While street protests in South Africa recall images of the fight against apartheid, the current struggle in the southern-most African country is a struggle for rights of another kind – the right to water.
“We are facing another devil,” said South African activist Richard Mokolo during a Montreal press conference Oct. 13. “The modern struggle in South Africa is against privatization.”
Demonstrations for the right to free water are held regularly and it is not uncommon for protesters to be arrested and tortured, said Mokolo. One protester was shot and killed last month by a police officer, he reported.
Mokolo’s talk launched the second year of the national campaign on water, organized by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Canadian bishops’ development and aid agency.
As part of its three-year campaign, called Water: Life Before Profit, Development and Peace is challenging the right of corporations to privatize and control water, stating that water is an essential right.
In the second years of its campaign, Development and Peace is urging Canadians to pressure the World Bank to stop placing conditions on loans to developing countries, which require them to privatize their water management. The World Bank also prevents these governments from using their loans to subsidize the cost of water for its citizens.
Development and Peace and other nonprofit organizations have documented the tragic effects of privatization. Over the last 20 years, the number of people worldwide who are paying for their daily water supply has more than tripled. In 1980, 80 million people were paying for water. By 2000, that number rose to 250 million.
They note that once a multinational corporation takes control of the water supply, prices often soar, water quality plummets, and access to water is restricted.
In all countries, studies show the middle class slipping into poverty and the poor plunging into destitution. In Ghana, for example, the government raised its water prices by 95 percent in 2001 to comply with the conditions for a much-needed World Bank loan. Unable to afford the hike, many people took their water from whatever source they could. That resulted in more than 70 percent of Ghana’s health-clinic visits being related to water-borne diseases.
In South Africa, the situation is equally desperate. As an example, Mokolo read from a newspaper article that a South African woman prostituted herself in order to earn money to pay for her family’s water supply.Government calls those against privatization ‘terrorists’
“Privatization of water is a sin and a crime against humanity,” said Mokolo, who is leading the fight against privatization as a community-development organizer in Orange Farm, a township located 60 km south of Johannesburg.
The founder of the Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee is not new to activism. The anti-apartheid activist was imprisoned without trial and tortured in 1985 for advocating for free education in the townships.
A practising Catholic, Mokolo is also a member of Justice and Peace, an organization of the South African bishops’ conference. He is working with the bishops to create a mass-education campaign on water.
Mokolo says the pre-paid meters came to Orange Farm in 2001 in the name of development, progress, job-creation and “black economic empowerment.”
“The municipality has criminalized the struggle against privatization and says the people who protest the privatization of water are terrorists and anti-development,” said Mokolo. Government officials refuse to meet with the people and engage in public debate, he said.
Johannesburg Water, a subsidiary of the French transnational corporation Suez Lyonnaise, installed pre-paid meters in Orange Farm in several thousand homes. The township’s 500,000 citizens had been receiving water for free from communal stand pipes, which were made non-functional in the areas where the pre-paid meters were installed, said Mokolo.
Mokolo’s nonprofit organization mobilized the people before the corporation could install any more meters. The company has since moved on to Soweto and installed pre-paid meters there. But the fight against privatization and the right to free, clean water is hardly over, says Mokolo.
He has joined his voice to Development and Peace and is calling on all Canadians and people of goodwill to sign the Development and Peace action card, which is available on the Development and Peace Web site.