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Notre Monde Notre Monde (2013, 119') un film de Thomas Lacoste
Rassemblant plus de 35 intervenants, philosophes, sociologues, économistes, magistrats, médecins, universitaires et écrivains, Notre Monde propose un espace d’expression pour travailler, comme nous y enjoint Jean–Luc Nancy à « une pensée commune ». Plus encore qu’un libre espace de parole, Notre Monde s’appuie sur un ensemble foisonnant de propositions concrètes pour agir comme un rappel essentiel, individuel et collectif : « faites de la politique » et de préférence autrement.
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© Passant n°48
By Patrick Bond
Johannesburg's Water Wars:
Soweto versus Suez

Johannesburg is a laboratory to assess a brave experiment being carried out by Paris-based Suez, and even braver resistance by community revolutionaries who move fluidly between autonomist tactics and socialist principles. Leading activists from the Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation Forum, along with similar comrades in Durban's eThikweni Social Forum and Cape Town's Anti-Eviction Campaign, decry the alliance between Suez, the World Bank and local politicians they label sell-outs.

This is a tough town, especially the black townships of Soweto, Alexandra and Orange Farm. 'Johannesburg stands as representative of the bad state of this world, a city that is an open book of unsustainable development,' Agnès Sinai wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique last December. 'More than 20,000 protesters marched against the World Summit on Sustainable Development [on 31 August 2002] because of the privatisations and disconnections of water supply in the slum areas, and they chanted slogans against the New Partnership for Africa's Development.' South African president Thabo Mbeki's plan was endorsed by Jacques Chirac to push Africa even further into dependency upon western capital and aid agencies.

A decade earlier, Suez came to South Africa ready for trouble. Its subsidiary Water and Sanitation South Africa enjoyed contracts with the apartheid regime, and pioneered water privatisation in three Eastern Cape towns: Queenstown (1992), Stutterheim (1994) and Nkonkobe (1995). In spite of being thrown out of Nkonkobe for failure to perform, in 2000 Suez landed the biggest prize: operation of Johannesburg Water (JW), an arms-length 'private company with limited liability,' which appears as an initial 'loss-leader' contract with very low returns, but which becomes lucrative within a few years. The original business plan for outsourcing water in Johannesburg called for (after-tax) profits to increase from E440,000 in 2000-2001 to E366 million in 2008-2009.

JW purchases water in bulk from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, Africa=s largest dam complex. The Lesotho dams are notorious because they were an apartheid prestige project financed by the World Bank against the wishes of the then-exiled African National Congress, and rife with corruption. Suez's then construction affiliate Dumez was charged with bribing the highest-ranking Lesotho government dam official with E72,000, but in spite of calls for Suez's disqualification, it won the Johannesburg contract. The city's councilors were flown to Buenos Aires to see Suez's favourite success-story, subsequently a financial disaster after Argentina's economic crisis.

Back in Johannesburg, JW became a huge operation, with annual turnover of water worth E260 million through its 9,500 km of pipes and 9,000 km of sewers, 86 reservoirs, 33 water towers and six treatment plants. There are 550,000 domestic, commercial and industrial customers. The City of Johannesburg's deal with Suez lasts until 2006, when it could be renewed for more decades.

There was initial opposition to the outsourcing, but traditional municipal politics and trade union pressure did not do much good. The leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Soweto region, councillor Trevor Ngwane, was fired by the party in September 1999 because he wrote a newspaper article questioning privatisation. He refused to apologise and was targeted for defeat in the subsequent city council election, as the ANC machinery was dragged into action.

Two months after Ngwane's firing, 20,000 members of the SA Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) declared 'To Hell, it's War!' and embarked on a brief strike, followed by six months of intermittent threats against water operations by Suez. In December 2000, at the time of national municipal elections and just before Suez began running JW, SAMWU called a major strike. But with the union's Johannesburg branches dominated by pro-ANC leadership, the momentum fizzled away.

Appeals to the newly-installed Communist Party water minister, Ronnie Kasrils, did no good either. At a protest during a pro-privatisation seminar at the World Summit's 'Waterdome,' Kasrils called the activists 'thugs' and told the crowd that the anti-privatisation position was a minority. The politics of insider persuasion, trade union negotiation, and appeals to elected officials--all diligently attempted from 1999-2002--were getting the activists nowhere. Fighting privatisation would require direct acttion by township groups.

