🔒 RW Johnson: South Africa’s water crisis is about more than water

In South Africa’s urban landscape, the water crisis gripping cities like Johannesburg and Durban is not merely a matter of parched taps, but a symptom of deep-rooted systemic issues. Decades of mismanagement and corruption, dating back to the post-apartheid era, have left these cities teetering on the brink of collapse. As local elites line their pockets, essential infrastructure crumbles, and once-vibrant centres decay into no-go zones. The future of these urban hubs hangs in the balance, threatening to extinguish the very essence of urban civilization in Africa.

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By R.W. Johnson

The water crisis of recent months in both Johannesburg and eThekwini (Durban) poses a fundamental question about the future of South Africa as a whole. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___ We are still at the stage where various politicians run around promising to “fix” this crisis as if it is a matter of simply turning some taps back on. This merely betrays their complete lack of understanding. For water experts have been warning for many years that such a crisis was coming. The problems have taken years to grow and worsen and they will clearly take many years to reverse – if that is to happen at all. The mayor of Joburg – the city’s ninth in eight years – says there is no water crisis and all will be well in a few days. This is merely a sign of how out of touch he is. Residents should be advised to remember how when the first power cuts began in 2007 we were quickly assured that the problem would soon be over. Seventeen years later there are still power cuts. The ANC doesn’t view crises as a call for action but something requiring blame to be deflected with propaganda. So when a crisis occurs we are told that it’s not a crisis; that it will be “fixed” in weeks, if not days; and anyway it’s all the fault of apartheid. 

How did it happen that several of South Africa’s biggest cities ran out of water ? (For there are water problems too in Ekurhuleni (the East Rand) and Tshwane (Pretoria).) Essentially, the Great Change of 1994 meant that the national elite of the ANC – much of which had been in jail or exile – became the country’s governing class. This unleashed a huge, long- suppressed feeding frenzy. In African eyes South Africa was a very rich country and liberation was only real if it made them a lot better off. This notion is summed up by Julius Malema’s idea of “economic freedom” – for him freedom has to be synonymous with increased personal prosperity, and that prosperity is regarded as a right. Prosperity is not something to be earned, it is an entitlement.

With such notions current it was inevitable that the new black elite would seek to enrich itself by hook or by crook. Even under the Mandela government the corruption scandals began and under the Mbeki government they multiplied. Then, under Zuma corruption became the norm. Thereafter there has been no going back. Effectively, the ANC elite has become so habituated to stealing and all manner of ways of diverting resources into their own pockets that any “reform” has been impossible. 

However, it is often forgotten that beneath the national elite there were always the more numerous UDF and ANC-supporting cadres at local level. Far fewer of them had been in exile and nor had they had the benefit of foreign scholarships, the cosmopolitan experience of living abroad or a life lived on per diem allowances from donor organisations while their recipients attended innumerable seminars, conferences and workshops. Accordingly, these local cadres were more parochial and less educated. So in most cases they could not aspire to positions in national government and had to be content with positions in provincial government and at municipal level. Nonetheless, they were just as “hungry” as the ANC’s national elite. They were, moreover, keenly aware of the fortunes being made by national-level politicians and many civil servants and were determined to emulate them. The result was that they battened onto the local government structures – not just provincial and municipal government but water boards, hospitals, schools, NGOs, development boards, universities and any other public bodies which afforded salaries, expenses and perks and whose procurement practices lent themselves to tenderpreneurship. 

The results we know. Wherever the ANC (often together with its off-shoot, the EFF) controls local authorities the salaries and allowances paid to mayors, municipal managers and councillors all went through the roof. Municipal workers and provincial civil servants were eager not to miss out on this cornucopia and they too achieved regular inflation-plus pay rises. There was a great deal of “irregular and wasteful” expenditure of every kind. Expensive vehicles were bought, “fact-finding” foreign trips arranged and, of course, BEE tenders and contracts of every kind were awarded to firms run by councillors’ families or friends – who in turn paid handsome kickbacks to those awarding the deals. This was doubly damaging: first because contracts were outrageously up-priced in order to ensure huge profit margins; but second, because it frequently meant awarding complex and technical contracts to companies without any experience in such work, so the quality of the work done was often abysmal. 

