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The water is ours!

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Singing against water privatisation in South Africa

"Young plants need rain, businesses need investment. Our old industries are like dry crops and privatisation brings the rain. When the harvest comes, there is plenty for everyone?Electricity to light our homes. Safe water for our families to drink. Telephones to call our loved ones far away. Ports and railways to bring us wonderful things, and to sell our goods to the world. We need these things. Our children need these things. Privatisation will provide them."

apfOr so went the lyrics by Tanzanian pop singer Captain John Komba, in which he desperately tried to get Tanzanians on board for a massive privatisation exercise in 2001. The pro-privatisation campaign was managed by the British think-tank Adam Smith Institute and funded by the Department for International Development (DfID). But in early 2005 the privatisation programme collapsed when City Water, a joint venture involving British water company Biwater, was kicked out of the country due to its poor performance.

When War on Want recently visited our South African partner organisation the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), it was clear that privatisation has not brought the musical promise of "plenty of rain for everyone" in South Africa either.

Water privatisation was introduced in South Africa in 2001 when the City of Johannesburg created Johannesburg Water, a private company responsible for water provision in the capital. In order to protect their new investment, Johannesburg Water proceeded with plans to install prepaid water meters at most of Soweto's 151,000 stands. The measures, which denied water to poor families not able to prepay, has been disastrous for communities in South Africa.

But just as music played a key role in the struggle against apartheid, the APF is now using it to raise awareness of the dangers of privatisation of public services such as water, electricity, education, housing and health care. Its new CD, Songs of the Working Class, was launched at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) in April 2007 in Johannesburg.

The CD includes songs that were sung during the anti-apartheid struggle such as We Nyamazane Yiyo Ehlala Ehlathini (A Buck Lives in the Forest), newly adapted to call on the government to remain serious about improving the living conditions of the poor ? a goal that has been comprimised by water privatisation.

The cost of water has had serious health repercussions. Recent research has shown that the installation of prepaid water meters has been shown to dramatically reduce hand washing, raising the risk of water-borne disease. Out of those respondents who reported never washing their hands, 77% had prepaid water meters in their homes, suggesting they could not afford to wash.

For people living with HIV - 18.8% of the population in 2006 - access to clean water is crucial.

water_meterWhile the City of Johannesburg now provides a free basic water allowance of 6,000 litres per household per month, this only enables a household of 8 people to flush the toilet once a day. Families have started locking their taps, as water has become such a precious commodity that thieves have begun to steal it.

Arguing that water is a basic human right, a number of residents in Phiri, Soweto, supported in part by the APF, launched a legal challenge in the Johannesburg High Court in July 2006 against Johannesburg Water, the City of Johannesburg and the Minister of Water Affairs & Forestry. It is an argument also made in the song Amanzi Ngawethu ("Water is Ours"), where APF activist-cum-singer Patra calls on the government, local authorities and private water companies to accept that access to water is a basic human right and therefore should not be privatised.

The court case, which seeks to declare the instalment of prepaid water meter as unconstitutional and unlawful, is expected to be heard in 2007.

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