Maverick Citizen


Nelson Mandela Bay ‘water racism’ — a pandemic for poor and working-class residents


Siyabulela Mama is a member of the Nelson Mandela Bay Water Crisis Committee and a researcher at the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at Nelson Mandela University. Tony Martel is a member of the NMB Water Crisis Committee and a PHD candidate at the Department of Development Studies, Nelson Mandela University.

The privatisation of basic services in South Africa has culminated in what the Nelson Mandela Bay Water Crisis Committee calls ‘water racism’. As the municipality prioritises ‘consumers’ who can pay for basic services, they cater to the needs of the wealthy and neglect the poor.

Earlier this year, a report revealed that South African residents owe more than R300-billion to their municipalities. In this report, residents are called “consumers”, which points to the position of the working class in this country. Instead of the working class receiving public goods, they are offered commodities they cannot afford. Our municipalities operate as businesses rather than public institutions, selling basic services to residents.

In 2018, Stats SA released a report that municipalities are deep in debt. Creditors to municipalities are registered suppliers and service providers such as Eskom and the water boards, which contributed 43% of the total municipal debt in 2016/17. The only way municipalities can service this debt is through revenue raised from residents. Public institutions are gutted, industries exercise great influence, and the working class has no power.

The privatisation of basic services in South Africa culminates in what the Nelson Mandela Bay Water Crisis Committee calls “water racism”. As the municipality prioritises “consumers” who can pay for basic services, it caters to the needs of the wealthy and neglects the poor. This explains the divisions in the distribution of water services between middle-class suburbs and working-class townships during the current water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB).

On top of this neglect, working-class people are reminded of their shameful place in society when they are forced to prove how poor they are to qualify for the “indigent grant” (for access to free basic municipal services).

Many Nelson Mandela Bay residents are depressed and anxious as they struggle with the triad of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

Nelson Mandela Bay has 40% unemployment, which is a conservative statistic based on the limited definition of official unemployment. Of course, 70% of the unemployed in this city are young people. For those who are employed, it is precarious, with many contracts lasting only three to six months.

In 2022, it was reported that between April and September, 10 children died and 108 were hospitalised with severe acute malnutrition in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Residents must worry about inflated water bills and the inevitable prospect that their water and electricity may be cut as punishment for non-payment.

The story of the Chris Hani community

Last year, Chris Hani, a community in Uitenhage, did not have water for more than seven months. Regardless of their being waterless for half of last year, they continued to receive monthly bills each month that were as high as R25,000.

When the NMB Water Crisis Committee questioned the municipality about the billing issue in Chris Hani, the municipality explained that water meters in houses work with pressure. When there is air pressure in the system but no water, the meter will register as if water is still coming through the system. After giving this explanation, the municipality promised to solve this problem and to scrap the erroneous bills. 

It has still not done so.

The billing issue in Chris Hani has been replicated in many households across Nelson Mandela Bay.

In Bethelsdorp, some working-class and retired residents owe more than R300,000 from water bills alone. Not surprisingly, electricity is cut in such instances, which adds another layer of depression and anxiety.

Water consumption in Gqeberha’s industrial sector

While residents in townships surrounding Gqeberha’s industrial areas struggle with poor access to water and rising water-service debts, the city’s largest companies like Ford South Africa, Continental Tyre South Africa, Aspen Pharmaceutical, Volkswagen South Africa, Coca-Cola South Africa and Isuzu Motors South Africa operate unabated.

It is important to illustrate the scale of consumption in Gqeberha’s industrial sector to demonstrate the outsized influence businesses play in NMB’s water system.

Volkswagen’s Kariega plant claims it produces 680 cars per day. According to a study by the Georgia Institute of Technology, Volkswagen consumes roughly 5,010 litres per 1.19 vehicles in the assembly process. Using this measure, the Kariega plant consumes about 3,406,800 litres per day. This is only for the manufacturing of the vehicles and does not account for water that is used for sewage or tap water inside the factory.

VW Kariega is one example that can be extended across the largest enterprises operating in Gqeberha to demonstrate just how much water is prioritised for the city’s economic drivers.

This does not even count the 60% of the municipality’s water used by commercial farms, suburbs and golf courses. Whether it be suburban ratepayers’ associations, business chambers or playgrounds for the rich, such groups should not look at their contributions to NMB’s water system as charity. It is precisely because the working class does not have the power to demand what is rightfully theirs, that the wealthiest now see themselves as indispensable.

