Dumi's Digest: Comrades fail their communities

2014-01-21 10:00

Back at the height of the intensified fight against apartheid, comrades (read community leaders) could stand on podiums and communities would listen.

They would shout, “atikhwelwa! (we are not riding)”, and the community would accede to this call. Buses and taxis would be stopped from ferrying people to work as part of a defiance campaign.

The rent boycott of the 80s also served as part of a defiance campaign to put pressure on the apartheid government. The call to boycott rent (payment for services such as water, refuse removal and the rented matchbox houses common in black townships) were made by comrades, and communities listened.

As democracy dawned in South Africa, we had become equal citizens who would all get the same services from government. There would be no superior services reserved for any people just because they were of a different race to the other. So we were told.

In modern-day Mbombela in Mpumlanga, the then Nelspruit transitional local council negotiated for the privatisation of its water provision responsibility to British company Biwater in the late 1990s.

The promises were impressive: R300?million was to be invested to improve the infrastructure in all areas (including Nelspruit and surrounding black townships).

This investment would ensure that all households had clean water running 24/7. Despite intense objections from communities, civic organisations and unions, the council went ahead and signed the deal.

It was very clear from the onset that the deal did not have the black communities’ stamp of approval. Black townships – incorporated into Nelspruit from the former homeland of KaNgwane – paid a flat rate for water, which ran nonstop.

But when Biwater took over, the flat rate was scrapped and communities were forced to pay an increased rate based on consumption.

People objected to this. After all, they were not used to paying for water based on consumption. And their comrades had told them not to pay for water when we fought the system.

The same comrades the communities knew had now become councillors or turned into unionists or politicians.

As the battle raged, the former comrades failed to inform the public of the importance of paying for services.

Instead, councillors (former comrades) were returning to townships with threats of water cuts and court action to force residents to pay for water – which the very same former comrades had told them not to pay years earlier.

Residents refused and the fights became ugly, and the project became less fruitful for Biwater.

In trying to keep its costs down, Biwater introduced scheduled cutoffs for water in black townships, basically reneging on the promise to supply uninterrupted, clean water for all residents made 15 years ago.

To counter the scheduled cutoffs, it is now common to see green water tanks (JoJos) in homes around black townships.

This deal failed the black residents of Mbombela, and more black townships are flaring up in smoke across the country as people are tired of inferior municipal services.

In Mothutlung this week, three people died during protests against the lack of water in their area. It took the arrival of Cabinet ministers and North West Premier Thandi Modise for the community to receive the most basic of services.

Mothutlung’s demand for water is not unique and government has to find a solution to deal with the lack of water for the community.

The privatisation of water, as we are seeing in Nelspruit, is not an answer.

Comrades (councillors) are accountable to the people and must listen to them instead of only coming to them for their votes every five years.

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