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Much protesting about water: contestations about water fomenting uprisings?

Water underpins and is a key driver of many social protests in South Africa. While water is often conflated with other issues, protests often occur where there are disjunctures between local and national water services planning and household or community level water use. There is often a gap between what implementers and practitioners consider effective ways of rendering water services, and what communities consider to be legitimate needs and expectations.

While communities typically voiced frustrations about inter alia corruption, nepotism, mismanagement of municipal funds, and a lack of public participation, as well as inadequate infrastructure, water services practitioners expressed frustrations about wasteful water use, unaccounted-for water (water loss), infrastructure theft, breakdown and obsolescence of infrastructure and lack of budgets for repairs and developing new infrastructure to offset demands created by rapid urbanisation.

Not only is the frequency of social protest in South Africa increasing, but also the geographic spread and levels of violence reached previously unprecented levels in 2012. Although social protest is largely a (growing) urban phenomenon, since 2011 social protests in rural areas are also on the increase: what has hitherto been characterised as the ‘silent backdrops of South African society’ are now coming alive to dispel romanticist and picture-postcard constructs of bucolic rural idylls, marking a critical turning point in rural people’s engagement with authorities.

Typically, before there are violent protests, there are various forms of engagement with authorities and non-violent protest about grievances over water, sanitation, housing and other basic services.  At the same time, the perception that there are no effective measures to deal with corrupt or incompetent municipal councillors and officials, nor ways to make these officials downwardly accountable, create foment which easily develops into anger and sometimes protest action.

Since many protests take place in poor, working class areas, residents often cannot afford to procure water from alternative sources, such as bottled water, so living with ‘social water scarcity’ can mean living with vulnerability to disease and the indignity of not being able to bath as required. Many of the effects of water service delivery problems cascade into other domains of existence, such as work spaces and gendered social relations. Put simply, it is not easy to go to work, look for work or find work when a person has not bathed or washed their clothes.

Given the high rates of gender violence in South Africa, scrounging for water can also often put women and girls at further risk, as they are typically responsible for procuring household water supplies, and may have to walk to distant water sources, across unsafe terrain in order to access water. This makes women and girls vulnerable to attack.

In more affluent areas, communities with a poor quality water supply have been able to adopt different forms of engagement strategy such as withholding rates or declaring legal disputes with municipalities. These options are not open to less affluent citizens since they are often not ratepayers, and do not have the finances to procure legal advice and support.

Nevertheless, despite a profusion of grievances about inadequate water access, there are many poor communities who may be deprived of water services and frustrated, but who do not resort to violent protest action. This suggests that there might be tangible ways to channel energy among citizens into tangible gains for water services governance and delivery, and a deepening of democracy.

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