The Disease of Privatization


Over the last two months, cholera has broken out in a number of provinces in South Africa.  Thousands of people have been infected and over fifty people have already died.1  Initially, a number of politicians, including parliamentarians from the right-wing Democratic Alliance (DA), tried to blame Zimbabweans — who were fleeing the economic meltdown, Mugabe’s repressive regime, and a cholera outbreak in their own country — for the outbreak of the disease in South Africa.2  After several weeks, the Health Department made it clear that the cholera outbreak in South Africa was not related to the one that had occurred in Zimbabwe.  Rather, the outbreak was linked to poor sanitation services and a lack of access to clean water.3  Nonetheless, the Department of Health was not willing to go any further and discuss the underlying reasons why, fifteen years after apartheid, people still don’t have toilets or clean drinking water.  Of course, the real reasons for this dire situation which the Health Department is loathe to discuss is that the ANC government has completely failed to address the inequalities of apartheid and have rather embarked on the privatization of water and sanitation services.

Cholera Is Not New in South Africa

Cholera is not a new phenomenon in South Africa.  During the apartheid years there were regular outbreaks of the disease.4  That is because the apartheid regime forced millions of people to live in appalling conditions in townships and homelands, where the regime provided very few services.  There, most people had only shacks for shelter and only the lucky few had electricity — worse, very few townships had refuse removal services and only a few townships had clean water.5  It’s no surprise that cholera outbreaks regularly occurred in the townships and homelands during the apartheid era.  Meanwhile, the white population lived in very well serviced neighborhoods with ample water for their swimming pools, regular refuse removal services that carted away the waste of their indulgent consumer culture, and subsidized electricity that fuelled one of the highest living standards in the world.

By the mid-1980s, however, communities were fighting this unjust system across the country, and some of them managed to win some gains, including access to free water.  Besides, the apartheid government was also embarrassed by the international attention that some of the larger cholera outbreaks stirred.  As a result, it began providing some free water in areas where the cholera outbreaks had occurred, including in a number of districts in KwaZulu-Natal.6

Hollow Promises

Before it came to power in 1994, the ANC regularly condemned the poor living conditions under which people were forced to live.  The party also promised that once it was in power it would address the inequalities of apartheid and eradicate the diseases caused by poor living conditions, such as cholera, which affected millions people.  To do so, the ANC promised, among other things, to deliver free water and adequate housing to all.  It was on this basis that millions of people voted for the ANC in 1994.

Unfortunately, it became clear from early on that the ANC, like all political parties, had lied to the people and had no intention of living up to its promises.  The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) that the ANC unveiled in 1994 already contained many neo-liberal measures.7  A case in point: with the RDP the ANC committed itself to fiscal austerity, economic deregulation, trade liberalization, and an independent Reserve Bank — all in the name of creating an environment favorable to the expansion of the private sector.  In 1996, the ANC, having shifted even further rightwards, launched the unmistakably pro-corporate economic policy, the toxic Growth Employment and Redistribution Policy (GEAR).8  GEAR siphoned money into the hands of the elite even more efficiently than apartheid.  For example, under GEAR the ANC gave billions of rands, which were supposed to be spent on providing services and houses to the poor, to projects that favored multinationals, such as BHP Billiton.9  As if this was not bad enough, the ANC government also provided massive tax breaks to corporations and the middle class in South Africa, all of whom had benefited from apartheid.  For instance, in 1994 the corporate tax rate stood at 48%, but today it stands at a mere 28%.  Under GEAR, the ANC government also allowed many South African companies to move their money almost freely in and out of the country.  Many corporations have used this freedom to stash their profits in tax havens.10  Some corporations, such as Anglo-American, South African Breweries, and Old Mutual, were even allowed to move their headquarters and primary listings to London.11

It’s the Poor Who Had to Pay

As the ANC has given billions to the rich, following corporate welfare policies, the poor have suffered.  Spending on social services declined in real terms throughout the ANC’s first decade in power.  Indeed, funding for local governments — which are largely responsible for providing clean water, housing, and sanitation — declined by 85% between 1991 and 1997.12  This means that the budgets for services became even more grossly inadequate.  For example, the Department of Housing stated that the total budget for housing across South Africa was R10.6 billion in 2008, yet by its own admission it would cost at least R253 billion to address the existing housing backlog.13  Given such small budgets for social services, millions of people still don’t have access to clean water, housing, refuse removal, and sanitation.  They will probably never receive these services in their lifetime.  It is in this context that peoples’ health has been negatively affected and outbreaks of cholera occurred.

