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Privatization in South Africa: Starting Over

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Issue: 15 Section: Accounts Geography: Africa South Africa Topics: social movements, water, privatization, poverty

February 25, 2004

Privatization in South Africa: Starting Over

by Dru Oja Jay

An anti-privatization activist argues with police guarding the installation of prepaid water meters in Soweto. photo: Indymedia South Africa
In 1996, post-Apartheid South Africa adopted its remarkably progressive constitution, which granted all citizens the basic right to housing, water, health care, and other essentials. In an equally remarkable about-face, the African National Congress (ANC), the governing party of former president Nelson Mandela, has adopted a program of privatization.

For the poor in South Africa, things are in many ways worse now than under Apartheid. In 2003, South Africa beat out Brazil for the distinction of having the largest income gap between rich and poor of any country in the world.

For South Africa's poor, privatization has had disastrous results. While advocates of privatization claim that for-profit water systems will increase efficiency, opponents point out that private firms don't bother to repair inadequate infrastructure in poor townships, preferring to focus on areas that yield higher profits. "Whatever one believes," one critic points out, "the poor have no say in the matter."

In 2000, thousands of people who were no longer able to afford newly raised water tariffs turned to other sources for water. Because almost all of South Africa's surface water is unsuitable for consumption without treatment, the result was one of the largest outbreaks of cholera in the nation's history.

Due to rising rates that accompany privatization, electricity has become similarly inaccessible for thousands of families. Due to various calculations, electricity is more expensive in poor townships than it is in rich--and usually white--areas.

Less than a decade after the end of Apartheid, the tactics of resistance developed over decades of racial oppression have become useful again. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee has led a successful campaign called Operation Khanyisa (from Zulu, meaning "to turn on the light"). Teams of volunteer electricians rewire homes that have been cut off because families cannot afford the "privatized" rates--which can be five times higher than in the recent past. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been reconnected, as new "electricians" are trained. Similar campaigns have begun to reconnect access to water in poor neighbourhoods.

When private security forces--nicknamed "red ants" for their red overalls--are sent to evict people from homes, large crowds are mobilized in order to physically block the eviction. Evicted families are also moved in by force. Lack of housing and overcrowding are major problems, with thousands of people living in makeshift shacks built in yards.

Other tactics have been traditionally straightforward: a large crowd is mobilized to present a list of demands to politicians, and attempt to shame them into halting privatization plans by referring to the constitution and past promises. When frustration runs high, a more direct approach has been taken: an angry crowd travels to a politician's house and disconnects the power and water. One such encounter led to one of Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo's bodyguards firing on a crowd of angry demonstrators.

In some cases, direct action has had significant results. The Treatment Action Campaign has forced a reticent ANC government to provide treatments to many infected with HIV. Similarly, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee won the cancellations of debts to the power company and halted power disconnections.

Trevor Ngwane of the Anti-Privatization Forum says that the campaigns are "more or less keeping things where they are" in terms of privatization. "This is having the effect of the social movements beginning to realize their own limitations and starting to look for real and long-lasting solutions."

The problem, according to Ngwane, is a lack of "clear class politics." "The ANC is doing what the old National Party could not do," he explains, "because it can hide behind its struggle credentials and the peoples trust of Nelson Mandela to get away with theft and murder."

Ngwane claims that the problems with the ANC have deep historical roots. The ANC began, he says, in 1912 "as an organisation of 'educated' Africans and enlightened chiefs who wanted equal rights for themselves because they were 'civilised,' unlike the rest of the the 'natives'."

While the ANC adopted the radical rhetoric of the 1960s, with Mandela calling for a "turn to the masses," Ngwane says that the belief that "the interests of the exploiter can be harmonized with that of the exploiter" remained fundamental.

The problem today, Ngwane says, is that there are very few viable political parties that do not support capitalism--even the South African Communist Party stands in support of the ANC. Political parties will make promises to the poor, he says, but the only way these promises are fulfilled is through the ongoing struggles of the people affected by capitalism and the attendant privatization.

Additional Reading:

» The Dominion: Interview with Trevor Ngwane

» Research Paper: Altering Water Privatization in South Africa: Adapting Social Resources for the Poor

» Canadian Labour Congress: Privatization Can Cause More Problems Than it Solves - Lessons From Africa

» Yellow Times: Water privatization in Africa

» Republic of South Africa: Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 1996

» ZNet: What went wrong in the 'New South Africa'?

» In These Times: Guerrilla Technicians Challenge the Privatization of South Africa's Public Resources

» Agence France-Presse: Tens of Thousands of Marchers Gather Against Privatization in South Africa

» New Left Review: Trevor Ngwane: Sparks in the Township

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