South Africa’s Driest Season

The government’s push to lure private companies to buy its utilities has led to water shutoffs and the worst cholera epidemic in the nation’s history.

Photo: Marc Shoul

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What the peasants call “the river” is no more than a puddle, really, a shallow accumulation of muddy brown water in Embabe village on the outskirts of Empangeni in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The river is maybe a quarter mile from Metolina Mthembu’s mud hut, and to get there you walk through a breathlessly gorgeous expanse of green savanna, runaway hills, and sugarcane fields that tumbles along the coast of the Indian Ocean.

Mthembu makes the shoeless trek to the river virtually every day, walking past the tap that was installed just a few feet from her house two years ago. It is bone-dry. With two jobless adult children to feed, and only her pension of roughly $50 a month to support them, the 70-year-old Mthembu can’t always find the money to pay the equivalent of $7 a month for water. And so a well-rehearsed dance has evolved between the old woman and her local utility, a sequence that plays out every few months or so: She falls behind in her payments; they disconnect her tap; she turns to the river until she finds the money to pay her bill. “I know the water is unsafe,” she said on a July morning as a young girl in a formless yellow dress crouched in the river behind her, dipping her plastic bucket.

“I was a victim of cholera in February, and then my daughter and my neighbor became sick with cholera as well.”

During what Mthembu calls “the old government” — the brutal, white-minority regime that was ousted by South Africa’s first all-races election in 1994 — she had to walk half a mile to get clean water from a standpipe. She’s glad the new government installed a tap outside her home two years ago. But now the water costs money, she notes, and people here are poor. “There are no jobs. We must choose between food and water, so we buy food and pray that the water does not make us ill. It is a bad gamble. Many, many of us have grown sick from the water.”

South Africa is only now beginning to emerge from the worst cholera outbreak in its history, a plague of almost epic proportions that began two years ago, just weeks after local authorities began shutting off water service to residents who were late on their bills. Pressured by international lenders such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the government adopted a conservative fiscal measure, known as “cost recovery,” which requires public services such as water, electricity, and telecommunications to pay for themselves, often through increased fees; it also encourages turning those utilities over to private companies. Several South African cities have already turned over their water operations to multinational companies like France-based Vivendi Universal and Suez. For the nation’s remaining municipal authorities, the first step toward privatization is to try to turn public utilities into profit centers that can attract investors.

Across the globe — from China to Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa to South America — cash-strapped local and national governments are selling off state-owned water operations, making privatization an estimated $200-billion-a-year business worldwide. Private water companies promise to improve delivery and maximize scarce public resources. But the result has often been far different, according to relief agencies, unions, and nonprofits. They contend that corporations are taking advantage of public resources and subsidies while driving up the price of water and cutting off the poorest users.

At the U.N. World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last summer, delegates designated water as one of the key issues facing poor countries. About 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to clean water, and dwindling supplies could push that number even higher in years to come. “There’s a global water crisis, and at the same time water is being increasingly commodified,” says Vandana Shiva, founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India. “We are trusting corporations to be the protectors of our environment and the protectors of our human needs.”

“Empangeni” derives its name from the Zulu word “phanga,” which, roughly translated, means “to grab.” It is a reference to the uncommonly high number of crocodile attacks that once occurred on the Mlathuze River. Home to South Africa’s largest sugar mill, as well as paper factories, aluminum smelters, mines, and upscale game farms, Empangeni is surrounded by Ngwelezana, an all-black township, and the villages of the Madlebe tribe, which during apartheid were autonomous black homelands, or bantustans, that provided white-owned business with cheap labor.

For people living in these communities and others like them, the “cost recovery” policy has meant a dramatic increase in the price of utilities such as electricity and water — even as South Africa’s economy has rapidly shed jobs for unskilled workers. To force customers to pay the higher bills, local governments are making use of a tool seldom employed even by the apartheid regime: disconnection of services. Nearly a quarter of South Africa’s 44 million people live in households that have had their water cut off at least once since 1996. In Empangeni, local authorities began disconnecting water for nonpaying customers in mid-2000.

As the cutoffs have spread, so too has cholera, with increasing numbers of poor South Africans heading to polluted rivers, streams, even open pits to draw water for bathing, cooking, and drinking. Public-health researchers have concluded that the epidemic began in the Empangeni region within weeks of the first water disconnection, and from there the waterborne disease quickly fanned out into seven of South Africa’s nine provinces. “No one doubts our government’s good intentions,” says David Hemson, research director of the government-funded Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). “But in the name of development, in the name of progress and modernization, we have exposed our most vulnerable populations to this very colonial disease, a disease that is by definition a by-product of backwardness. What does that say about policies like cost recovery?”