Because of its commitment to fiscal austerity and policy of giving money to the rich, the ANC has completely failed to address the inequalities of apartheid.  Former white areas still receive far more resources for clean water, refuse removal, and sanitation than townships.  For instance, the elite suburb of Durbanville in Cape Town, which has a population of 35,000, receives four times more money per person for waste removal than the township of Khayelitsha, which has a population of 450,000.  Eight times more money is moreover spent per person on providing water to Durbanville residents when compared to Khayelitsha.14  Similarly, in Johannesburg, almost 30% of all residents still live in shacks and 52% of people still have inadequate sanitation services.  In contrast, its rich suburbs, such as Sandton, have one of the highest rates of water consumption in the world.15  To top it off, the ANC also passed a national law to prevent any form of progressive cross-subsidizations of services.16  At the same time, the ANC adopted a full cost recovery policy for public and social services.  Translation: people who can’t afford to pay have their services cut.  Consequently, historical inequalities are simply not being addressed, and millions of people in the townships are still being forced to live in an environment that produces cholera and diarrhea.

Privatizing Services to Death

The ANC government has also promoted the privatization of public services through GEAR and the Municipal Infrastructure and Investment Unit.17  This made clean water a commodity.  The result has been that over 10 million people, who could not afford to pay for water, had their access cut.18  Clearly, the government has chosen profit over the people, implementing policies that solely benefit multinationals.

In Johannesburg, for example, the city’s water services were outsourced to Suez.19  Suez began selling water as if it was just another commodity, making massive profits out of it.  This commodification caused massive problems for the poor, many of whom could not afford to buy water from Suez.  Indeed, at one point as many as 20,000 households per month were having their water cut off.20  Many of these people had to find other sources of water, such as nearby rivers.  In places such as Alexandra on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where people were forced to use the heavily polluted Jukskei River in order to get water to drink and clean, commodification caused outbreaks of cholera and diarrhea.21  When people protested, however, they were shot at by the police and in some cases forcefully evicted from their houses.

In 2000 and 2001, there were also massive outbreaks of cholera in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, and Mpumulanga.  In some areas of KwaZulu-Natal, people had been receiving free clean water since the late 1980s.  By the mid-1990s, however, the government had outsourced the running of these services to the multinational Biwater.  Biwater, in order to make profits, started to charge people in KwaZulu-Natal for water.  Most people could not afford to pay the prices Biwater was charging and had their water cut off.  These people were forced to use polluted streams and springs to try and get water.  The result was that cholera broke out, with the consequence that 117,000 people were eventually infected and 265 people died.22  Again, the government showed little compassion for the people even though privatization was literally killing them.

In Cape Town, water, sewerage, and refuse removal services have also been outsourced and commercialized.  In fact, the city used funds from USAID to hire a private company, PricewaterhouseCoopers, to assist in the formulation of its social services policies, which explicitly promoted public-private partnerships and cost recovery.  As is always the case, it is the poor who have suffered the consequences.  Hundreds of thousands of people have their water cut off because they can’t afford the high prices that the city charges.  In 2000 alone, 377,000 township residents had their water cut in the Greater Cape Town area.23  Here, too, people were forced to reuse dirty water for cleaning and drinking.

After various community struggles around 2000, a small free lifeline of water was gradually rolled out to areas that consisted of formal houses and that had the necessary water infrastructure.  However, this lifeline was completely inadequate, with the result that people reused their quota of water over and over, which had negative health implications.  Furthermore, most informal settlements never received the lifeline due to a total lack of infrastructure.  Recently, this led to an outbreak of cholera in Cape Town.24  The City of Cape Town, however, has not budged.  In fact, it has embarked on a major campaign to install water management devices in indebted households across Cape Town.  These devices allow for 350 liters of lifeline water a day.  However, once this is exhausted the water supply cuts off automatically.  Considering that most people live in large households, 350 liters a day is totally inadequate.25  People have begun using buckets to store this water, again being forced to reuse it over and over.  As is well known, reusing water causes outbreaks of diarrhea.  It is almost inevitable that the water management devices, which are forcing people to reuse water, are going to cause more outbreaks of cholera in Cape Town.


