Defend Truth


Minister Gordhan, please splash water and financial relief on fast-burning SA


Patrick Bond teaches at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology.

Within a year South Africa has degenerated from proud BRICS host to the leading basket case within the “Fragile Five” emerging markets. That leaves Pravin Gordhan very vulnerable this week: hounded not just by opposition politicians but also by bank economists, financiers, the international ratings agencies and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Last weekend at the G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in Sydney, the IMF told the world’s most powerful economic managers to continue austerity fiscal policies and free trade, while permitting the US and Europe further monetary degradation (“Quantitative Easing”) so as to prevent yet another Northern Hemispheric banking crisis via endless financier bailouts.

In contrast, exacerbating Southern crises with austerity policies is still a favourite sport at the IMF, and so the day before that meeting, Gordhan’s main complaint was, “the IMF reform process has failed to improve the representation of sub-Saharan African [and] is inconsistent with the Fund’s reform objectives of legitimacy, credibility and effectiveness.” (Sitting in for Gordhan in Sydney was his deputy – and potential post-May replacement – Nhlanhla Nene.)

No doubt feeling ripped off, Gordhan had spent $2 billion of taxpayer funding on IMF recapitalisation in 2012 (a wee part of the BRICS $75 billion support), and his predecessor Trevor Manuel was the chair of an IMF committee that arranged $750 billion in new capital in 2009. Perhaps that’s why in the official summit statement issued on Sunday, G20 crocodile tears flowed more freely than usual: “We deeply regret that the IMF quota and governance reforms agreed to in 2010 have not yet become effective.”

Was Gordhan, who stayed home to finalise his Budget Speech, watching the home fires burn out of control? Just 30 kilometers west of the Finance Ministry, township after township in Madibeng – ironically, “place of water” in Setswana because of its four dams – lit up with fiery anger as water supplies dwindled in recent weeks. The protests, like Andile Lili’s faeces flinging seven months earlier in Cape Town, eventually got results.

It’s hard to assess whether the state’s decision to solve multiple Madibeng water crises was the coming election. Perhaps it also reflected the repeated embarrassment of police cock-ups, such as use of weaponry declared illegal, or the presence of senior police murderers from the Marikana massacre, still unpunished, now operating the Mothutlung protest beat with the same attitude. But it took four fatal police shootings before one Madibeng resident, Water Minister Edna Malewa, finally jolted into action, ordering her national department to fix Mothutlung’s pumps and pipes one weekend last month, and to hell with Constitutional niceties.

A few dozen kms to the west, provincial Premier Thandi Modise soon ordered a physical redirection of liquid gold from a well-watered platinum mine to the Majakaneng Township, which was also blazing. A bit further along is Marikana, with its Nkaneng informal settlement still just as services-shortchanged as in mid-2012. Further north are Hebron and Jericho – also sites of water struggle, while wealthy residents of Harbeesbort Dam (e.g. Kosmos Village) the Jack Nicklaus designed Pecanwood Golf Estate and the Magaliesburg Mountain resorts further south don’t run dry.

While Madibeng exploded, Jacob Zuma’s speechwriters were preparing for him one of the biggest State of the Nation fibs: “The dominant narrative in the case of the protests in South Africa has been to attribute them to alleged failures of government. However the protests are not simply the result of ‘failures’ of government but also of the success in delivering basic services. When 95 percent of households have access to water, the 5 percent who still need to be provided for, feel they cannot wait a moment longer. Success is also the breeding ground of rising expectations.”

Before the words were out of his mouth, a Mail&Guardian article by Sipho Kings was already in press providing an embarrassing rebuttal: Department of Water Affairs spokesperson Sputnik Ratau admitted that not 95 percent, but in reality “only 65 percent of households have reliable services,” meaning there may be a pipe and tap somewhere in the vicinity – but water isn’t necessarily flowing.

Ratau is probably also aware that “access” as judged by Zuma’s government takes the form of a communal tap within 200 meters. For millions who live in shack settlements and face awful queues when there are just a few taps per 5000 residents (typical here in Durban), or for women that fetch water in heavy buckets, that achievement is not “success,” it’s a breeding ground for disease and fury.

The 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme had a higher standard for “the medium term” (surely 20 years on), namely “to provide an on-site supply of 50 – 60 liters per capita per day of clean water.” Using that standard, the ratio of adequately served South Africans falls far lower than 65 percent: no doubt well below half.

