Ex­treme mea­sures for des­per­ate times

Sunday Times - - Opinion -

In most demo­cratic so­ci­eties, call­ing in the army to help solve prob­lems that are in the purview of civil so­ci­ety is the ul­ti­mate surrender, an ad­mis­sion that nor­mal sys­tems and prac­tices have bro­ken down. So fi­nance min­is­ter Tito Mboweni’s an­nounce­ment re­cently that the army will help clean up the Vaal River sys­tem is an ad­mis­sion of de­feat by the care­fully struc­tured lay­ers of author­ity de­signed to en­sure we get clean wa­ter in our taps, and that those with­out run­ning wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion are also pro­vided for. Yet South Africans, wary as they may be of mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in a civil-so­ci­ety mat­ter, may well be re­joic­ing that at last some­one in the higher ech­e­lons of govern­ment has re­alised that what­ever sys­tems we have now to safe­guard our wa­ter sup­plies are ei­ther in dis­re­pair or buck­ling un­der the triple bur­den of ne­glect, un­der­in­vest­ment and non­pay­ment for ser­vices.

When the 1994 con­sti­tu­tion was ne­go­ti­ated, it was deemed po­lit­i­cally use­ful to give lo­cal govern­ment sweep­ing pow­ers over wa­ter sup­ply. This may have pla­cated those ar­gu­ing for greater de­vo­lu­tion of pow­ers to lo­cal govern­ment, but mak­ing wa­ter an “own af­fairs” func­tion — to use the old ter­mi­nol­ogy — has back­fired with tragic con­se­quences.

To­day, we re­port on the state of wa­ter af­fairs in the West Rand town of Rand­fontein, where the sewage plant has been bro­ken for all of eight years in spite of sev­eral con­tracts hav­ing been awarded to make re­pairs, and the mu­nic­i­pal­ity — sur­prise, sur­prise — has no money for chem­i­cals and chlorine. There are many Rand­fonteins in SA.

It is quite usual for our lead­ers to slug back bot­tles of mineral wa­ter as they hold me­dia con­fer­ences or gather for meet­ings which, while un­der­stand­able from a con­ve­nience point of view, gives the im­pres­sion that for the rich and the pow­er­ful, clean wa­ter is a given.

Per­haps we need to take a new look at our wa­ter af­fairs, and if this means depriv­ing lo­cal satraps of wa­ter func­tions, so be it. The way things are now, only the most ar­dent con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist would ar­gue that the army has no place clean­ing up our rivers.

It’s a dra­matic step, but alas, it has come to that. Salute! Here’s to clean wa­ter.

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