Big businesses receive tax breaks and subsidies to facilitate their role in attracting investment to the municipality but they do not match the extractive nature of their plunder. The unending pursuit of foreign direct investment results in working-class communities feeling the brunt of the extractive atrocities of such big companies.

This is why residents of Nelson Mandela Bay through the Water Crisis Committee are calling for universally free basic water services by making big companies and the rich pay for these services through a wealth tax.

We should look at the disaster that privatisation has wrought in the UK, where one of its largest private utilities is facing bankruptcy, to see the danger awaiting South Africa’s indebted municipalities, and their trajectory toward privatisation of basic services. DM/MC

Siyabulela Mama is a member of the Nelson Mandela Bay Water Crisis Committee and a researcher at the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at Nelson Mandela University. Tony Martel is a member of the NMB Water Crisis Committee and a PHD candidate at the Department of Development Studies, Nelson Mandela University.


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  • Dennis Bailey says:

    “This is why residents of Nelson Mandela Bay, through the Water Crisis Committee are calling for universally free basic water services by making big companies and the rich pay for these services through a wealth tax.” Good luck with that… it will become just another entry point for corruption. Ethical morality cannot be applied to SA anymore. We cannot even control our use/ abuse of guns. How do you think we can control the use/ abuse of very basic domestic consumption? Think the rich/ business should pay, but in another dispensation, present admin/ governance/ thuggery and anarchy are more under control/ evident. Unless you have an implementation plan that will work to reduce the anarchy simultaneously? I’d like to see one. Bring it on.

  • Jacki McInnes says:

    There are so many levels of naivete and silly thinking in this article. Imposing a wealth tax in a country that already has one of the highest tax rates in the world? To say nothing of the fact that 90% of tax revenue is paid by less than 10% of the population. The problem of taxation in SA is not how much is collected, but how it is squandered by an inept and/or corrupt public sector. And lashing out at big business wrt their water usage? More silly thinking in a country with such high levels of unemployment. And taking a pot-shot at golf estates? Ah well, eat the rich. God forbid you ever own a house yourselves some day.

    • Niek Joubert says:

      Amen Jacki! The more the authors propose to penalise the big businesses, the more people will be unable to pay for water as a result of unemployment until the municipality implodes. Also the municipality has poverty relieve schemes whereby people get discount and water for free.

  • . . says:

    This is not water racism, this is democracy in action, or the consequences of voting for the ANC.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Most golf courses or estates use treated effluent from municipal waste water treatment works. This articles is missing other more important points that contribute to the status quo, eg excessive influx and population growth against available resources and economic opportunities.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    898 words that sum up why we’re in such a shambles in South Africa: the authors have cobbled together a bunch of disconnected gripes with little overlap or relevance to scream RACISM! To whit: the comment about consumers owing R300bn – the link clearly states in the 2nd paragraph that 71% is owed by households – in other words, 29%, or R87bn is owed by, presumably, business and, cough, government agencies.

    The authors decry the levels of poverty in NMB (correctly), but then blame the few industries that still exist and provide jobs for the water woes! The automotive value chain provides 500,000 jobs in South Africa, so given NMB’s centrality to it, let’s say 100K jobs? Take those away and what does poverty look like? Ditto commercial agriculture – what do the authors want, a purely smallholder agrarian economy?

    They mention that public institutions are gutted, but nowhere do they suggest that putting decent governance in place, at all levels, is the fundamental change needed to overcome poverty – just the same, tired, argument of punitive taxes against those with the temerity to live outside of poverty. Proper governance and qualified people in councils would ensure a better quality of service delivery than the trough-swillers of the ANC – maybe vote for a less rapacious party in 2024?

    Finally, I spend enough time in the EC to see that there is a sizeable black middle class and elite driving those cars and playing on those golf courses – so why the race card?

  • Robert Pegg says:

    Why do the majority of people in SA continue to have children without thinking of their future ? Free housing, free schooling, free medical treatment, free electricity and water, no country can afford to continue along these lines. As long as the population continues to grow faster than the economy, there is no hope of any changes.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Just to add to my previous comment, it is estimated that 40% of water in NMB is lost every year, meaning that it is even more expensive, and less available, than it should be. A quote from a Times Live article from 2022:

    “Nelson Mandela Bay business chamber chief Denise van Huyssteen said: “Up until this point it has been referred to as a drought, but it is actually a water management crisis.