In the last two years, KwaZulu-Natal’s public hospitals have reported nearly 114,000 cases of cholera, more than five times as many as had been reported in the province over the previous 20 years combined. Nearly 260 South Africans have died from cholera since the epidemic began. Early on, the disease was so rampant that hospitals in and around Empangeni opened 14 hydration centers, tents where medics worked in 24-hour shifts to provide fluids to patients. When the city ran short of ambulances, the local government appealed to the South African defense forces for help, and for nearly six months soldiers shuttled patients to hospitals and makeshift clinics.

“We were simply running out of capacity and out of space,” says Peter Haselau, the manager of Empangeni’s main public medical center. “We would get a handle on it in one place and it would break out somewhere else. We got to the point where we thought we might collapse if we got any more cases. The problem was that so many people didn’t have money for water, so they were going to traditional sources of water. And that water’s no good.”

When Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994, a third of the country’s population had no electricity or access to clean water, and half had no indoor toilet. In rural areas, it was not uncommon for a single tap to serve whole communities. Since 1994, the African National Congress government has dramatically closed the gap between prosperous whites and poor blacks, building more than 1 million new homes and reducing by almost two-thirds the number of South Africans without running water.

But like the water that flows through Mbabe, the ANC’s policies have been both a blessing and curse to poor South Africans, who have overwhelmingly supported the governing party. In its attempt to attract foreign investment, the ANC has all but shed its Marxist roots for a market-driven fiscal plan called Growth, Employment, and Redistribution, or gear. So far, gear’s attempts to privatize state-owned industries, open domestic markets to foreign competition, and keep a lid on public spending have left many South Africans materially worse off than they were in the years before apartheid’s collapse. Nearly 500,000 jobs have vanished and more than a third of South Africa’s 44 million people survive on less than $2 a day, a figure unchanged since apartheid. Government statistics indicate that a quarter of the workforce is unemployed, and many economists put the number closer to 40 percent.

The coupling of soaring utility costs with higher unemployment has proved especially punishing to poor blacks. As the government prepares to sell the state-owned power company, EKSOM, new pricing policies have caused electricity costs in townships like Soweto to rise by as much as 400 percent. Meanwhile, EKSOM offers lower rates to businesses and municipalities — mostly well-off, white suburbs — that can afford to buy electricity in bulk. According to a study released last year by the Municipal Services Project at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (commonly referred to as Wits University), EKSOM cut power to nearly 20,000 households and businesses in Soweto each month last year. “In the hearts and minds of every black South African, nothing will ever compare to apartheid,” says Guy Mhone, an economist at Wits University. “But there is a very real frustration now that we have only exchanged the savagery of apartheid for the savagery of an untethered free market.”

One South African municipality that has begun to privatize its water operations is Johannesburg, the nation’s largest city, which has a utility district that includes dozens of impoverished, all-black suburbs like Soweto and Alexandra. In 2001, the city entered into a partnership with Suez and some of its subsidiaries — despite the fact that Suez tendered the lowest bid. Suez’s history of raising prices did not bode well for poor residents, especially since the new utility, Johannesburg Water Management Company, had inherited an apartheid-era white elephant known as the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. This $8 billion scheme to build six new dams in the water-rich country of Lesotho — which is completely surrounded by South Africa — has already caused the cost of water in Johannesburg to nearly triple since the anc came to power, and many of Alexandra’s residents complain that they can no longer afford to pay their bills. Conceived by the apartheid government, the project was supported by the World Bank and other international lenders, who sidestepped international sanctions to finance the deal in 1986. The ANC denounced the arrangement at the time, saying that it strengthened apartheid. But after the ANC took office in 1994, party leaders decided to plow ahead. The first of the six dams, the tallest on the continent, was completed in 1998. Developers expect to build the remaining five over the next 18 years.

The project is partially financed by international loans that will be repaid by passing the cost on to consumers. A disproportionate share will be paid for by residents of Alexandra. All-white suburbs, home to less than one-tenth of South Africa’s population, account for more than half the country’s residential water use. But since these communities can take advantage of discounted bulk rates, a household in Johannesburg’s white suburbs can fill its swimming pool and water its garden at less than half the cost per liter paid by a family in Alexandra.

Unions, environmentalists, and community groups have appealed to the government to cancel the Lesotho dam project and repair the apartheid-era infrastructure instead. “We don’t need the water from the dams,” says Sam Moiloa, a conservation activist who lives in Alexandra with his wife and two children. “We lose half of our available water through leaks. We should just fix the leaks and our government can use that money they’re spending on dams for the rich to improve our standard of living.” Advocates also propose charging higher rates to bigger users, allowing well-off households and businesses to subsidize the poor.

