South Africa water apartheid is also exploring its options, as evidenced by its role in the new BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa) bank, the goal of which is to provide an alternative source of funding its members, without conditionalities like “austerity.” Also, the Youth Party is now pushing to nationalize the mines, an idea that Nelson Mandela once promoted but later dropped. This does not have to mean the expropriation of mining corporations; rather, it could merely mean higher taxes so that the government would share in the profits. (Nigeria already does this with its oil, earning 50 percent of all profits.)
South Africa water apartheid
There also does not have to be an across-the-board tax on foreign corporations, which could create capital flight; it could be a tax only on the mining industry. Since diamonds are located within national borders, it is impossible for De Beers to relocate these operations. If it did choose to leave, South Africa could take over the industry with a BRICS loan and implement the Reconstruction and Development Program, thus achieving “water security for all.” It could also create an ecological plan for cleaning up its waterways and restoring health to a landscape decimated by mining wastes.
Clearly, investing in clean water for the people of South Africa still means having to “outwit” international financial institutions. According to presenters at a workshop on African water laws in Gauteng in 2005, “Whilst South Africa’s new approach to WRM [water resource management] is considered progressive in terms of international trends and practices . . . incorporation of traditional systems of governance including the customary practices and laws have been largely overlooked.”
Yet customary practices remain dominant in South African life, as a recent study in the Kat River Valley on the Eastern Cape revealed. Anthropologist Helen Fox discovered that “92% of the 44 respondents interviewed revealed that they are still practising traditional rituals which are linked to water.”63 Fox asked what would happen if certain sacred pools were destroyed and noted that replies fell into three main categories: “It meant that the ancestors would be homeless.” We could be mentally ill. People could be mad.” “It means that our culture is dead.” South Africa is said to be full of river spirits, which are drawn only to certain kinds of rivers, “living rivers.”
In these rivers, amagqirha (diviners) have a baptism-like experience where they are able to see under the water and understand its health. South African diviners, usually women, are called to this role and receive intensive training through an apprenticeship program. Sacred waters are said to be full of mermaids, snakes, and spirits and cannot be approached without great care. Dam construction is believed to have upset the water spirits and caused aridity in the land.
In northern South Africa, the waters of Lake Fundudzi are considered so sacred that outsiders must get permission to visit the lake and turn their backs to view the lake through their legs. Lake Fundudzi is believed to be the water that covered the earth before creation, but today the water flowing into Fundudzi is becoming polluted by sewage from the shantytowns on the edges of Johannesburg.
According to anthropologist Penny S. Bernard, “[There is a] need to recognize the importance of indigenous beliefs and practices in issues of riverine management. The repository of much of this knowledge comes from indigenous healers, who are regarded as the custodians of very ancient traditional wisdom and knowledge.” Understanding the traditional practices surrounding water can help South Africa to preserve and manage water more effectively.
Trevor Ngwane has said that what South Africa needs is “ecosocialism” compatible with traditional beliefs.66 Ecosocialism is an international movement, based loosely on the ideas of Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster, that fosters a “green” version of socialism. Kovel writes, “Our obligation . . . is to find a way of society whose productive logic does not impose accumulation on the world.”
Critical of the ecological damage done by capitalism’s demands for constant growth, proponents of the movement also acknowledge the damage done by communist societies to their ecosystems. Regardless of the means used to get there, South Africa’s ecosocialists are uniquely poised with a group of well-educated antiapartheid organizers ready to take on what they call global economic apartheid.
When Imizamo Yethu began to emerge spontaneously in the 1990s, the all-white Hout Bay neighbors hotly protested the “land invasion.” This is understandable when you see the thousands of tin-and-plywood shacks built up the side of a gorgeous, previously pristine green mountain. What was once “the view” for these wealthy residents had now become quite the opposite.
Imizamo Yethu houses are built almost on top of each other and look like they may slide down the hill in the next heavy rain. Sewage runs between houses in rivers out to the sea. People started moving there when apartheid was ending, squatting in any open spaces they could find. Twenty years later, they are still there. Across the valley within walking distance are some of the most expensive mansions in all of South Africa.
