||Mbombela, today the capital city of South Africa’s Mpumalanga province with about 400 000 residents, was formerly known as Nelspruit, and during apartheid, fell under the Bantustan of KaNgwane. At one point, the former apartheid government ‘offered’ the KaNgwane Bantustan and its over 1 million Black inhabitants to Swaziland, hoping to reduce the number of Black citizens of South Africa and use the stretch of land as a buffer zone against ‘infiltration’ from Mozambique by freedom fighters.
KaNgwane was “overcrowded and poorly serviced … Land demand was high, water is in short supply, and the history of forced removals remains fresh in peoples’ memories and imaginaries. Historically, political struggles were connected to the ongoing decline in access to land, water, and biomass resources”.1
During apartheid and until 1994, residents paid either R12 per month for water services or a flat rate (which varies according to different reports) of R14 to R40 per month for all services, including electricity, rent and water. Many peri-urban townships of Mbombela lacked water and residents had to use nearby rivers. Some residents said also that they were supplied with water into their yards. By the time apartheid ended, water delivery to the residents of Mbombela’s townships – KaNyamazane, Matsulu A and C, and Tekwane – along with Mbombela’s six periurban areas - Daantjie, Zwelitsha, Msogwaba, Mpakeni, Luphisi and Matsulu (situated about 30 minutes drive from Mbombela town centre) – was abysmal, and in many cases, non-existent.
In 1996, the then Nelspruit Transitional Local Council decided to privatize the town’s water to a multinational company. This was to be the ANC government’s ‘flagship project’, setting the pace for privatization of water in municipalities across the country. In 1999, the contract was awarded to a consortium led by the British water multinational, Biwater. From 1997 until 2004, popular resistance against the privatization was carried out by local social movements, political parties and the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu). However, privatization went ahead and the contract is still in place. This paper is finalised at a time when, according to the union previously involved and activists from the Mbombela community, there is no longer a struggle going on against privatisation of water in Mbombela. The union has abandoned all its once held plans to have the council’s contract with Biwater scrapped. The Mbombela Anti- Privatisation Forum (MAPF) says it that a resolution was reached that the MAPF would become dormant because a payment boycott is firmly in place, and there are no longer any water cut-offs. Activists say that the MAPF will regroup when “council starts giving us problems again”.2