“We want piped water in our gardens, but for 20 years they have failed to deliver,” said Julius Malema on the campaign trail recently, picking up on the contradiction: “As long as you vote for the ANC, you will not get water. Instead of giving you water, Zuma has built a R2.8 million pool, but you don’t have drinking water and he can’t swim.”

Malema is doing exceptional consciousness-raising: surfing this current wave of social protests, crisscrossing the hot-spots as his men toss petrol on tyres that his own trucks help transport (or at least once, according to a revealing photo). Such behaviour may generate cynicism, because there is so little left in its wake to network the community movements, especially after 7 May.

On the other hand, until the National Union of Metalworkers of SA makes good on the promise to generate a bottom-up alliance of civil society in a “united front approach” that will rattle the Big-A Alliance into action, Malema’s doing these communities a  huge service by generalising and articulating their complaints with such verve.

Until now, we’ve seen mainly “popcorn protests” – whether or not they’ve been carefully prepared by local activists who in many cases have indeed already tried reasonable consultative strategies with local officials and politicians – of the sort that too often seem to pop up and then return to earth with no result. If there’s a rightwing wind in the township at that moment, some such protests get blown into xenophobic attacks against a local Somali shopkeeper or Zimbabwean worker or Mozambican resident.

If he avoids the temptation of popcorn, Malema could strengthen the connectivities using demands such as those in the RDP, i.e. piped water in the gardens, on each plot. He could add that all manner of other benefits to society would flow if Gordhan funded more water and sanitation services, including gender equity, improvements in public health (e.g. a 20 percent drop in diarrhea occurs when people access water on site, not communally), and options for better sanitation, such as biogas digesters or septic tanks.

But as anyone who knows the water sector can attest, the Treasury’s durable neoliberalism is the primary barrier to putting out these fires with water interventions.

Treasury has enough clout and money to change matters dramatically, which is why here in Durban it was so sad to see our local paper (for which I regularly write), The Mercury, argue just before Zuma’s speech, “economic hardship – which fuels most of the protest – seems likely to intensify in the short term” (true) but “there is virtually nothing that the government at any level can do in the short term to meet the material demands of the protesters.”

False. Former Durban community organiser Gordhan could make the critical intervention in his Budget Speech if he had the political will.

It’s true that Gordhan’s inherited macroeconomic policies are essentially pro-corporate and pro-rich; hence they receive continued support from not just the Democratic Alliance but also from our incredibly corrupt bourgeoisie; PriceWaterhouseCoopers ranked our team the most tsotsi-rich in the world this month, as senior managers loot their own firms’ coffers.

The honour came just the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report assessed our workers as the most militant on earth for the second year running, and just as Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa railed against “13 000 protests” last year (even though his police statisticians undercount, since there are many more off their radar screen; even Rob Burns misses a great many on his SAfm traffic reports, as do the usual commentators from Municipal IQ, the SA Institute of Race Relations and several universities  where scholars now carry out extensive protest research.)

How, then, does SA’s neoliberal bloc expect us to become internationally competitive for the sake of capitalist efficiency, if our team consists of these inefficient hooligan players? Surely it’s time to give up on the fantasy of export-led growth, and instead refocus on meeting basic needs? (Don’t tell that to Peter Bruce at Business Day, who must be the country’s most bellicose bible-thumping advocate of export-extractivism, no matter all evidence to the contrary about the damage done by so many Resource Curses.)

Gordhan could at least lessen the economic hardship by reversing dozens of exchange control liberalisations which, since 1995’s decommissioning of the Finrand, have left our economy ever more vulnerable to global financial volatility. In 2007, for instance, nearly a quarter’s worth of our annual GDP was spirited offshore by the wealthy in one of the world’s most stunning cases of capital flight. No other economy our size or bigger has suffered so many currency crashes these past two decades, such as the fall from R6.6/$ in mid-2011 to R11.4 at the low point this month.

Policy change is certainly possible, if the political balance of forces changes. Even brave little Ghana imposed tough new capital controls on outflows recently. In turn, interest rates could be lowered to the levels our various consumer and state debt crises now require, without the current fear of massive capital flight if Gill Marcus reverses her recent decision.

