Hydrating Cape Town : An Apartheid legacy?

Hydrating Cape Town : An Apartheid legacy?

View over the City Bowl toward the Northern Suburbs
In popular discourse, South Africa’s apartheid came to an end in the 1990s, culminating with the ultimate formation of a democratic government.

Constitutional change was a critical feature that promised the people the permanent end of segregation along racial lines. In line with this commitment was a shift in policy in the distribution of natural resources, which were also allocated based on one’s race.

Adderley Street in 1897 was an important commercial hub in Cape Town. At a time when the city was the most important centre of economic activity in the Southern Africa region.

However, with the growing issue of scarcity, it seems as though the apartheid legacy continues to rear its ugly head. As Cape Town grapples with the danger of running out of water (also known as ‘Day Zero’), water management solutions adopted are reminiscent of the segregation of the past. The introduction of new infrastructure such as water meters has restricted access to a basic right on the basis of socio-economic status, contrary to the promises made in the new constitution. An ever greater source of concern is that such segregation is due to government-mandated policies, created with assumptions stemming from colonial ideals. With the heightened state of segregation, this begs the question: are Cape Town’s existing water-management methods a legacy of its apartheid past?

In order to understand this issue, we need to examine the historical background of apartheid and the relationship it had with the distribution of natural resources. In apartheid South Africa, urban segregation and even restrictive employment policies made it increasingly difficult for black South Africans to have a stable and reasonable supply of water. For example, the British riparian water law (Tewari, 2009) restricted legal water access to only holders of river-adjacent properties. Furthermore, the black South Africans became relocated away from the river.

There was also a lack of transparency in the payment for natural resources in black townships.

Individuals had to pay a lump-sum amount which meant that they did not know the price of individual services and faced constantly increasing costs. These were constraints that were exclusive to black communities. Accessibility to basic resources became a major point of tension during the apartheid era and was hence a major area for reconstruction in the formation of the new constitution and new democracy. 

Nelson Mandela’s ‘Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all’ was not simply a rallying cry during his presidential address, but was the philosophy that framed the future of the new South Africa. While this continues to affect the principles of the current South African government. It is especially pivotal in shaping the expectations of the people, particularly around the norm of ‘non-payment’ as the mass refusal of payment was wielded as a political weapon against apartheid. For example, their refusal to pay for the high service charges (von Schnitzler, 2010) levied against them was a political stance against the authority of the apartheid regime. Hence, during reconstruction, expectations of non-payment for services was, and still is, closely tied to South African understanding of ‘post-apartheid citizenship’(von Schnitzler, 2010). 

Given this, it is therefore understandable how there would be some who would argue that the current adoption of Water Management Devices (WMDs) adopted in Capetown in light of the rising threat of water shortages is directly contradictory to the spirit of the constitution.

These WMDs were, in essence, pre-paid water meters that limited the amount of water received to the amount paid for at the start of the month. Essentially, residents paid their meters in advance, based on their approximation of the surplus amount they would be using beyond the limited free supply from the government.

These WMDs became installed in mostly low-income areas where individuals had high rates of debt. They intended to ‘reduce water wastage and assist poorer households’ in their use of water and to lower debt. Instead, much like the apartheid past of inequality in water distribution, this inaccessibility disproportionately affected lower socio-economic groups. These distribution methods increased pricing barriers for a basic resource and were particularly targeted at low-income households – reminiscent of the exclusionary policies of the apartheid era.

Even more jarring in their similarity to apartheid-era controls is the explicit disregard for the norm of non-payment that is so integral to South African citizenship. This is largely because of the reversal of order. Water is prepaid, as opposed to paid for at the end of a billing cycle, as has been accepted to be the norm.

This changes the relationship between state and actor from one of trust and provision, to a ‘customer relationship’ (von Schnitzler, 2008), damaging an already sensitive state-actor relationship.
It restricts access to water as something that is ‘means-based’, therefore denying a basic right to those who cannot afford water (Jegede & Shikwambane, 2021).

Moreover, the installation of WMDs also stem from neoliberal problems inherent in privatization. It accepts the Malthusian theory which argues that the poor worsen the availability of resources, in turn creating environmental damage that only increased poverty (Scherr, 2000). Such distinction, however, is built upon the colonialist understanding of the ‘savage’ versus the ‘civilized’ (Tellmann, 2013), arguing that the poor were the ‘savages’ who mismanaged resources and hence had to be punished for it. This is the same distinction that was present in the settler colonialism that justified apartheid. Privatization therefore introduces a new form of inequality, but the justification behind such segregation remains largely rooted to South Africa’s colonial past. 

These WMDs were insufficient in managing water scarcity. Cape Town’s announcement in 2018 of the looming threat of Day Zero worsened these policies and simultaneously heightened the tension between inequality and scarcity. With the 13 gallons of water per person per day allocated in Cape Town, it became even more expensive to source water beyond the stipulated amount.

Though the new policies were uniformly implemented, loopholes continued to benefit the upper classes.

