Spare the attacks, it’s time to deliver

2012-01-28 14:43

The contribution by trade unions to the National Planning Commission’s National Development Plan: Vision for 2030, which was released late last year, is important.So important, in fact, that I think the scathing attack on the plan by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) in December is telling.

It carried some of the baggage of previous vitriolic conflicts unions affiliated to Cosatu had with the minister in charge of planning, Trevor Manuel, while he was finance minister. But it is important that the plan not be dismissed, undermined or treated cynically, though there are inevitably shortcomings – none more serious than in the most vital area of water and sanitation.

But it is a welcome work in progress on which we need to build constructively.

To be preoccupied with Manuel’s past – which can result in a kneejerk rejection of the plan – will obscure the vital importance of constructively producing a plan that can tackle the very serious social problems of massive unemployment, poverty and inequalities.

And to dismiss the plan as “anti-working class neo-liberal” – as Numsa has done – is glib, unhelpful and counterproductive. This language polarises parties instead of promoting constructive engagement. The heart of urban infrastructure for poor communities is decent housing, water and sanitation.

The most dismal situation is either the total absence of any infrastructure or poor levels of service. Severe fiscal constraints from the mid- to late 1990s resulted in the harsh commercialisation and commodification of basic services. Beyond dismally inadequate amounts of free water and electricity, since 2000 you got the quantity and quality of services you could afford to pay for, nothing more.

Therefore, today we have an entrenched class-based level of service regime in South Africa. This runs contrary to the redistributionist ethos the National Planning Commission urgently needs to inject into its work, otherwise the implicit argument is that the poor must blame themselves for poor service levels because they have little or no money.

Besides, these interrelated services are central to the whole notion of development.The most dignity-stripping, and therefore combustible, social deprivation revolves around water and sanitation services, where emotions tend to run much higher in poor communities than about the other related basic service, electricity, partly because there are no substitutes for water.

On the sanitary side, how many bucket toilets, pit latrines (ventilated and unventilated), chemical toilets and condominium sewers do we still have in the country, and what plans are there to deal with these harsh realities?

The ideal is and must remain waterborne sanitation, nothing less. So important is this point that I can sympathise with those radicals who say: to hell with fiscal constraints, go find the bloody money, as you did to buy weapons we never needed.

On the side of water provision, the plan should have told us how many people do not yet have the ideal of water supply inside their homes. We also need to know what they are planning to do about these enormous challenges.

Research has shown the negative consequences prepaid water and electricity meters have had on poor communities across the country. These matters should have formed a significant part of the plan.

Water and sanitation are so vitally important and sensitive to our daily lives. It means so much for hygiene, health, dignity and culture that these matters be urgently addressed.

»?Harvey is the authorised biographer of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. He writes in his personal capacity

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