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Beware the commodification of basic services and the pr...

Defend Truth


Beware the commodification of basic services and the privatisation of what should be a human right


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Cape Town has undergone many changes throughout its history and increasingly puts profit and surplus before human rights, it seems. The forced removals of large numbers of families to the outskirts and slums of the cities under the Group Areas Act during apartheid is not this city’s problem nor priority.

When recently confronted with the so-called “drip system” in Cape Town I could not help but think of David Harvey’s brilliant dissection of the right to the city and what urbanisation means for us all:

“So, what might the right to the city mean? The city, as the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is: ‘man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.’”

Cape Town as a city has undergone so many changes throughout its history and increasingly puts profit and surplus before human rights, it seems. A recent retort from city officials that they don’t see why they should be held responsible for redressing the apartheid spatial morphology speaks volumes in this regard.

The forced removals of large numbers of families to the outskirts and slums of the cities under the Group Areas Act during apartheid is not this city’s problem nor priority. This stripping of people’s human dignity, humanity and literally their human rights during this awful time, does not concern the City of Cape Town.

Harvey contends that “we live in an era when ideals of human rights have moved centre stage both politically and ethically. A lot of political energy is put into promoting, protecting and articulating their significance in the construction of a better world. For the most part, the concepts circulating are individualistic and property-based and, as such, do nothing to fundamentally challenge hegemonic liberal and neoliberal market logics and neoliberal modes of legality and state action. We live in a world, after all, where the rights of private property and the profit rate trump all other notions of rights one can think of.”

Coming back to the drip system I referred to earlier. It seems when your water account is in arrears and you owe the city some outstanding monies, they switch your water provision system to the drip system. In other words, taps simply release small trickles of water and in some cases not enough for the basic needs of cooking, sewage disposal or bathing.

So, what most citizens do in Delft and Mitchells Plain among many other areas is call on friends and family to bring them gallons of much-needed water. This in turn means that those citizens use too much, have high accounts to pay, fail to keep up and before long they too are back on the drip system. What do I mean by this? Well, it’s a perpetual vicious cycle. How disgusting can the city really be, to deny its people a basic human right such as water?

The same can be said of electricity provision as well. The city hikes unit prices based on consumption and this hits the poor hard. If you are found to have consumed more than the basic amount of electricity in any given month, you are then charged an additional service charge from the city. What absurdity is this? 

Are we a caring society? A caring city? I think not!

Harvey writes, “these days it is not hard to enumerate all manner of urban discontents and anxieties in the midst of even more rapid urban transformations. Yet we seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique. What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of wealth, privilege and consumerism in almost all the cities of the world in the midst of an exploding ‘planet of slums’?”

It seems in Cape Town that for as long as you live on the Atlantic Seaboard where wealth, privilege and consumerism thrive, amid the growing slums of Khayelitsha, Imizamo Yethu and Mfuleni, you don’t have to worry about human rights being violated daily. 

“From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentrations of a surplus product. Urbanisation has always been, therefore, a class phenomena of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody (usually an oppressed peasantry) while the control over the disbursement of the surplus typically lies in a few hands.

This general situation persists under capitalism, of course, but in this case, there is an intimate connection with the perpetual search for surplus value (profit) that drives the capitalist dynamic. To produce surplus value, capitalists have to produce a surplus product. Since urbanisation depends on the mobilisation of a surplus product an inner connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanisation.” So says Harvey and I fully agree with his sentiments.

Cape Town is a Democratic Alliance-led city, the administration, policies, and decisions all come from the DA, so the question we must ask is, what are the ANC, GOOD and others doing to alleviate the plight of our citizens and restore their human rights? Or are they all too busy fighting among themselves as to who should be the next councillor in the upcoming local government elections?

Henri Lefebvre was right to insist that the revolution has to be urban, in the broadest sense of that term, or nothing at all. And from where I’m sitting, that revolution will take place sooner rather than later in Cape Town. The combination of ever-increasing food prices, plus the commodification (for profit) of basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity will eventually mean the urban revolution will be bloody and very violent. Something must give, as the saying goes.

And before you think I’m only picking on Cape Town, in other metros, they are even privatising the service provision of water and electricity. In other words, outsourcing it, meaning more hikes and increases must be added to the basic unit price so that these private companies can also make some profits. The City of Cape Town hasn’t done this yet, but to all intents and purposes it is implementing this all on its own, it seems. 

If Robert Park is correct, then the question of what kind of city we want “cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanisation.”

It is thus proper that I concur with the sentiment, “the freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” DM


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All Comments 7

  • Whilst access to water is a basic human right your commentary is close to incitement to violence. You should look deeper than this by understanding national government allocations to provinces for the purposes of provision of basic services. Further out than that is the cause of urbanisation.

  • Jawellnofine. I used to live in Rondebosch and paid my municipal accounts religiously every month for over 20 years, yet, when I missed one month due to an oversight, my electricity was promptly cut. No warning, no phone call. No trickle electricity.

  • … and yet poor people keep on migrating from that socialist Utopia called the Eastern Cape to live in the squatter camps around Cape Town … The outcomes of capitalism are often unfair. But it is a verifiable fact the poor in capitalist societies are better-off than the poor in places where socialists and central planners reign.

  • Oscar van Heerden’s pieces have degenerated into fact- free diatribes against anything that gets in the way of ‘free stuff’. Sadly, nothing is free. Ever. User pays is a reasonable principle, and a social wage to support the indigent, compassionate. But it is not limitless. This is not difficult.

  • Oscar really jumps the shark on this one. Whines about Cape Town for 75% of his piece and then recognises that other metros have done worse and actually outsourced their services because they are simply incapable of doing the job themselves…

    • The city’s “capitalist” approach meant that they had resources to deal with rough times. If any other ANC city had experienced the drought that CT did recently it would have likely imploded. Instead the DA had the resources to try to buy us time before the rains came.

  • Not picking on Cape Town, much? Have years of ruling party abuse done anything remarkable to alleviate the plight of the poor, in any metro whatsoever, apart from contribute to the ‘planet of slums’? Brilliant initiatives such as city name changes will not put ‘a chicken in every pot’.

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