For example, the presence of swimming pools were considered a ‘legal gray area’. Enabling the purchasing of water from regions not facing the same restrictions. And hence allowed these homeowners to horde more water. Considering the profile of home-owners with swimming pools. This again is further evidence of distribution of scarce resources being segregated along socio-economic lines. Conversely, many of the densely-populated, lower-income townships fringing the main city depend on ‘free but scarce communal taps’. The availability of water infrastructure differs starkly along the socio-economic divides of Cape Town. With the poor facing higher pricing barriers and limited affordable alternatives.

Though dams have started looking healthier, fluctuations continue to persist.
Cape Town, shown here based on a Landsat satellite picture in February 2000. Will receive a greater and more reliable water supply through the Berg river dam. The reservoir shown in the background is formed by the Theewaterskloof Dam. The site of today’s Berg river dam is in the valley to the left of the reservoir.

Moreover, with dams in 2019 being ’10 to 60 percent below 2018’s levels’. It is therefore evident that the problem of water scarcity and water distribution will continue to persist. Especially as climate change worsens and Cape Town is put in an increasingly precarious situation. 

Aerial image of the Berg River Dam between Franschhoek and Paarl, South Africa.
Daniel Saaiman – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0

In an attempt to balance the scales of conservation and equality, Cape Town has proposed an alternative and is doing away with the WMD, recognizing its limitations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Its revisions, while no longer based on pre-payment, are highly punitive.

Households are allocated 15,000 litres (3962.5 gallons) of water for free.

If the household exceeds this amount for the third consecutive month, they are given a ‘trickle flow’ for a year.

In theory, this makes the amount of water supplied more equitable. However, such water management remains to negatively impact poorer communities that are leakage-prone and have poor infrastructure, making such close management of resources close to impossible. Poorer households also tend to have more people, and the allocation of water fails to account for this. This, coupled with how expensive it is to conduct repairs to piping, almost guarantees the inevitable ‘trickle flow’ on the third year.

Demand-led controls therefore walk a tight line.
Taxi rank above Cape Town railway station

As a result, it is difficult to ascertain whether they violate the human right to water underlined in Chapter 2 of the Constitution, as legislated by the Water Services Act 108 of 1997. In both the old and new water management proposals, water remains commodified by regulatory bodies. Thereby reinforcing the power dynamics that existed during the apartheid era. This is especially noteworthy considering the colonial justifications used in the implementation of these policies.

We might see this as a form of ‘structural violence’ (von Schnitzler, 2009) because of the way it rejects the constitutional rights and principle understanding of citizenship that is so important to the South African people. The resistance to these punitive and transaction-based policies hinder its effectiveness. Cape Town’s water management policies appear largely rooted in its apartheid legacy. And it would likely behoove the government to re-examine them. Furthermore, ensure a better alignment with South African expectations and beliefs in government and distribution. Lastly, perhaps supply-side solutions might be a better focus? Considering the potential for segregation when demand-side solutions are adopted.

Written by Ally Tutay

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Hydrating Cape Town : An Apartheid legacy? Works Cited

Science. ‘Day Zero: Where Next?’, 2 August 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/partner-content-south-africa-danger-of-running-out-of-water.

TIME.com. ‘“I Knew We Were in Trouble.” What It’s Like to Live Through Cape Town’s Massive Water Crisis’. Accessed 15 April 2022. https://time.com/cape-town-south-africa-water-crisis/.

Jegede, Ademola, and Pumzile Shikwambane. ‘Water “Apartheid” and the Significance of Human Rights Principles of Affirmative Action in South Africa’. Water 13, no. 8 (16 April 2021): 1104. https://doi.org/10.3390/w13081104.

Washington Post. ‘Opinion | Cape Town Has a New Apartheid’. Accessed 15 April 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/07/10/cape-town/.

Scherr, Sara J. ‘A Downward Spiral? Research Evidence on the Relationship between Poverty and Natural Resource Degradation’. Food Policy 25, no. 4 (August 2000): 479–98. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0306-9192(00)00022-1.

Schnitzler, Antina von. ‘Citizenship Prepaid: Water, Calculability, and Techno-Politics in South Africa’. Journal of Southern African Studies 34, no. 4 (2008): 899–917. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40283199.

Hydrating Cape Town : An Apartheid legacy?

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Inter Press Service. ‘SOUTH AFRICA: Water Meters for the Poor: New Name, Old Problems’, 22 March 2009. https://www.ipsnews.net/2009/03/south-africa-water-meters-for-the-poor-new-name-old-problems/.

Tellmann, Ute. ‘Catastrophic Populations and the Fear of the Future: Malthus and the Genealogy of Liberal Economy’. Theory, Culture & Society 30, no. 2 (March 2013): 135–55. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276412455830.

Tewari, D. D. ‘A Brief Historical Analysis of Water Rights in South Africa’. Water International 30, no. 4 (December 2005): 438–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060508691888.

Independent Online (IOL). ‘City of Cape Town Revises Approach to Water Metering’, 24 June 2021. https://www.iol.co.za/capetimes/news/city-of-cape-town-revises-approach-to-water-metering-5d32d788-3906-4710-9a91-17222df9c79c.

Environmental Monitoring Group. ‘Water Management Devices: Facts and Perspectives’, n.d. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a7859a10abd0477ecb31301/t/5c684027ee6eb079bf16fc51/1550336044287/FactSheetWMD.pdf.

Hydrating Cape Town : An Apartheid legacy?