Government officials, however, say that making utilities profitable is critical to South Africa’s competitiveness at a time when foreign investment is badly needed. “There’s a lot of polemics around this issue,” says Mike Muller, director general of South Africa’s Department of Water and Forestry. “But the truth is that operating costs have to be recaptured, or there is no way to sustain basic services.”

Many government officials and business executives also argue that a national habit dating back to the apartheid era — when entire communities boycotted white rule by refusing to pay rent and utilities — is responsible for many of the cutoffs. “You will find in South Africa there exists a culture of nonpayment,” says Jacob Maroga, managing director of distribution for eskom, the electric utility that the state is preparing to sell. “There are people who have very legitimate reasons for not paying their bills, but there are many more who grew accustomed through our liberation movement to simply not paying a bill. That’s not the kind of attitude that’s constructive to building a modern, productive economy.”

Studies by research organizations such as Wits University’s Municipal Services Project, however, suggest that for many families, utility bills have become a major financial burden. Households earning less than 1,000 rand, or $100, a month — about 1 in 2 nationally — pay nearly a quarter of their income for utility bills, notes HSRC’s Hemson. “This notion of a culture of nonpayment is clearly fantasy,” he says.

Historically, Zulus and other African tribes have had little use for dates. Instead, they mark time by great events; so, if you ask a man in what year he was born, he may respond “in the year of the great flood” or in the “time of the great famine.” If you ask Josephine Mhiyne about her youngest grandchild, Nomsa, she will tell you that the two-year-old was born in the “time of the great cholera” — in 2000, the year the epidemic began.

“We all had it,” she says, sitting on a rug in front of her mud hut while her granddaughter mauls a stalk of sugarcane. “We just thank God that no one died. I got it right after she was born. My stomach was running so bad. It was because we were drinking from the river. I live in fear of the river, but I still return to it for water every day. I have no other option.”

Until the recent outbreak, the Empangeni region had not seen a major cholera epidemic since a bad drought in 1982, when some 12,000 cases — less than 10 percent of the number reported in the current epidemic — occurred. In response to that outbreak, town officials built nine communal taps providing clean water to Ngwelezana and the Madlebe villages. It was not uncommon for residents to make several trips a day to fetch water, sometimes walking a mile each way.

In the months before the December 2000 nationwide municipal elections, with unemployment rates soaring and the patience of poor South Africans wearing thin, President Thabo Mbeki and other anc politicians took to the campaign trail and promised more water and electricity hookups for the poor. Within eight months of the vote, municipal workers in Empangeni completed the extension of the water pipes to about 7,000 homes in the outlying villages. There was just one catch: To use the newly installed taps, residents would have to insert a prepaid card into a meter. If someone fell behind in paying their water bill, municipal authorities would cancel the card, leaving residents unable to access their tap.

“We have come to hate those meters,” says 59-year-old Busisiwe Nkwanyana as she and her two daughters fetch water to cook their supper from a muddy pit. “At first we would go to neighbors who still had water and ask to use theirs, but soon no one here could afford the water. No one could use their taps. It was like we had traveled back in time.” Nkwanyana came down with cholera late in 2000 after her tap was shut off. Both her daughters soon fell ill, as did two of their grandchildren, a niece, and neighbors on each side of her mud hut.

Part of the problem, says David Sanders, a professor of public health at the University of the Western Cape, is that while the government has expanded delivery of clean water, it has not made much of a dent in providing sewage systems. “The problem is very simple,” he says. “People didn’t have sanitation and so they shit in the river. People didn’t have money to pay for their water and so they went to the river for water.”

The government has scored one major success in the epidemic: It has kept cholera from killing most of its victims, a remarkable feat especially given South Africa’s high HIV infection rate. Only a quarter of one percent of those who contracted the cholera virus since August of 2000 died, notes HSRC’s Hemson, one of the lowest fatality rates on record in a major cholera epidemic. But, he adds, “even that came at great expense to the government, and it could have been offset with some adjustments in their policy of cost recovery. The cutoffs cost them more money in the end in dealing with the disease that resulted
from it.”

In recent months, South Africa’s cholera infection rate has finally slowed — in part, experts say, because people have gotten more cautious about the water they use. Still, Metolina Mthembu continues to make her daily trek to the river, navigating the hilly footpaths with an ease that seems impossible for a woman of her age and slight physique. “Sometimes the river gets totally dry,” she says, “and you have to walk for two or three kilometers to find water. Or you go without for days at a time.” Mthembu cannot imagine any hell worse than apartheid; she makes sure to preface any criticism of the government with that caveat. “But we still live with misery,” she says as she climbs the hill separating her home from the copper-colored stream on which she once again depends. “If we could only get water, then we would be really free.”


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