But could Gordhan not only reboot macro but also solve these apparently infinite micro-crises, including water? They are bursting out so regularly across the country that we can now look for patterns, and for urgent national not just local solutions – and my sense is that community activists are also frustrated that no matter how many councilors they target for removal by the ruling party, it never gets better: they end up attacking the replacement with equal or greater venom, because even a revolutionary socialist municipal councilor would lack funding to satisfy these urgent needs.

As Gift Kubheka, an ordinary resident in spitting distance of one of the Mpumalanga power plants, complained to eTV’s talk show Big Debate late last year: “We can’t all go and ask for electricity, that’s why we have a councillor. We tell him what we need, but he can’t provide.” The one who can provide is Pravin Gordhan.

Although a full on strike will occur on March 19, the metalworkers are holding a march to Parliament against Gordhan on Wednesday, because of Treasury’s youth wage subsidies which they fear will lower overall wages even for permanent workers.. There will be protests in various cities at SARS and Reserve Bank branches. Yet their united front process is still so fresh that they haven’t included water or electricity amongst specific service delivery demands: “universal access to free, quality education, housing for all, access to affordable healthcare and sustainable and decent jobs.”

Yet as far as I can tell, the most desperate, angry South Africans are those involved in water/sanitation-related protests. These are amongst the most vital essentials, and if the reasonable material demands of protesters are met here, other answers – to the worsening housing shortages, electricity price hikes and disconnections, busted municipal services – will logically follow.

There are indeed plenty of short-term emergency measures, as proven by Molewa, Modise and Local Government Minister Lechisa Tsenoli, who helped replace the top layer of municipal administration; however, cancerous tenderpreneurship grows, what with 341 officials found to be running businesses during 2005-2010.

Gordhan could not only push his cabinet colleagues into more relatively low-cost green lights to solve these problems. He could insist on providing other short-term emergency services to rapidly resolve protests. The immediate deployment of SANDF trucks and other vehicles currently available to the state could ensure water delivery via water tankers.

Just as was piloted during the cholera crisis near Richards Bay in late 2000 by then minister Ronnie Kasrils, this would immediately benefit hundreds of thousands of households, especially in the cities’ burgeoning informal settlements which are currently so badly served by municipal water services. Many more emergency toilets could be brought in, given how scandalous it is for thousands of people to share, and how dangerous for women to use these at night.

Another short-term emergency measure would be a national-to-municipal override of water tariffs. The two cities that have had the most reactionary tariff structure – charging people the most for the 15 kiloliters per month that poor households typically use, according to a 2008 study by the Wits Centre for Applied Legal Studies (the most recent available) – are Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

Molewa could easily survey what poor people pay in protesting communities, especially in the consumption range beyond the tokenistic 6 kl per month household grant – itself extremely unevenly provided in most towns because an inefficient indigency test is applied to determine who qualifies. The ANC 2000 municipal campaign promise was a good one: “all residents” get the free water while “those who use more, pay more”, suggesting that a much more redistributive “volumetric” tariff is required especially in places like Durban with a wealthy, over-consuming elite, to curb hedonistic water consumption with much higher prices.

For dorpies without an elite from which to redistribute, the answer is simple: Gordhan’s Budget Speech should be more generous with national subsidies. The most useful immediate action would be a dramatic, immediate increase in ring-fenced central-to-local funding for water, made available through the Treasury but with conditions that funds be used to assist provision to the poorest residents – something the current “Equitable Share grant” shies away from.

Molewa’s ability to move so quickly in Madibeng raises this question: why aren’t these interventions being made day in and day out where there are water emergencies, given legal provisions which permit a constitutional override?

These are just short-term solutions, and many more are available if we telescope out to medium- and long-term. So it is easy, in this context, to rebut the Mercury editorialist’s conclusion: “It would be calamitous if localised protest were to spill over into the national election campaign.”

Really, how else will the fat-cat politicians running the show – like Modise – learn to pay heed not only to Gordhan’s simple instruction to avoid those embarrassing German luxury cars, but also to redirect much more water from the crony miners and millionaires, to the masses?

Gordhan needs to splash such politicians with cold water, and then splash out much money to micro-infrastructure.

The power balance will inexorably shift towards that necessity, but meantime, in Wednesday’s Budget Speech, we can still expect more of the same: White Elephants will get vastly more in subsidies through mega-project infrastructure funding. And in turn, that will heighten the contradictions still further, to further breaking points in Madibeng this year and soon enough, to a community near you – for which we can thank not only your dreadful councilors, but also Pravin Gordhan. DM


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