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Blacks oppose water privatization, from Detroit to South Africa
Issues of reparations and globalization meet at the water tap

by J. Damu

Two years ago, 300 people died from the worst outbreak of cholera in modern South African history. Bowing to pressure from behemoth international corporations that want to provide water to the world for profit, time-locks had been placed on public water pumps and the citizens of Ngwelezane, a rural township, were forced to use the polluted water of a nearby lake from which they contracted the cholera. Two hundred thousand more people were impacted by the crisis.

This past year in Detroit, Mich., a city that is 83 percent Black, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department shut off water service to 40,000 households in the middle of the winter. Unable to meet their basic water needs, the elderly and poor were also denied steam heat.

In both cases, divisions of French and English water conglomerates were involved, such as the Thames, Suez and Vivendi corporations, all vying to deliver water for profit to the world’s people.

The movement to privatize water is worldwide in scope and involves some of the world’s largest corporations. San Francisco’s Bechtel Corp., for instance, now involved in rebuilding Iraq’s water system, recently backed out of a water privatization scheme in Bolivia. The pullout came after seven people were killed by Bolivian police while protesting Bechtel’s 35 percent hike in water prices.

It is on the African continent, and within the communities of the African Diaspora, however, where the privatization of water is most clearly linked to globalization and reparations. In the U.S., Atlanta, Ga., with its considerable Black population, was the first city targeted for water privatization. Atlanta cancelled its contract with Suez, though, after hearing numerous complaints about massive numbers of people unable to receive water due to equipment breakdowns. Critics of Suez said the corporation would not reinvest profits in the repair of the system.

After the Atlanta failure, which was supposed to have been a model for the privatization of water in the U.S., the global water corporations shifted their focus to Detroit.

“Immediate action must be taken to insure the health and well being of Detroit residents, who are being deprived of their basic services,” Congressman John Conyers, D-Mich., said as he addressed a huge rally protesting the shut-offs in front of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department offices this past February. “No citizen should have to endure what people are facing day after day during the coldest winter months. It is critical to impose a moratorium on cut-offs.”

Conyers annually introduces into Congress H.R. 40, the African-American Reparations Proposals Study Bill.

In South Africa, ironically the water problem intensified with the end of apartheid and the new government’s attempts to make water accessible to more people. The new constitution says that access to water and food is a human right, and the government took steps to make those rights real. To a degree, they have succeeded. In fact, in eight short years, the ANC has cut in half the number of people with no water. In order to do that, however, they have begun charging everyone for the use of water.

“Privatization is a new kind of apartheid,” said Richard Makolos of South Africa’s Crisis Water Committee just outside Johannesburg. “Apartheid separated whites and Blacks. Privatization separates the rich from the poor.”

In South Africa, critics of the water privatization plan say the main problem has been the delivery systems, where stand-up water pipes have been fitted with a device where a card is inserted, much like a pre-paid phone card. When the card runs out of money, the water shuts off.

“The municipalities and the private sector loved this system,” said David McDonald of the Municipal Services Project in an interview with the BBC. “They didn’t have the headache of collecting past due bills, and it diverted attention from their cutting off peoples’ water service.” He said that once the municipalities do the dirty work of cutting people off from water, they will just hand over the water delivery systems to private corporations.

Defenders of the new system say that a culture had developed that said people don’t have to pay their water bills. In the new reality, they say, privatization or “cost recovery” is the name of the game; everybody has to pay.

McDonald counters that it is not so much that people have developed a “no pay” culture but that they simply can’t afford to pay. Studies show that once the price of water goes beyond 5 percent of people’s income, they stop paying. In South Africa, water often consumes as much as 20 percent of people’s earnings.

Meanwhile, 8,500 miles away in Detroit, the same water drama is unfolding. Faced with an economic crisis that has lasted for decades, the city government is flirting with the idea of selling the water system to a private corporation. The supporters of this idea say the income from selling the water system will make it possible to provide other social services.

The city took a step in this direction, Maureen Taylor said, when it hired Victor Mercado from Thames Water North America to run the Detroit water department. It was under Mercado’s direction that 40,000 people had their water shut off last year.

Taylor, of Detroit’s Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, led the protest rally against the shutoffs at which Conyers spoke. She said, “Well, they think they (Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration) got Mercado here on a one-way ticket, but we’re trying to get him a two-way ticket and run that sucker out of here.”

She went on to say that access to water is only dimly perceived as a human right. “It is a health hazard to cut peoples’ water off,” she said.

Just as in South Africa, Detroit officials say people have to get used to paying their water bills. “People need to understand that the days water bills could go unpaid for great amounts of time are over,” water department official George Ellwood said.

When fighting for new priorities in social policy, do environmentalists and social activists see the connection between the fight against privatization and globalization and for reparations? Not necessarily.

Former Jamaican ambassador to Nigeria, Dudley Thompson, says the connections between globalization and reparations are not readily apparent to most people. In a recent speech, he said the World Trade Organization (WTO) has become the primary instrument of the Western capitalist powers to control the world’s economy.

He said the WTO has become the world’s most powerful governing body, imposing economic policies to which even the most powerful nations have to succumb. He said that the Atlantic Slave Trade, being the world’s first global enterprise, linking Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, gave rise to what has ultimately become the WTO and globalization.

“Although the results (of this process) are beginning to be felt … the great danger is that it has encroached on the weak with such subtlety the man on the street is not fully aware of this trend,” he said.

Another cautionary note was added by Wautella Graham, the media spokesperson for N’COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. “The issue of linking reparations to globalization can be overwhelming for lots of people. We have a hard enough time just getting our people to focus on reparations,” he said.

In South Africa, people are beginning to clearly see the connection. Two organizations in particular have begun to link the two issues. Jubilee South Africa, which for years has been calling for an end to the South African debt to Western corporations and banks, and the Khulumani Support Group, composed of victims of apartheid, recently filed suit in U.S. courts for reparations from countries and corporations that profited from apartheid.

“The corporations aided and abetted a crime whose persistent social damage requires urgent repair,” Jubilee South Africa said in a prepared statement. “They made massive profits while the suffering of the victims intensified.”

Thandi Shezi, one of the Khulumani Group’s claimants, said, “We (are laying) claim to our right to redress from the banks and businesses that enabled gross violations of our human rights.”

Adjoa Ayetorro, an attorney for N’COBRA and co-chairperson, along with the Harvard Reparations Group’s Charles Ogletree of the Reparations Coordinating Council, sounded a similar note at the recently concluded N’COBRA national convention in Dallas.

“People need to see,” she said “that every issue Black people confront - whether it’s jobs, racial profiling, health care, education, whatever - all those issues can be addressed together, underneath the great umbrella of reparations.” And privatization of water, too, she might have added.

J. Damu chairs the California Coalition for H.R. 40 and he is the acting Western Regional Coordinator of N’COBRA. He can be contacted at jdamu@sbcgloabal.net or (415) 931-3530.