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Debate on lifeblood of the nation

09 August 2015

By Deputy Chairperson Pregs Govender, SAHRC Commissioner responsible for Basic Services & Health Care

Dignity is the inherent worth and value of every human being. Humanity’s birthright was silenced by apartheid’s capitalist and patriarchal paradigm, which devalued, fragmented and destroyed human beings.

The earth, air and water that sustain life became commodities to exploit for profit.

South Africa’s democratic Constitution reinstated dignity as its first founding value and as a substantive right.

The Constitution’s revolutionary commitment to dignity, equality and social justice can potentially transform old fault lines of political, economic and social power.

For centuries, those who colonised the wealth of the world were seen as valued citizens.

Their trade and profit, even though through weapons of war or pollution of the world’s water, is counted as an economic contribution.

Those who were poor were depicted as scroungers and scavengers, lazy wastrels, who contributed nothing to society.

Contributions to social reproduction, through subsistence farming or caring for children, the elderly, those with disabilities or who are ill, or are not recognised as economic contributions.

In South Africa this paradigm’s dominance is reflected in an enduring apartheid spatial geography.

Disaggregated statistics reveal that those who lack most rights, including water and sanitation are those who were historically deprived of their rights.

They remain black and impoverished.

Unequal power relegates women to “bearers of water”, who cook, clean and care. Their jobs in the formal economy are the first to be cut.

They have little protection in the “informal economy” while the lack of water and sanitation increases vulnerability to violence.

A global economy driven by greed for massive profit searches for low wages, poor working conditions and subsidised water. The result is one of the most unequal societies, characterised by wealth ownership by wealthy whites (who are today even wealthier) and a small black elite.

Who government values and who it doesn’t is reflected in decisions by the DA and ANC municipalities to build unenclosed toilets, in the rape of children and women forced to use open fields as toilets, in the pit in which six-year-old Michael Komape died, being described as a “VIP” (ventilated pit latrine).

These priority choices are reflected in budgets, trade agreements and contracts with companies who are unregulated “service providers”.

The four people killed by police, while protesting the lack of water in Madibeng (“place of water”) municipality demands interrogation of those priorities.

Mining companies, agribusiness and tourist industries pay less per kilolitre than households in South Africa.

Yet they use, waste and pollute most water, with little consequence.

Madibeng’s four dams include Hartbeespoort in the platinum-rich North West. The poorest live in what was a former apartheid homeland, Bophuthatswana.

Apartheid’s rulers nurtured compliant and easily corruptible “leaders”. Unsurprisingly, these areas remain the most corrupt. After 1994, government needed to develop the necessary infrastructure alongside a systematic capacity building programme to instil a culture of service to the poorest, across wealthy and poor municipalities. This has not happened. National Treasury this year embarks on developing financial capacity, only in big metros and municipalities, not in the poorest municipalities.

In 2010-2011, in addition to ruling and ensuring that the unenclosed toilets were enclosed to uphold dignity, the commission ruled that the presidency’s Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) compile a country-wide report on the right to sanitation and government’s plan to address the lack of rights.

The DPME provided its report in two phases in 2012 and 2013, on both water and sanitation.

The commission’s demand for a systemic response is affirmed by the DPME, “key water services sector weaknesses and challenges has been attributed to a lack of adequate funding and poor revenue collection leading to financial instability, a lack of technical, management and business skills, political interference and corruption, unclear municipal powers and functions”.

The commission launches our report, Water and Sanitation, Life and Dignity: Accountability to People who are Poor, shortly after the 2014 budget.

National Treasury needs to address the “lack of adequate funding”, strengthen financial capacity and specify that funds allocated to local government improve the lives of the poorest.

For years the commission dutifully tabled reports to Parliament, including socioeconomic rights and Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) reports that show non-compliance of over 80% by local government and significant non-compliance by crucial “service delivery” departments. Parliament needs to use its oversight mandate to hold to account ministers who received this report’s draft recommendations in 2013.

Government’s commitments to the commission include eradicating the bucket system in communities and ensuring all schools have access to water and sanitation this year.

Despite daily experience of poverty’s institutionalised violence, those who came to the commission’s hearings believe in our constitutional democracy. They laid complaints, made submissions and used the commission’s PAIA training to access information.

Their insights are captured in our report and cannot be filed on forgotten shelves. Non-action by Parliament and government on the reports of a constitutionally mandated institution is a waste of South Africa’s money.

Political will can ensure power is deployed effectively. After Michael Komape’s tragic death, the commission met with his family, community and school staff, before meeting education officials. It asked them to install decent toilets linked to proper infrastructure, which they did.

After the tragic killings in the North-West, the commission met with community representatives before meeting local government representatives, proposing immediate access to clean water linked to sustainable long term solutions.

The national water affairs minister secured army trucks to ensure access to water. The premier redirected water that was going to a mine – to poor communities. Yet both tragedies could have been prevented by a proactive plan and action that the commission requested from the Presidency in 2011.

Our report is dedicated to Michael Komape, to those who live with daily humiliation and those injured and killed for standing up for their rights.

The government has a constitutional obligation to cooperate across all spheres and departments to protect and advance human rights, which are universal, indivisible and interdependent.

It has to urgently evaluate all policies, including macro-economic choices that have deepened inequality, poverty and the accompanying human rights violations.

Pregs Govender, SAHRC deputy chairperson, lead water and sanitation commissioner

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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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