homes is because they CAN'T AFFORD TO PAY. This is the same mayor who took out a full page advert in the newspaper, using public money to announce that the disconnected water supplies in Tafelsig had been reconnected - a blatant lie as revealed in the press the next day.

The AEC and the Cape Town APF picketed the parliament on the 16th April in support of the 50 people from the SECC who were jailed for disconnecting the mayor Morkel's water, just to let him know how the community feels.

And again on the 23rd of April anti-eviction activists disrupted traffic on a main road going into Cape Town demanding a meeting with mayor Morkel, to try and resolve the issues around the ongoing evictions and water cut-offs. Police had to form a human chain to prevent the protesters from entering the highway. They delayed traffic on the highway and vowed not to leave until their grievances were addressed by Morkel. They were told that the mayor was not in his office and that no one from the council would speak to them.


Since all the recent community mobilisations, Soweto, the township of two million outside Johannesburg (known for its 'Spirit of '76' when 1,000 students protesting Afrikaans-language education were killed in the 1976 uprising against apartheid) has become very politicised. In August the 'Rio+10' summit will happen in Sandton, Johannesburg, and the area will be the scene of an international anti-capitalist convergence. In the media spotlight of this, already the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) have been labelled 'criminals' by the ANC government.

The South African government would be hoping to avoid a repeat of the international embarrassment of last year's United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban when five million workers spoiled the party by going on a two day strike - and 20,000 marched through Durban - against the privatisation of electricity, telecommunications and transport. Although they expect a tight crack-down on public dissent, anti-privatisation fighters in South Africa are promising similar humiliation for Rio+10.