A Tale of Two Water Cultures: Inequality and Injustice in South Africa

South Africa faces stark water inequalities rooted in apartheid legacies and governance failures, requiring community involvement and stewardship for solutions.
Written by
Mitchell Black
Published on
May 19, 2024

Water Disparities in South Africa

Imagine a land desperate for rain, where water is more valuable than gold. This picture is a reality for many people in our nation. South Africa is a country of stark inequalities and that is nowhere more clear than water. We have two distinct water cultures – one of privilege and one of scarcity.

In the first culture, water flows freely. Lush gardens and sparkling water-full swimming pools surround sprawling homes with two, three, seven bathrooms inside. Lawns are always green, private boreholes ensure supply, and while water accounts come and go, the worry of running dry is a distant thought.

Across the invisible line, a different reality exists. In townships and rural villages, water is a daily struggle. Some places see families queue for hours at communal taps, hoping for a trickle to fill their buckets. Other places, homes, often mere shacks, lack basic plumbing, making sanitation a luxury, and the threat of waterborne diseases a constant shadow.

Legacy of Apartheid and Misgovernance

This disparity is both a legacy of apartheid, where water infrastructure development mirrored racial segregation, and of our thirty years of misgovernance. Black communities continue to be denied proper water access, left no choice but to rely on polluted rivers or distant, leaking, taps. Post-apartheid brought the promise of equality and extended it to water too. The Constitution enshrined the right to access to sufficient water, and efforts were made to expand infrastructure. However, the path to equality remains potholed and crumbling, riddled with challenges. Leaks are common, and treatment plants struggle to keep up with demand, with most failing to meet the international standards for safe drinking water. The burden falls heaviest on the poor, who face water rationing, pressure reductions, and even complete service disruptions.

Challenges in Achieving Equality

Adding another layer of complexity is the debate around water privatisation. Proponents argue that private companies can inject much-needed investment and improve efficiency. Opponents, however, fear that putting profits before people will exacerbate the already existing inequalities and degrade out water systems even further, as has been seen in the United Kingdom.

For Rise Mzansi, the solutions lie in the will of the people. We need a democratically planed and managed water system that is confronts water inequality and water injustice, ensures the long-term viability of water sources and supple, and becomes accountable to all of its citizens. This means investing in public infrastructure, ensuring proper maintenance, and prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable.

Community involvement is fundamental. Empowering local residents to get involved in decision-making and to manage their water resources in community with one another fosters a sense of ownership, accountability and Ubuntu. As water supply becomes more strained, helping communities to adopt nature based water management solutions, rainwater harvesting and emerging water-saving technologies is crucial to ensure local water security.

Rise Mzansi's Vision

For Rise Mzansi, Water is not just a commodity, it is the lifeblood of our nation and key to health, dignity and flourishing. It is time for us to bridge the divide and tell a new story, not of two water cultures, but of one culture of water stewardship. Water is an ancestral gift that we are to look after, to ensure that we pass to our children in a state better than we found it. It

is also a reflection of our national identity, and we must see in water a version of ourselves of which we are proud.

We have a plan to reverse the water crisis and ensure every South African home has clean drinking water. You can find it here.

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