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Protests over water privatisation in Johannesburg

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afrol.com, 14 February - South African metropolis Johannesburg is recently getting noted for scenes of turmoil, especially from the cholera suspected northern suburb Alexandra. Social development is slow and the municipal authority is blamed of indifference. A privatisation of the city's water to "one of the world's worst multinational companies," Suez-Lyonnaise provokes more union protests.

The South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) has condemned today's public launch of Johannesburg Water Pty Ltd, which privatised the city's water to the multinational company Suez-Lyonnaise. "This took place at a time when Alexandra residents have been forcibly removed from the Jukskei River to areas where there are no services rather than getting the clean water they thought they were voting for," the union stated. 

Four people have so far been wounded in the worst turmoil in Johannesburg in the post-apartheid era. Squatters refusing to be moved fought street battles with municipal security guards yesterday. After the Juskei River parts of the Alexandra suburb were identified as cholera danger zones, residents expected that the long promised improvements in water and sanitary infrastructure would be implemented. Not so. It was decided to evacuate the residents to other areas that neither have sufficient sanitary infrastructure. 

The SAMWU union claims "Suez-Lyonnaise/Johannesburg Water must share the blame for the violence, injuries and trauma that Alex[andra] residents were subjected to yesterday." The company's only response to the threat of cholera in Alexandra has been to check up on the few chemical toilets in the area. 

According to SAMWU, the company has showed no sign that they would install even basic taps needed by Jukskei residents in order to escape cholera. Neither council nor the company have released any detailed plans for extending water to the poor of Johannesburg. It seemed that the company won the contract on the basis of their vague promise to "improve services rendered" to customers, SAMWU claims.

Investigating the track record of Suez-Lyonnaise across the world, SAMWU has come to the conclusion that the multinational has a history of little transparency, public scandals and of raising "water charges in every city or town where they have a contract". The experience from Paris shows that "the administrative, legal and financial arrangements are characterised by an absence of financial transparency," according a public investigation into the high water charges. 

The union believes that all these experiences are likely to be repeated in Johannesburg. SAMWU reports that is has been blocked from seeing any of the contract documents made in Johannesburg, indicating that the lack of transparency in the company's affairs is being repeated in South Africa.

The experience in Fort Beaufort, Eastern Cape, with Suez-Lyonnaise's subsidiary in South Africa, WSSA, is that a secrecy clause has been built into the contract which prevents any member of the public from seeing the contract without the explicit approval of Lyonnaise des Eaux'."2.2.2: Confidentiality: the documentation contained herein has been developed exclusively by the operator (WSSA) and shall not be disclosed to third parties without the written approval of the operator." The union states it believes "this is unconstitutional and not in the interests of the public or of workers."

Experiences from water privatisation in South Africa may have consequences for the African continent at large. As afrol.com reported last week, the IMF is currently making water privatisation a typical condition for receiving World Bank loans. As there seldom is enough capital available nationally, many water companies will have to be sold off to multinationals like Suez-Lyonnaise.

Organisations like the Globalization Challenge Initiative protest against this trend, as cheap water access to the poor might be jeopardised by these developments. Water privatisation and greater cost recovery could make water less accessible and less affordable to the low income communities that make up the majority of the population in most African countries. The alternative for these people is to revert to unsafe water sources or more distant sources.

Developments in Johannesburg and the poor suburbs and townships prove be a test on the feasibility of privatising water in Africa. If prices are to increase by the same levels as in some European cities where Suez-Lyonnaise is involved (25-30%), it will seriously affect accessibility.

Sources: SAMWU, Globalization Challenge Initiative and afrol archives

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