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Munnik, Victor & Phalane, Mashile ( 2004) The SA Water Caucus, global justice and rural issues. Lessons from and for civil society. CCS Grant Report : 1-42.

It was not the first meeting between Water Minister Ronnie Kasrils and the Water Caucus, but it was the biggest so far. There were eleven DWAF officials of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry in the room, instructed by the minister to be there to answer questions, around 16 delegates from the Water Caucus, and of course the minister. We had a full agenda.

The agenda itself had been the subject of negotiations over a few weeks. A large part was taken up with specific cases, for example flawed Environmental Impact Assessments, water cut-offs, and the National Water Resource Strategy plans for building dams. Another item was a promise of support to the minister if he would keep water out of the WTO negotiations in Cancun. But maybe the most revealing was the issue of the tone of the minister’s response to newspaper articles about water cut-offs, in which he called certain members of the caucus “self-proclaimed revolutionaries”.

The minister held out his hands in an appealing gesture, and said: “Look, I was traveling overseas, and somebody brought me this article1 saying that the South African water sector was in crisis. That there had been 10 million cut-offs. It was rubbish. I got angry. I said things. I wrote things.”

The room was quiet. In the ranks of the Water Caucus there have always been some harsh critics of the minister and the department. Some community activists, from the Anti- Privatisation Forum, were at that very time involved in direct action against water meters being installed, with no consultation, by a water multinational. A number of us had disrupted his speech on privatization at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, and he had called us thugs.

But now the tone from both sides was conciliatory. We agreed that we could all do better, and be more respectful when we differ. This snapshot from the meeting illustrates one of the founding ironies of the civil society-government relationship:

“Government is both the guarantor of civil society space, and the target of its criticisms. It takes a mature government to be comfortable with this relationship. Precisely because of this, a government’s relationship is seen as a gauge of political maturity… Civil society needs government. It appeals to and pressurizes government to make space for it. The aim of its policy is to get the state to change or implement specific policies. This is why civil society often defends the space of (national) government by arguing for a developmental state that is more responsive to social issues than to the interests of business groupings.” 2

The Water Caucus focuses a great deal of its work lobbying government on international, national and local issues – and the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry prides itself on the space it allows civil society. It also illustrates that the SA Water Caucus has established itself as a presence in the South African water sector. In this study, we take a closer look at the 18
month history of the caucus, and the factors that made it.

The water caucus grew in quite special circumstances. It benefited from a concerted effort to engage civil society as part of a “people’s parliament” approach to governance in the new South Africa3. Two big international processes (the World Commission on Dams and the World Summit and Sustainable Development) that both happened inside South Africa gave it extra opportunity (exposure and resources) to engage with international debates after decades of isolation. And of course, the water caucus was built on more than a decade of civil society organizing and networking in the water, environmental and rural development sectors.

By analyzing this history, we can identify how a specific civil society formation has developed its form of organization and discourses (arguments and positions) and which methods of intervention it has chosen.

Of particular interest is the mix of issues – and the diversity in solidarity that has grown from interaction between the carriers of those issues – and the different levels on which the caucus operates. The caucus has been equally concerned with global justice issues and international events, policy and implementation in the South African water sector, and events as they unfold on the ground. The caucus has immersed itself in the global justice debates in the water sector (water as a human right and intense opposition to the commodification of water through privatization, for example), in the dynamics of the water sector nationally (dam building plans in the national water resource strategy) and in local battles (for example around free basic water and cut-offs) although it is at local level that most caucus members see the biggest challenges looming. It is a central argument in this paper that involvement of the caucus on all three levels has strengthened it.

Global justice is made up of local justice issues4 – and it is in the rural areas that these issues are most removed from urban centers (which are often local and national at the same time) and often least understood from a city perspective5. This study has therefore chosen the perspectives of rural members of the water caucus as a point from which to judge the
effectiveness of the caucus so far.

Two other issues will also receive attention. The ne is a conception of “policy advocacy” as oncerned with a complete, reiterative and verlapping policy cycle that is much broader han that of the public opinion and white aper/legislation parts of the policy cycle. It ncludes institutions (capacity, transformation, udgets), programmes and projects, as well as onitoring of policy effects on the ground.6 It will e argued that such an approach is much more useful for civil society interventions.

Then there is an introductory exploration of the water caucus as “a discursive formation”7. It has been argued that the discursive aspects of power – setting of the agenda and the terms of discussion in the public arena and particularly in national decision making – has been neglected in discussions of the transformation of South Africa8. This study intends to make some contribution to this important debate.

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