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Water is Life; Sanitation is Dignity: Launch of the Water and Sanitation Provincial Hearings

Statement by Pregs Govender, Deputy Chair of the South African Human Rights Commission

28 August 2012

The tragic killing of over 30 Lonmin workers at Marikana has re-focused the spotlight on the living and working conditions of those who died and bring an added urgency to the South African Human Rights Commission’s provincial hearings on ‘Water is life; Sanitation is dignity’. These hearings also honour the memory of Commissioner Sandi Baai, who passed away on the 15 August, who strongly believed that those in positions of power must listen closely to people who are poor, especially when they make and implement policy.

On Wednesday, the 28August, the Commission officially launches its provincial Water and Sanitation hearings in Mpumalanga. The launch hearing will take place at the Oakley Community Hall, Bushbuckridge. According to the Presidency’s Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) report to the Commission, 84% of households in the informal sector in Mpumalanga lack sanitation facilities. The Commission for Gender Equality, as one of the Commission’s partners on these hearings, will present their report on gender equality and the right to water.

Water and sanitation have been significant factors in service delivery protests that have taken place in this community and many others across the country. Many who have participated in such protests allege that the police often do not respect their right to peaceful protest. The ‘shoot to kill’ statements of Government leaders has often been used to justify criminalising people who are poor. The Commission has received several complaints alleging police brutality, including in relation to the Lonmin killings.

This hearing will be the first of nine provincial hearings. These are scheduled from August to November 2012, and will culminate in a National Hearing in March next year, where the Commission’s findings will be presented to Parliament and the people of South Africa. These hearings are located within the Commission’s poverty and inequality strategy. Poverty and inequality have prevented people who are poor from exercising or enjoying their Constitutional rights. The unenclosed toilets saga, that prompted these hearings, graphically illustrates the problem of decision-makers who do not respect, listen to or value communities who are poor. In the run up to the 2010 local government elections, the Commission received two complaints on municipalities that had built toilets without enclosures in local communities in the Western Cape and Free State. In line with our mandate, the Commission investigated these complaints and ruled that both the DA-led and the ANC-led municipalities had violated the right to dignity, privacy and a clean and healthy environment.

In both findings, the Commission addressed the responsibility of the local municipalities to immediately enclose these toilets. The Commission’s findings also recognised that this was part of a bigger problem facing millions of people who are poor – a lack of access to sanitation and a lack of a right-based approach to service delivery. The Commission thus made a strategic decision to link these two local-level complaints to the generic right to sanitation across South Africa by calling for national responsibility and accountability.

In its first ruling, the Commission asked the Department of Human Settlements to report on progress on eradicating the bucket system across the country. In the second ruling, the Commission asked the DPME to provide a comprehensive report on the right to sanitation in every municipality across the country and Government’s plans to address the backlogs.

The DPME convened a task team consisting of several departments, including Human Settlements.  On 14 March this year, the DPME submitted Government’s report to the Commission’s National Hearing on “Water, Sanitation and the Progressive Realisation of Rights”. The DPME reported to the Commission that 16 million people do not enjoy the right to sanitation and an estimated R50 billion is needed to address the backlog and upgrade infrastructure. The Commission asserts that in addressing the problems identified in the DPME report on sanitation, there should be no trade-off with other socio-economic rights in national, provincial or local budgets, as all rights are equal and dependent on each other. This week the Department of Human Settlements will also release the Ministerial Sanitation Task Team report on the state of the country’s sanitation facilities. We trust that the Ministerial Task Team’s report will specify how and when government intends to eradicate the bucket system.

The Commission also maintains that it is crucial that government regulates those businesses it contracts to deliver and maintain services. The nexus between government and business is the point at which corruption often occurs. It is also the place where the rich and powerful influence policy that advances their interests. Most water in our country and globally is used by industry including mining corporations and agri-business. However, they pay less than households do and often do not pay for pollution of natural water resources (eg through acid mine drainage). Municipalities and businesses sign Service Delivery Agreements/contracts. The Municipal Finance Act says these should be on each municipality’s website yet not one municipality currently has these contracts on their websites.
Shortly before Lonmin exploded, Bench Marks Foundation launched its report at the Commission offices warning of the impact of platinum mining on local communities. They showed that despite the great value extracted from platinum mining by mine owners, local communities bear the brunt of harmful social, economic and environmental consequences. Yet mining companies, including Lonmin, have yet to assume their responsibility for the negative consequences of their mining activities. Bench Marks asked the Commission to ‘investigate the impacts of mining on the right to clean water of communities located around the mines and through such an investigation, demonstrate clearly that clean and safe drinking water is a human rights issue.’

The Constitution mandates the Commission with clear powers to investigate human rights violations, report on the observance of human rights and to take appropriate steps to secure redress. This includes calling any person to appear before the Commission and to produce documents in his or her possession or under his or control which may be connected to a particular investigation. The Commission has thus invited national, provincial and local Government to the hearing to listen and respond to poor communities and their organizations. We hope that they will use the opportunity to strengthen co-ordination amongst different departments and spheres of Government.  Poverty is still the greatest human rights violation for many South Africans – we hope that the Commission’s hearings on water and sanitation will help address this violation.

Isaac Mangena
Head: Communications
South African Human Rights Commission

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