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Bond, Patrick (2014) The political economy of water management:
Neoliberalism and social resistance in South Africa. Presented to the Seminar on Water Governance, Allocation and Regulation School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London : 1-20.

1. Introduction

Awareness of the deep politicisation of water management is now a critical component in any analysis either of bulk resources or of consumption of water and sanitation services at household scale, the supply and demand sites that typically divide the field (Strang 2004). From urban political economy (Swyngedouw 1996) to more Foucauldian readings (Ruiters 2007), the hydropolitical process has come under increasingly sophisticated scrutiny. In South Africa, where neoliberalism has been actively promoted in nearly all policy spheres, including water, there is a renewed interest by critical scholars in Gramsci. Recent research has unearthed techniques underlying the bourgeois-nationalist ‘Passive Revolution’ undertaken by the African National Congress (ANC) since 1994. Carolyn Basset (2008) considers the country “a successful Passive Revolution on the part of capital, strengthening the future prospects of the biggest firms, the mining conglomerates and financial services companies, by incorporating elements of the black middle class under a majority government but shutting out the working class and the poor.” Water is part of this equation, in ways that unveil new aspects of class and geographical segregation, as a study of Durban will illustrate.

In such an arrangement, Richard Seymour (2013) argues, “bourgeois domination is secured through molecular transformations in the composition of social and productive forces which become the matrix of new changes,” including what we can understand as the imposition of neoliberalism as a condition for the transition from apartheid to formal democracy (Bond 2014). Because of the Passive Revolution’s “cynical, bureaucratic power bloc manoeuvering” (Seymour 2013) and patronage politics, the apparent success of the post-apartheid project is reflected in the ANC’s repeated re-elections with at least a 60 percent majority. This is surprising in a context of extremely high levels of popular rebellion and repeated economic crisis events (e.g. at least eight currency crashes in 20 years) caused, in no small part, by what Gill Hart (2013) terms ‘de-nationalisation’ of capital (i.e., financial flight by white-owned corporations). But Hart also sees a dialectic through the ANC’s ‘re-nationalisation’ associated especially with the need to fuse neoliberal public policies with populist politics during the reign of Jacob Zuma since 2009 (hence Fanon complements Gramsci in the post-colonial African context). Crucially, Hart (2013) insists, if the Passive Revolution “involves the overthrow of some older social forms and the institution of new ones, combined with a deliberate and structural pacification of subaltern classes – it combines, in other words, both a ‘progressive’ or ‘modernising’ revolution of sorts, and its passive deformation.”

Even though the Passive Revolution is typically a national-scale project, for Hart (2013), “Broadly speaking, local government has become the impossible terrain of official efforts to manage poverty and deprivation in a racially inflected capitalist society marked by massive inequalities and increasingly precarious livelihoods for the large majority of the population.” Taking municipal-scale hydro-politics as her case study, Fiona Nash (2012, 17) argues that Durban officials’ objectives included “the selective incorporation of civil society demands through a participatory process” and “potential spaces for imagining alternatives outside of the neoliberal paradigm have been narrowed.” The question this article poses, is whether at municipal scale, the celebrated Durban water model does indeed reflect a sustainable local instance of the Passive Revolution, or whether its internal contradictions – especially in relation to water and sanitation – could prove overwhelming.

To examine this case properly requires taking up the perspective of urban political ecology introduced by Erik Swyngedouw (1996, 65), in which a city’s water flows can be used to “narrate stories of people and powerful socio-ecological processes that produce urban spaces of privilege and exclusion.” For various reasons, Durban is probably the optimal site of hydro-political enquiry in South Africa, for here, extremely unequal socio-ecological and political-economic processes mean the Passive Revolution – especially a core neoliberal policy based on cost-recovery (Section 2) – often attracts an Active Counter-revolution. This we see through the following: untenable peri-urban and urban water pollution with severe externalities (Section 3); a turn to neoliberal water pricing (and mass disconnections) alongside a Free Basic Water tariff which led to dramatic declines in poor people’s consumption (Section 4); and a celebrated water-less sanitation policy rife with problems (Section 5). The contradictions thus generated could ultimately threaten the Passive Revolution, as the technicist strategies become more politicised.

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