Because the water is life

This is an article that I wrote for the Human rights defender in 2008. I am reprinting it here now, because I think it is relevant to what is going on right now in South Africa. All over the country people are protesting the way that the government has gone about providing (or not providing) basic services. The forced installation of prepaid water meters into Soweto is just one example of the autocratic approach that has characterised much of the delivery. Sincethe publication of this article the Constitutional Court handed down its decision in Mazibuko and found in favour of the City of Johannesburg – i.e. that Operation Gcin’amanzi was not a violation of the human right to water. This is one of the central topics of my PhD thesis.


When I arrived at her house, Jennifer Makoatsane and her daughter were sitting in their dusty courtyard washing clothes. Jennifer is a key member of a grassroots campaign working to rid Phiri (a section of the Soweto township on the edge of Johannesburg in South Africa) of prepaid water meters installed by the government-owned water company.

I went to Phiri to speak to Jennifer and her community about the impact the meters are having on their lives and the washing seemed a natural place to start. Small buckets crammed full of clothes and bedding crowded the tiny space. While we spoke, Jennifer’s daughter continued scrubbing the clothes carefully so as not to waste a single drop of precious water.

‘We used to rinse under running water so that clothes can get rinsed properly. But now it becomes difficult,’[1] Jennifer said, lifting some clothes out of a tub so I could see how dirty the rinse water had become.

I asked Jennifer how the meters ended up in her community. In response, she took me to the dirt strip at the front of the house to show me the meter that had been installed in the ground.


‘The prepaid water meters started in 2003 as a project by the City of Johannesburg and Johannesburg Water. It is popularly known as Operation Gcin’Amanzi – that is Operation Conserve Water,’ Jennifer said.

While lifting the lid of the meter, half buried in the dusty ground, to show me the indecipherable series of numbers it displayed, she continued:

They started here saying that there are a lot of water wastage, especially along Phiri because the pipes are old and rusty and so they are changing the infrastructure. Then, that’s when a resistance started, because as residents we felt that we were betrayed, we were not consulted and we wanted them to wait so that we can go to the negotiation table and discuss it, but they enforced it on residents.

The government also claimed that the meters would enable them to more easily provide the promised ‘free basic water lifeline’ to residents. Meters dispense the first 6,000 litres of water each month without charge. After this, residents like Jennifer must purchase credits in order to have any water run through their taps. If Jennifer’s family runs out of credit (which generally happens after around 10 to 15 days) and cannot afford to buy more, they must also go without water for the remainder of the month.

The authors of a paper investigating the impacts of prepaid water meters in Soweto spoke with another Phiri resident, Alena Mofokeng, who neatly illustrated the problems the meters cause for poor residents, saying,

How can I use 6000 litres of water a month for 15 children and 7 adults.[sic] Cooking, cleaning and especially washing clothes uses a lot of water. I’m tired of this government. The whites were better. They never cut our water even when we did not pay for it.[2]

Although 6,000 litres might initially sound like a fair bit, the average household in Soweto contains 16 people; double the figure used by the government in calculating the amount of free water households receive.[3] Even in Jennifer’s household, comparatively small at nine people, each person receives less than 22 litres of water per person per day – for drinking, food preparation, cleaning, personal hygiene, and, of course, washing.

To put this into context, the average Australian household uses 340 litres per person per day. It takes 12 litres of water just to flush the toilet, around 40 litres for a 4-minute shower (using a water saving showerhead) and around 150 litres for a bath.

Jennifer’s experience in struggling with the cost of water is not unique. Even within Soweto, Phiri is a poor area, consisting mainly of poorly constructed two family units. Unemployment runs at around 70 percent, and most households (like Jennifer’s) survive on a single old age pension.

By the time Operation Gcin’amanzi reached Soweto, the meters had already been tested on the people of Stretford, Extension 4 in Orange Farm (the largest informal settlement in South Africa) and officials were ready to declare the pilot project a success. This was despite the fact that during the first year of the prepaid water meter project, half of the households surveyed in Orange Farm had run out of water and been unable to recharge their meters due to a lack of funds. One resident told visiting researchers, ‘I am poor about this prepaid and every time I have to buy water with my last money for food. Sometimes my children sleep without food.’[4]

Many residents in Phiri had heard about the experience in Orange Farm and were not keen to see prepaid meters installed in their homes. However, Johannesburg Water informed residence that failure to ‘sign up’ for prepaid meters would result in them being denied access to any water at all. This tactic was quite successful and the initial resistance of 27 households was gradually worn down by the reality of being forced to live without the water.[5] Jennifer’s father agreed to have a meter installed without consulting her or her mother. Several moths later he died and his funeral illustrated schisms that the meters have created in a previously close knit community.

