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Updated Mar 3, 2020

Twenty-one million South Africans currently live without clean water, almost a third of the country’s population. Their predicament is the result of horrendous mismanagement by the Department of Water and Sanitation, which has largely been blamed on the former minister in the department, Nomvula Mokonyane, who was appointed to the position by former president Jacob Zuma in 2014. Although Mokonyane bears responsibility for the dismal state of South Africa’s water infrastructure management, new research published in the journal Transformation argues the sordid state of the department is the product of more than two decades of "state capture" and corruption, beginning in the years just before apartheid was formally abolished.

The report, “Dam State Capture: Its Cascading Effect On the Department of Water and Sanitation”, notes three phases of the department’s decline. In the 1990s, municipal budgets to manage local water infrastructure was outright stolen or underfunded, on top of a shortage of skilled workers. According to the South African Institute for Civil Engineers, only seventy-six of the country’s 278 municipalities have an engineer on staff. Compounding these issues further was the lack of any water infrastructure for one-third of the country due to deliberate neglect by prior apartheid governments. 

By the time Jacob Zuma was elected president in 2009, the department was sorely lacking staff with the necessary expertise and oversight functions. State capture under Zuma’s administration fleeced millions from large projects, appointed staff based on political connections and favoritism over merit, and pushed out anyone who raised objections. The South African parliament has been stonewalled in attempts to ascertain the state of the department’s internal rot. Reports measuring the conditions of water and sewage treatment plants were cancelled, meaning no new data is available as to the quality of drinking water or how much sewage is being dumped into rivers and tributaries.


Why It Matters

Access to clean water is a fundamental human right as defined under the United Nations and supported by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. More than 285 million people across Africa struggle to access clean, potable water which contributes to a host of individual and public health issues. This new report demonstrates the lingering effects of apartheid given that the lack of water infrastructure is a huge obstacle left in place by decades of neglect. It is also another example of the wide-reaching effects of the state capture scandal under former president Jacob Zuma, which is still being explored under the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, popularly known as the Zondo Commission.

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