||An eyewitness account by Fiona Lumsden and Alex Loftus
The crumpled note was furtively passed through several hands across the councillor’s office: “Have told them to lock the gate”. The Metro representative looked edgey in the corner, as his cell phone confirmed that he and his security team were locked in the grounds of the Amaoti community hall – along with hundreds of toi-toying women.
The confrontation was a culmination of cruel dealings by the Metro. Over the last two and a half years, people in the Libya and Palestine areas of Amaoti (a peri-urban area in Inanda on the outskirts of Durban) have been paying what must amount to the highest rates for water of any area in the eThekwini Municipality – 50 cents for a meagre 25 litres. The luxury of this “service” has only been granted to the thousand or so residents on week days, meaning that the weekend brings a two day cyclical drought. Needless to say, this is probably one of the poorest, worst serviced areas of the municipality, located about an hour’s walk uphill from Amaoti’s main road, itself a peri-urban cul-de-sac. In the 1980s the lack of a reliable water supply to the area had resulted in serious outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, prompting the Urban Foundation’s first interventions to Inanda. Today (11th February 2003), as if nothing had changed, local men and women could be seen pushing wheelbarrows, stacked high with water barrels, up this steep hill under the heat of a Durban summer. They had been forced to carry out this hour long climb twice daily for the last two weeks.
At the moment, Libya and Palestine are not connected to the main bulk supply of water servicing the rest of Durban. This was supposedly the reasoning behind the decision to outsource water delivery to a private local transporter. He then brings water to locked standpipes, to be unlocked upon payment by a local bailiff. Each middleman receives a cut and the whole process is given a stamp of legitimacy by the Durban Metro. When the relationship between the driver of the tanker and the Metro broke down earlier this year, it resulted in a total cessation of water delivery to the area. Emergency supplies came on two days but, apart from that, residents were left to lug the water up the steep hill after having begged for water from shacks closer to the main road.
The severance of even the hated bailiff system had brought people to the very end of their patience with the Metro and, when a crowd of Amaoti’s women descended on the councillor’s office at the foot of the hill, they were in no mood to compromise with offers of a return to the old situation. Demands were hurriedly put together on the councillor’s computer calling for “Free Water Now”, as community members packed the tiny office. Within an hour, 200 signatures had been put together calling for the Metro to deliver on its promises of free water from standpipes, as well as bringing in more standpipes and serving the demands of the people of Amaoti for once.
This impatient atmosphere greeted the arrival of Vusi Shabangu, a go-between for the Municipality and the local councillors. The story he related was one which must be brought to so many other residents of informal settlements across the country: “Yes, there might be a policy of 6kl of free water to all households, but that doesn’t mean that you, in an informal settlement, will get this”. The twisted meanings, contradictions and hypocrisy in the government’s “free” basic water policy always hit the poorest of South Africa the hardest - whether people are suffering from impossible arrears, living in rural areas or in one of the thousands of informal settlements. But, this time, Amaoti was not ready for compromise. The gates to the compound were locked and more signatures (to supplement the previous 200) poured in. Inside the office, the most vociferous of the community fought hard with the Metro representative and tensions rose. Hurried phone calls restored water to the tanks, but still people were not prepared to pay for this. Shabangu looked confused and troubled by such dissent. How could his kind offer - of rip-off charges for a poor service - be rejected. The locked gate, angry women and fierce civic leaders were beginning to cause deepening concern to both him and his security posse. It was clear that the only way to resolve this, and be released from Amaoti community hall, would be to back down to the angry demands. After concerned phonecalls to superiors, he finally agreed. The jubilant women of Libya and Palestine stormed the eThekwini Water Services bakkie to be taken back to their community. The hated key to the locked standpipes would be given to them and water will, in future, flow freely in Amaoti.
In many ways the victory might seem somewhat hollow. All that people have gained materially in Amaoti is free access to a standpipe - something everyone else in Durban’s townships have had for the last year. This is still a long walk from most people’s houses, and is still a slap in the face to those who struggled desperately hard in the UDF and the Inanda comrades movement to bring the ANC to power. The real victory, however, was the dignity people gained through the day’s battle with the Metro. Without having organised and being vociferous in their demands, water may never have been turned back on in their community. Without the extra edge of the mass mobilisation having taken the Metro hostage in the Amaoti compound, the few monetary resources of Libya and Palestine might still be being directed through the Metro to a shady private contractor. The women of Amaoti gained a serious victory today and one can only hope, as it’s discussed in the paraffin lit, mud houses of Libya and Palestine that this victory builds into further demands and further mobilisations for far deeper change.
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