In 2004, in February, my father passed away. We went through hell … we took out the fence next door so that we can use their yard, and some people would go to their loo and use their loo. They just locked their water so that we couldn’t use it. You know, it becomes difficult.

Despite increasing pressure from the authorities, a few households in Phiri remain defiant. One of these holdouts is Sarafina Motsopa, a woman in her 70s who lives down the street from Jennifer. Sarafina had refused to have a prepaid water meter installed in her house and so the government had cut off her water supply altogether. She and her household went without water for four months, before they saved enough money to install a yard tap – an illegal water connection in the backyard.

When the government discovered the tap they sent five police officers to Sarafina’s house to dig the pipes out of the ground with a machine. To prevent her water from being cut off again, Sarafina slept in the ditch over her pipes and refused to be moved.

They call the police. They come say, Oma, what’s going on? I sleep in the mud. That government, why they put me in it? Now I must stay here in the rain. Now I can’t go out, I can’t go in. Now I ask them, if it is too messy, what you going to do? Tell me. That’s why I sleep here. The machine come in, it must cut me,

Sarafina said, excitedly relating her victory while rinsing her washing under the running tap in stark contrast to the washing scene down the street at Jennifer’s house.

They say I must go pay, and I say I haven’t got the money. How can I pay for the water? Why all the time for Apartheid government, he didn’t tell me that I pay for the water?

ImageAs the installations progressed the residents of Phiri resisted by sabotaging the worksites. Jennifer was out there with her fellow residents protesting and attempting to stop the work from going ahead.

You know; we would go out during the installation and close the trenches that they were digging in the streets. We would cut off the pipes so that water can just spill out on the streets.

However, Johannesburg Water brought in private security and obtained a court interdict to prevent residents from interfering with its construction work. In the following months, fourteen people were arrested on charges of public violence, incitement and malicious damage to property.

So now Jennifer and a small group of her neighbours have applied to the South African Constitutional Court to declare that the government’s policies of capping the free water allowance at only 6,000 litres and installing prepaid water meters are unconstitutional. The South African Constitution states that everyone has a right to water, and Jennifer and her neighbours are arguing that this should be interpreted to mean that everyone has a right to access a daily amount of water sufficient to cover their basic needs. They are also arguing that the forced installation of these meters in Soweto and Orange Farm, and not in Johannesburg’s wealthy, primarily white suburbs, is a form of unfair discrimination.

As Phiri resident Alena Mofokeng commented, ‘If these meters are so good why did they not start with it in the rich white areas where people have lots of money? Why start it in Phiri where everyone is poor.’[6]

The case is continuing and the residents of Phiri and Orange Farm await the outcome. Even if they lose, residents like Sarafina Motsopa are unlikely to give in.

That’s why I say that I am going to fight ‘till they cut the neck and the head is not there, like that [she flops her head side to side], but I’m going to fight. Because the water is life. If you haven’t got water, you got nothing, nothing.

[1] All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from interviews conducted by Cristy Clark with Jennifer Makoatsane and Sarafina Motsopa in Phiri, South Africa in October 2006.

[2] Interview with Alena Mofokeng in Embrahim Harvey, Researching the public’s perceptions, views and concerns about the planned installation of pre-paid water meters in Soweto, South Africa, African Studies Association Conference, Boston, 2003, p.5.

[3] Coalition Against Water Privatisation, Anti-Privatisation Forum and Phiri Concerned Residents Forum, The struggle against silent disconnections: prepaid meters and the struggle for life in Phiri, Soweto, 2004, p.12.

[4] Interview with respondent 157 in Ibid, p.19.

[5] Ibid, p.19.

[6] Interview with Alena Mofokeng in Embrahim Harvey, Researching the public’s perceptions, views and concerns about the planned installation of pre-paid water meters in Soweto, South Africa, African Studies Association Conference, Boston, 2003, pp.12-13.

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