    “Yes, it’s true that our dam levels have reached dangerously low levels and we have Impofu that has already run out of water, but there have also been other concerning issues such as water losses. About 40% of water is lost — 29% of that is leaks. Eleven percent is unauthorised consumption such as onward selling of water, water meter tampering and people illegally topping up swimming pools. So that is where we believe the focus needs to be.”

    So 40% of water that has been treated and piped, at great expense to the water company, doesn’t get paid for in any case. What company would survive with those rates of product disappearing? None. Only a corrupt government survives that kind of shameful loss, and hopefully, only until the taps run dry properly. I really do sympathize with indigent and low income households living on the edge (or below it) in South Africa, but simply blaming ‘business’ and ‘the rich (read white)’ for everything is lazy thinking and a cowardly dereliction of duty, if the authors are truly trying to make a difference.

  • Mark K says:

    “Water racism”? Oh, for heaven’s sake!

    The article is very clear that this is a class-based issue about water affordability. A report released last year puts the black middle class at 3.4 million people and the white middle class at 2.4 million people. Is the black middle class unable to afford water while the white middle class is able to? No. It’s preposterous!

    I have great sympathy for the impoverished people of South Africa, predominantly, but not exclusively, black. I have zero sympathy for supposedly educated people whose thinking is fossilised in an apartheid pattern that no longer matches reality. It’s about class. It’s not about race. It hasn’t been about race for a couple of decades.

    Do catch up.

  • William Stucke says:

    What a silly article! The fundamental premise is wrong: “The privatisation of basic services in South Africa …”

    Really? When did that happen? Last time I looked, the ANC gained power in this country, supported by its unelected “partners”, COSATU and the SACP, in 1994. Has there been another national election and a change of government that we haven’t noticed, but that the very woke and lefty “NMB Water Crisis Committee”, as they call themselves, has? In the specific case of NMB, the ANC failed to gain a majority recently, but nevertheless has cobbled together a coalition to “Rule”, as opposed to “Serve”.

    Be that as it may, the ANC is still the majority party in national government and drives changes in legislation. Please point to the legislation, or any actual fact, other than a report by a news site that uses the word ‘consumer’ (= someone or something that consumes) to support your ridiculous contention of ‘privatisation’.

    You base this entire premise on an article written by a newspaper, which uses the word consumer to mean exactly as I say above. You then fail to read the whole of one sentence and claim that ” In this report, residents are called “consumers”, which points to the position of the working class in this country.”

    No, you stupid children. It does NOT say that. It says that “with households accounting for 71% of the total”. The balance, 29%, are businesses, SOEs and government departments themselves, with the latter 2 being notorious for failing to pay.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    That our economy is massively failing and as a result unemployment is sky-high and still climbing, is directly attributable to the ANC who have massively failed ALL the peoples of South Africa and ensured that the majority of peoples here not only have a dire present, they have an even bleaker future.

    Water Boards are appointed to run public assets and thus supply the water needs of the people, who in turn, as their part of the compact agree to pay for the water they consume. This revenue stream is required not only to supply water but also of course to maintain the necessary assets. It is the most fundamental duty of Directors of any organisation.

    They have to make choices – often unpleasant choices, but in order to gain the funds necessary to ensure that water supply is patchily maintained, they are forced to concentrate as their pressing priority, those who can, and do pay. For each water board this is a simple matter of survival.

    No country exists, or can exist on the basis of supplying all the needs that could be caused human needs – be it water, power, education, roads, health et al – they all require money in order that any service can be supplied, and we, as a country, now find ourselves broke, because the ANC deployed cadre, where the estimates of the costs exceed R1.5 trillion.

    Socialism and Marxism are constructs that require someone else – to pay. Bad governance caused this, and the NMB water board are battling on to survive – prioritising customers who pay.

  • Nicholas Battaliou says:

    Yes, this is the problem of South Africa’s economics which should have been foreseen by the ANC. The poorer sections of the community, being promised and given utilities, implied for free, as nobody bothered to pay for them, has drained the utility infrastructure to breaking point, all while the wealthier sections of the community, the vital commercial and industrial sectors have paid more than their fair share to prop the system up. Of course, this writer doesn’t see it this way. He sees only the right to (implied free) utilities which in any country would cause the exact same debilitation of services. But because he pulls on the racism card, an excuse, and implies that the better off and industry should pay more (than have been for 30 years now), he implies industry and those paying are to blame. Pretty sick logic. People have seen this train smash coming for years. The ANC party is over and the toilets aren’t working. Vote for better management.

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