The key to this process was the voracious consumption appetite of these local elites. For them, as with the national elite, the big question was how much one could “extract” from these new opportunities. (And “extract” was exactly the word they used. The underlying assumption was that South Africa’s wealth was just sitting there, ripe for extraction. There was no notion that its assets required continuous investment, hard work and maintenance.) 

So enormous sums were sucked out of all manner of other areas of local government. Capital expenditure and maintenance budgets were stripped to the bone. Similarly, rates were collected to pay for water and electricity but the local authority would then fail to pay their debts to Eskom or the local water board and these vast amounts too would end up buying houses, limousines, foreign holidays, expensive clothes and prestige whiskeys for the local elite. It was a continuous bonanza. Obed Mlaba, the ANC mayor of Durban (1996-2012), would laugh as large municipal contracts for sewage works were awarded, openly referring to them as “my pension”. The services provided to the local citizenry declined and often disappeared altogether so that in many towns the rates collected from the citizens merely paid for the salaries and perks  of the mayor, councillors and officials, with nothing left for services. 

The continuous raiding of capital expenditure and maintenance budgets inevitably produced an ageing and increasingly defective infrastructure – electricity sub-stations and transformers that blew up or failed to work, potholes, non-working traffic lights, defective water treatment plants, leaking water pipes and so on.  More and more municipal water became unsafe to drink, sewage frequently flowed in the streets and, of course, the infrastructure became incapable of withstanding wear and tear, let alone natural disasters. Thus the April 2022 floods in Durban are still blamed for the sewage problems and water shortages two years later, but the damage caused by the floods was hugely greater because of the weakened and neglected state of the infrastructure – think of Obed Mlaba’s “pension” again. After all, Durban had survived even worse floods in 1987 without such subsequent problems – because in that era proper maintenance and repair was carried out.

Which brings us back to the water crises in Durban and Johannesburg in early 2024. The point to grasp is that there is no hope of either city dealing with its problems unless the ruling ANC/EFF administrations are permanently evicted from power and replaced by reforming and non-corrupt successors. For if these local ANC elites are left in power, large-scale corruption and mismanagement are inevitable. Yet evicting that group from power is a very tall order and may well not be achieved. In which case both these cities will undergo a vertiginous decline and, ultimately, die. Quite a few African cities live with electricity generators throbbing away in every home and shop, but no city can last long without water. A big modern city is a huge, complex and sensitive system and Johannesburg, in particular, is a fragile and vulnerable case, a city built in the wrong place because of a gold rush, a city without its own adequate water supply. Durban too is in an existential crisis: its two major raisons d’etre are its port and its tourist industry. And now the port is barely working and the beaches are unusable because of sewage. Several years after these problems emerged there has been no decisive action to deal with them. Yet if the port and the tourist industry both fail, there’s no real rationale for Durban to exist at all.

Already many Durban and Jo’burg residents are seeking to abandon these cities and join the semigration south to the Cape or emigrate altogether. In Johannesburg it has become extremely difficult to sell a house and in Durban Property24 tells us that more than 400,000 properties are up for sale. But given the higher costs of housing in the Western Cape – let alone abroad – many residents are effectively locked in. 

And, of course, what I have said of Durban and Johannesburg applies to many other ANC-governed towns and cities as well. In the Eastern Cape, for example, Grahamstown (Makhanda) has long been a byword for the way a town under ANC rule declines and dies. But, of course, it is not an easy death: what actually happens is that an ANC-ruled town becomes an increasingly ramshackle African slum with abundant litter and street crime, a shrinking population, dirty and derelict buildings, and endless traffic jams (no working traffic lights and no further respect for the rules of the road). Gentrified pockets may remain but naturally, in such a situation property values collapse. Indeed, as Magnus Heystek has pointed out, ANC misgovernance has wiped scores, perhaps hundreds of billions of Rands off residential property values round the country, the greatest single destruction of wealth that the ANC has achieved.

