"When they introduced these pre-paid meters ... and then Johannesburg Water registered as a Pty Ltd, realising that now Pty Ltd is a company and managed by Suez Lyonnaise, a multinational corporate from France and then we realised that no, people are making profit out of basic services."
As one of the key campaign pillars of the APF since its formation, the struggle against the privatisation of water (and all its associated socio-economic and human impacts on poor communities) was taken up in communities early in the APF’s history.
When Joburg Water began its pre-paid water meter pilot project in Orange Farm in 2001-2002, the Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee (OFWCC), one of the APF’s early community affiliates, was formed in response. Slogans appearing on t-shirts produced by the OFWCC - ‘Water is Life’ and ‘Destroy Meter, Enjoy Free Water’ - became the standard-bearers of the APF water struggles for the next several years. Over the years, similarly affected communities across the country took up the OFWCC’s rallying ‘call’ which continues until today.
Following in the footsteps of the APF’s massively popular and successful ‘Operation Khanyisa’ (‘Operation Turn On’) related to reconnection of electricity as well as the introduction of pre-paid water meters by the City of Johannesburg, the APF and its affiliates – specifically in Soweto - initiated ‘Operation Vulamanzi’ (‘Operation Water Flow’). As part of the campaign, APF activists assisted thousands of township households – with particular focus on pensioners and HIV-positive residents - to by-pass their pre-paid water meters so that they could enjoy an uninterrupted flow of water. While this tactic was deemed ‘illegal’ by the authorities, the APF saw it as an act of reappropriation of a public good that had ‘illegally’ been commodified and thus made unaffordable for poor people.
After years of water cut-offs, Johannesburg Water began its ‘Operation Gcin’amanzi’ (‘Operation Conserve Water’) in Phiri (Soweto) in 2002 - which saw the forcible installation of pre-paid water meters against residents wishes. In response, the APF formed the Coalition against Water Privatisation (CAWP) to enjoin a broader battle against all forms of water privatisation. Under the banner of the APF and CAWP, Phiri residents engaged in an intense and sustained physical battle against the installation of pre-paid meters throughout 2003-2004.
The City of Johannesburg alongside the SA Police Services, hired private security and the Prosecutor’s Office deployed massive resources to crush this opposition and by 2004 had collectively succeeded in effectively stemming the resistance through a combination of brute force, large-scale arrests and detention as well as legal intimidation through high bail fees and drawn out cases on trumped up charges etc. As a result, Phiri residents opted to open a constitutional rights legal challenge against the pre-paid meters and for increased amounts of ‘free basic water’ with the City of Johannesburg and the Department of Water Affairs as the main respondents.
"The main aim of the Coalition against Water Privatisation was to ... take the issue of water as a universal issue outside the ideology of the APF and try and draw all the people who ... believed that water is a human right ... we talk about water; we talk about something that we cannot take out of the real politics because water has become this big commodity that relates to all the issues that people are affected by."
The case, which began to be put together with the assistance of the Freedom of Expression Institute and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies in 2004 became known as the Mazibuko case after the name of the first applicant (of five Phiri residents acting as applicants), Lindiwe Mazibuko. By 2006, the founding affidavit was ready (the first two documents) and the case was registered in the Johannesburg High Court. In 2008, the High Court ruled in favour of the applicants but this was immediately appealed by the City of Johannesburg to the Supreme Court of Appeals (SCA). The SCA ruling in early 2009 satisfied neither party and the case was then taken to the Constitutional Court which ruled against the applicants in late 2009 (fourth document). Although the case – which attracted huge national and global attention - was legally lost, the years-long battle framed by this case forced many changes in the City of Johannesburg’s and national water policies and placed the issue of water privatisation in general and pre-paid meters in particular on the national and international agenda.
As part of the APF and the Coalition against Water Privatisation’s years-long struggle for adequate and affordable water and sanitation in poor communities, the specific issue of water, proper sanitation and the dignity/rights of women also became a key focal point, the message being that the lack of adequate sanitation was a violation of women’s personal dignity and collective human rights.