Suez's water-saving strategy

But perhaps Suez bit off more than it could chew. It attempted to introduce cutting-edge strategies to save water, and this may be the source of its downfall in Africa's most politicised city.

Water is a crucial resource for the urban poor, given the enormous public health problems that have resulted from overcrowding, communal taps and inadequate sanitation. Cholera killed four residents of Alexandra township in early 2001, catalyzing the municipality=s brutal forced removal of thousands from a riverbank to faraway locations reminiscent of apartheid=s worst days. Diarrhoea kills hundreds of Johannesburg children each year. The transition from HIV+ status to full-blown AIDS often is made via a minor water-borne disease.

Yet it is not in Suez's interests to give poor people enough affordable water so that they can flush toilets. The company prefers 'VIPs': Ventilated Improved Pitlatrines. But that means excrement goes right into the water table. Johannesburg has highly dolomitic (porous) soils. In February 2001, the result of inadequate sanitation was an outbreak of high-density E.coli which led to panic even in the haute bourgeois suburb of Sandton.

Rather than treat the issue as a sustained threat to the region=s water table, Sandton=s wealthy households and institutions invested in their own additional borehole water purification systems, consistent with the tendency of insulating the upper classes from socio-environmental problems, rather than solving those problems.

Another controversial technique for sewage was adopted by JW in 2002, termed 'shallow sanitation.' The system uses low quantities of water and much less gravity to take excrement from toilets to bulk sewage pipes, hence saving water and money in both installation and operating costs. The most extraordinary feature is that pipes are regularly blocked with excrement in each neighbourhood, not by accident but as a matter of design. In turn, this problem requires community 'social capital' on each street, so as to assure regular unblocking of pipes. JW provides 'Maintenance Procedure' instructions:

'Open all inspection chambers. Wear gloves. Remove all solids and waste from the inspection chambers. Do a mirror test for each chamber-to-chamber section. If waste material is found in a section. bring in the tube from the upstream inspection chamber until it comes into contact with the obstruction. Block off the outlet from the downstream inspection chamber with a screen that allows water to pass through but not solids. Push the tube until the material is moved to the downstream inspection chamber. Wear gloves and remove waste material by hand. Pour a large quantity of water through the section between the two inspection chambers and check for cleaning. Repeat the mirror test. Close the inspection chambers. Inspection chambers must be kept closed at all times except during cleaning operations.'

Because they do not utilise cisterns inside the house, internal shallow sewer capital installation costs are less than a VIP and one third less than a conventional toilet connected to bulk sewage. Thus JW is passing on the costs of sanitation to the residents of low-income black townships which are the target market (upper-income and white residential areas do not receive shallow sanitation). Women can be anticipated to bear the problems of public health, time and indignity associated with cleaning excrement from the cheap piping system.

Suez also regularly engages in the disconnection of people's water, or in some cases relies upon the City Council to do the dirty work for JW. During the first four months of 2002 (the last available information), there were more than 90,000 cutoffs of electricity and water in Johannesburg. The city=s official conservative opposition leader, Mike Moriarty, applauded: >The cutoffs are good but council has to be ruthless and unforgiving against people who don=t pay their bills, or those who reconnect their electricity illegally.

The most controversial attack by JW on the poor residents of Johannesburg is the installation of 'pre-paid water meters.' Pre-paid water meters require the customer to buy cards prior to consuming, and so provide the danger of self-disconnection. They were declared illegal in Britain after public health problems during the 1990s. Suez's defense is that 6,000 free liters of water are provided each month, but activists say that this is at best half of what is required merely to survive, especially where women-headed households must take in borders and where HIV-positive family members require more water for hygiene.

Destroy the meter, enjoy the water!'

It is here that an amazing resistance has emerged. A New York Times (29 May 2003) front-page story recorded the response of Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee leader Bricks Mokolo: >Destroy the meters and enjoy the water. The government promised us that water is a basic right. But now they are telling us our rights are for sale.= In a spirit sometimes termed autonomist, the Crisis Committee as well as other Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation Forum affiliates arrange for township plumbers to come and reconnect. The same is true for township electricians, who are often young people specially trained to avoid doing damage to the infrastructure or themselves.