Cholera outbreaks in South Africa are due to the ANC-led state’s failure to address the inequalities of apartheid.  In fact, both national and local governments in South Africa have promoted the idea that water should be sold as a commodity.  Consequently, millions of people, even where the infrastructure exists, don’t have access to clean water because they can’t afford the high prices charged for it.  Over 40% of South Africans are unemployed and simply don’t have the money to pay for clean water.  Unfortunately, there is little hope that free water for all will be rolled out across the country.  All of the parties involved in the upcoming election, including the ANC,26 COPE,27 and the DA,28 remain committed to neo-liberalism and the commercialization of services — in other words, committed to selling water as a commodity and cutting off people’s water if they don’t pay for it.  This, in turn, is going to force people to reuse the water they do manage to get or access water from other sources such as streams.  Therefore, cholera is set to break out again and again in South Africa.  Only by organizing themselves and winning free water for all through their own actions can people put an end to this disease of privatization.  Water is essential for life — it mustn’t be turned into a commodity to be sold and bought.


1  SAPA, “Cholera Death Toll Continues to Rise,” Times 9 February 2009.

2 See articles tagged “Zimbabwe” at the Web site of Democratic Alliance.

3  Sydney Masinga, “Don’t Blame Zim for Cholera,” Mail & Guardian, 2 February 2009.

4  Jacques Pauw, “Metered to Death: How a Water Experiment Caused Riots and a Cholera Epidemic,” The Center for Public Integrity, 5 February 2003.

5  Anna Weekes, “Flush Toilets for Rich, Buckets for Poor — Inequities Remain in Post-Apartheid City,” Gemini News, 22 February 2002.

6  David Hemson, Bongi Dube, Thami Mbele, Remigius Nnadozie, and Dumisani Ngcobo, “Still Paying the Price: Revisiting the Cholera Epidemic of 2000-2001 in South Africa,” South Africa: Municipal Services Project, February 2006.

7  Lucien van der Walt, Chris Bolsmann, Bernadette Johnson, and Lindsey Martin, “Globalisation and the Outsourced University in South Africa: The Restructuring of the Support Services in Public Sector Universities in South Africa, 1994-2001,” Report for the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET), South Africa: UNISA, July 2002.

8  Dale McKinley, “Water Is life: The Anti-Privatisation Forum and the Struggle against Water Privatisation,” Southern African Regional Poverty Network, 17 December 2008.

9  MOZAL: A Model of Regional Co-operation?  South Africa: ILRIG, 2002.

10  Sean Hattingh, “BHP Billiton and SAB: The International Expansion of South African Corporate Giants,” South Africa: ILRIG, 2007.

11  Pádraig Carmondy, “Between Globalisation and (Post) Apartheid: the Political Economy of Restructuring in South Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies 28.2 (2002): 255-269.

12  David A. McDonald and Laıla Smith, “Cape Town: Service Delivery and Policy Reforms since 1996,” South Africa, Municipal Services Project, 2002

13   “Speech by LN Sisulu Minister of Housing at the Occasion of the Budget Vote 2008/09 for the Department of Housing,”>, 28 May 2008,

14  McDonald and Smith, op. cit.

15  McKinley, op. cit.

16  Republic of South Africa, Government Gazette 425.21776, 20 November 2000.

17  David Hemson, “Privatisation, Public-Private Partnerships and Outsourcing: the Challenge to Local Governance,” Transformation 37 (1998).

18  Anti Privatization Forum, <>.

19  McDonald and Smith, op. cit.

20  McKinley, op. cit.

21  SAPA, “Three Dead in Alex Cholera Outbreak,” Health Systems Trust 6 April 2001.

22  Hemson, et al., op. cit.

23  McDonald and Smith, op. cit.

24 Craig McKune and Catherine Boulle, “Cape Baby Treated for Cholera,” Independent 18 December 2008.

25  Mthetho Xali, “Water Management Devices: A Cost Recovery Tool Targeting Poor Communities,” Unpublished Paper presented at the Water Caucus, 2008.

26  “ANC: Zuma: Address by the ANC President to the American Chamber of Commerce Thanksgiving Dinner (26/11/2008),”, 26 November 2008.

27  Congress of the People (COPE), “Draft Policy Document,” 21 December 2008.

28  “DA Unveils New Economic Policy — ‘Creating Economic Opportunities for All’,” Democratic Alliance, 4 February 2009.

Shawn Hattingh works for the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) in Cape Town.