In 2007, I visited Imizamo Yethu and met Mavis Tozama Ndoni, who said she had moved there with her children ten years before from Port Elizabeth, five hundred miles away. A few years afterward, her niece Ethel had also moved out to live with her and worked at a restaurant in Hout Bay. Near their house, a single shop advertised “Beads, sewing, and clothes repair” and sold vegetables. Mavis and Ethel both had loud laughs and friendly smiles and were proud that only five people lived in their two-room residence, compared to the ten people who lived in the attached house next door.
“Too many people in the house next door,” Ethel complained, but then laughed at her own relative good fortune. Inside, newspapers covered the floor where the roof was leaking; about a third of the floor was covered in wet, crumpled paper. Ethel said there were plans to relocate all the residents eventually, but no one had told them when. She explained,
“The city says we must clear out but don’t say when or where we will go.”
Within these claustrophobic living conditions, the rates of rape and other crimes are particularly high. Tuberculosis is epidemic. Nevertheless, the main concern of the Ndoni family was that they would have to leave. Though they bragged about being better off than their neighbors, their smiles belied a tragic reality. When I asked about the water supply, Ethel took me up the hill to a public tap next to four outhouses. “Most people get water here,” she explained. “We have to carry it home in buckets.”
Ethel was happy that her house was close to the public tap, an enviable position. Ethel and Mavis had even somehow illegally routed what looked like a garden hose from the public tap to their front yard.
“People have to ask us for water,” Ethel proudly stated, which clearly gave them power in the neighborhood.
Then she pointed at the toilets. “These are for all of us,” she said simply. I had heard that about twenty thousand people lived in this settlement, though the number is constantly changing as more people move in. I could not imagine there were only four toilets. “Who are the toilets for?”
I asked her again, and she replied that they were for “everyone here,” sweeping her hand to indicate shacks as far as we could see. In Imizamo Yethu, people have resorted to the “bucket system,” throwing their waste into storm drains, the street, or bushes at night. There is also a problem with residents cutting through the chain-link fence at the reservoir and using it for both drinking water and toilet use, which affects the drinking water at Hout Bay.
Still, Imizamo Yethu resident Priscilla Moloke said, “This is probably the only place in the world where I can literally sit with my feet in human shit and my back against my 2,000 Rand [$190] shack and look up to the mountains and across the valley on to a three million Rand [$380,000] house and think: I live in a lovely place.” Due to these unsanitary conditions, the river running through Imizamo Yethu has the highest E. coli load of all the rivers in South Africa.
At a rally in Imizamo Yethu, union leader Tony Ehrenreich said he supported the land invasion. “It’s time for people to take land from the wealthy and re-distribute it to the poor,” he shouted to a cheering crowd. In response, the head of the Hout Bay homeowners’ association called Ehrenreich “a lunatic [who is] breaking the law.
This man is inciting race-hatred and inciting people to occupy land illegally.” Another person complained that South Africa would “go the way of Zimbabwe” if people kept talking like that, a popular idiom when someone wants to imply the country is falling apart. In many ways, Hout Bay and Imizamo Yethu seem to be a microcosm of a country on the brink as anger escalates on both sides—one side is angry about inadequate housing, water, and electricity; the other about “land invasion.”
Relations between the two parties in Hout Bay have at points deteriorated so much that the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation has had to be called in to resolve disputes. That said, Priscilla Moloke insists that she will stay: “I’m going nowhere. Here I can walk to the beach and it’s a beautiful place. If there are too many of us, ask some whites to leave.” In a graffiti-covered building with metal grates that was Ehrenreich’s office in Cape Town, I stopped by to ask him what he thought of the criticism he had received. Ehrenreich at the time was monitoring a large strike in town, but he was still cheerful, smart, and enthusiastic.
A tall, middle-aged man with dark hair, he was the only person I had met who seemed hopeful for the country’s future, perhaps because he was caught daily in the fray. He replied, “As soon as you criticize anything, as soon as you criticize the inequalities, the obscene wealth. . . . I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen it. Some of the houses out there are better than any houses in the world.
So as soon as you criticize that, then of course those people that are acting in defense of their interests will say, ‘Yes, it’s Zimbabwe.’ He paused for a moment, then whispered conspiratorially, “But I did say we should take their land.” And he burst into an infectious laugh.