From Orange Farm, protests against pre-paid meters spread to Soweto during 2003. In September there were numerous arrests in the Phiri section of Soweto, including of Ngwane, who is secretary of the Anti-Privatisation Forum. The first arrests took place when activists began filling up ditches that were being dug to install pre-paid meters.

According to full-page advertisements by Johannesburg Water, Mokolo, Ngwane and their allies in the Anti-Privatisation Forum 'do not have the interests of the residents at heart. Their political game is to stop the people of Soweto from having access to water by threatening workers, vandalizing pipes and preventing emergency trucks to bring in their loads. They disrupt public information meetings and deny people the right of access to information.'

In reality, JW was at that time denying access to information about the Orange Farm pilot project by the Freedom of Expression Institute, on grounds of commercial confidentiality, leading to court litigation based on the Access to Information Act.

Meanwhile, the masses of poor people are still refused water services. Of nearly one million people living in informal settlements, 65% use communal standpipes (not in their own dwelling or yard), 14% use yard standpipes and 20% rely upon water tankers. For sanitation, 52% use pit latrines they dig themselves, 45% use chemical toilets, and 3% have communal flush toilets or ablution blocks.

The point of maintaining such low standards so long after South Africa's 1994 liberation, is to save money. The point the activists are making is that water must be considered a human right, and if that means stealing it by liberating it from pre-paid meters, this will save the society much more damage in the medium-term: mitigating public health hazards, improving gender equity, protecting the environment, and supporting local economic development. None of these factors impress Paris stockholders, however.

Together, protests and technical critiques of neoliberal water policies are strengthening not only in South Africa but amongst social movements across the world. However, activists like Ngwane recognise that rising protest must also be channeled through wider-scale organised coalitions of progressive, democratic forces.

For example, after the mid-2003 Soweto protests, the Water Caucus united to support the township activists, who suffered demonisation by ANC minister Kasrils and JW. In other African countries, where socio-economic conditions are far worse but organisation and consciousness (and freedom to protest) are also less advanced, South African activists are joining with groups such as Accra, Ghana's Campaign Against Privatisation and the African Social Forum, to contest the neoliberal strategies so prevalent in the water sector. The South Africans are linked to similar struggles ranging from Cochabamba, Bolivia to Detroit, USA.

Ngwane agrees that there merits of autonomist direct action, but insists on the search for a more formidable strategy: 'There is the danger of drowning in our own militancy because of a failure to develop long-term political projects, in favour of immediate and short-term and militant actions. The Marxist method of distinguishing between immediate, democratic and transitional demands can be used as an antidote to this disease of pure militancy. Marx teaches us that our aim in taking up immediate problems is to show the power of collective action and the need to fight and overthrow the capitalist system. Without such a perspective there is a danger of co-option as the enemy accedes to our demands, as they did in 2002 when we stopped electricity disconnections in Soweto, or demoralisation and tiredness as the enemy stands firm and people don=t see a solution despite their efforts.'

Suez should be used to this kind of resistance, for across the world, the huge water company is having problems. In Atlanta, the largest outsourced water supply in the US, Suez was fired. It left Manila and Jakarta with financial troubles. In Argentina, it is desperate for greater International Monetary Fund pressure on the Kirshner government to raise utility prices. As British Observer journalist Nick Mathiason reported at the outset of the March 2003 Kyoto World Water Forum meeting, 'Suez is reducing its exposure in developing countries by a third. It already had plans to reduce costs by E340 million this year and further E68 million next year and now intends to cut deeper.'

The Johannesburg water wars will continue as Sowetans unite against Suez. Soon it will be time for their French allies to show solidarity, by taking up protests against repression of activists at the South African consulate in Paris (these began in 2002), and also directly tackling Suez, Vivendi, Saur and other corporations which are sucking the Global South dry of money, especially dangerous when so many people--and the society as a whole--simply cannot afford to pay for privatised water.

Bond is professor at the University of the Witwatersrand Graduate School of Public and Development Management, Johannesburg and visiting professor of political science, York University, Toronto. He is affiliated to the Centre for Economic Justice in Washington/Johannesburg.
Patrick Bond

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