Of course when a large metro like Jo’burg or Durban declines the process is more complex. In both cases the rot first spread over the old city centre with the pavements taken over by street sellers. Middle class Jo’burg residents simply stopped going into Eloff, Commissioner and Jeppe streets, just as their Durban equivalents ceased shopping in what were West, Smith and Pine streets. In both cases a whole new city rose to the north – around Sandton in the one case, Umhlanga in the other. The old city centre became littered, crime-ridden and was abandoned by the established shops and institutions. In their place came large numbers of small traders, many of them foreigners – Pakistanis, Somalis etc. Inevitably the rot spread outwards from the old centres. In Cape Town there were signs of similar decay in the 1990s but smart remedial action was quickly taken and the centre was saved. 

No doubt rearguard actions will be fought to try to save some of the blighted areas of Durban and Jo’burg but it is difficult to be optimistic. Already major areas of the old city have in both cases become no-go zones and unless the problems over water and sewage can be dealt with swiftly the situation will simply run away from those who would renovate. In effect renovation would mean somehow finding the huge sums of money required to make up for 20-30 years of inadequate maintenance and investment – but even if this could be done the same ANC/EFF local elites are still in charge and will simply loot the cities back to where they were. So, as things stand, Jo’burg and Durban will certainly decline and may ultimately die. ANC rule is ultimately inimical to urban civilisation. 

Meanwhile, there is still a larger inward migration to Gauteng than there is to the Western Cape, much of it from the surrounding countries of southern Africa. These migratory patterns are generations old and the decay of the Gauteng cities will have to become still more dramatic before they are choked off. More immediately these cities will lose skills, investment and their middle class residents.  

Until now the Western Cape has congratulated itself on the resulting flood of people and investment moving south but there are clearly questions about how far the province can accommodate this huge reversal of the Great Trek. Thus, for example, the whole coastline of Cape Agulhas now has mile after mile of expensive coastal villas built by wealthy incomers from Gauteng – but already these developments have outrun the area’s water resources. Or, in Cape Town, Khayelitsha continues to grow explosively and if the present expansion continues the settlement may expand to engulf Stellenbosch – and beyond. Already the entire demography of the province has changed – Africans now make up 39% of the population against the Coloureds’ 42% and soon there will be an African majority. Inevitably this has led to friction and a “Coloured nationalist” reaction, for this African demographic growth has undermined the old Coloured sense that the Western Cape was peculiarly their place. As this transformation occurs it will become increasingly harder for the DA to hold on to either the province or Cape Town – and yet all this explosive growth is predicated on the assumption that the better governance brought by the DA will continue.  

But for the present the greater drama lies in the probable collapse of South Africa’s urban civilisation in the north of the country. Johannesburg, after all, has been the financial, cultural and communications capital of Africa. Its downfall is not a local or even a national story but a continental one. As news of its decline and fall spreads internationally this will come to be seen as emblematic of the colossal failure of the ANC. Already it is a bitter memory that in the 1990s there was much celebration of  the slogan for Jo’burg – “a world class African city”.

In effect the ANC’s national elite has watched aghast and impotently as the party’s provincial elites have looted these towns and cities. They know, after all, that these more parochial folk are the ANC’s bedrock activists – and that they are merely copying the corruption exhibited by the national elite. When approached to assist the Treasury simply throws up its hands and says there are simply too many towns in trouble for it to do anything. The ANC’s national leaders rather deliberately say nothing, though quite a few of them make arrangements to retire to the Western Cape. The abdication from responsibility is complete. 

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