South Africa: in Johannesburg, the taps are running dry two months before the elections

“We want electricity and something to wash! » The scene is unusual in South Africa

South Africa: in Johannesburg, the taps are running dry two months before the elections

“We want electricity and something to wash! » The scene is unusual in South Africa. On Tuesday March 12, around fifty residents of an upscale neighborhood in Johannesburg took over a street corner to vent their anger. They have had no tap water for ten days. More water to wash the children, to empty the toilets, for cooking and laundry. And no one to tell them when the nightmare will end.

The protest is polite, we mainly see women, children and the elderly. A crowd from this predominantly white middle class who live in small, clean houses with a garden often decorated with a swimming pool, all protected by high walls topped with an electric fence. Seeing this segment of the population brandishing signs is a new phenomenon in Johannesburg. It reveals a tipping point: the multiple crises hitting South Africa no longer spare anyone.

In addition to the electricity cuts which are now part of daily life, there are water cuts, which are increasingly frequent, even in the well-off neighborhoods of the richest city in Africa. “Have we really come to this? If people did their job, if they took care of the infrastructure... But instead, money is diverted, there is no transparency, no communication,” chokes Niamh Faherty.

A single mother of a 3-year-old boy, she is one of those who mobilized the Blairgowrie neighborhood to take to the streets. “Without electricity you can survive, but not without water,” she growls. Like all the residents gathered that day, she does not really know why this service has still not returned. “It’s excuses after excuses. Every time we ask for an answer, someone blames someone else. »

Officially, the problem appeared after lightning struck a pumping station. A first power outage, then a second and a third, brought down the filling system of the reservoirs which supply part of Johannesburg. Since then, electricity has returned but neither the town hall, nor the city's water authority, nor that of the province are able to explain why some of the reservoirs are struggling to fill, to the point that certain neighborhoods remain dried up.

One thing is certain: water supply problems are increasing across the country. In Durban, part of the population no longer drinks tap water for fear of getting sick. In Nelson Mandela Bay, it is the drought that regularly leaves the taps dry – the phenomenon, recurring in South Africa, is exacerbated by global warming.

The system is cracking on all sides

Outside of large cities, the situation is often even more dire. “In the countryside, people can go weeks, sometimes months, without water or electricity,” says specialist in water resources management Anja du Plessis, professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. In Johannesburg, however, there has been no shortage of rain and the dam that supplies the city is full. However, the system is failing on all sides. At least 40% of drinking water is lost before reaching the taps, estimates Anja du Plessis.

Recurring power cuts are putting pressure on dilapidated infrastructure that was already struggling to keep up with population growth. Pumping stations fatigue and pipes break under the effect of incessant pressure variations. Consequence: the system is riddled with leaks and it is not uncommon to see water geysers on the side of the roads or workers scrambling to plug a breach along a broken roadway.

“It’s getting worse and worse and it’s not going to get better. Since 2022, we have heard about water cuts every day. The situation degenerated quickly and it is not just the infrastructure that is failing, it is the entire system, because the people in office do not necessarily have the qualifications to manage these complex networks. If you put together dilapidated infrastructure, incompetent management and a lack of political will to try to fix it, you end up with the problem we have in Johannesburg,” summarizes Anja du Plessis.

Gripping the microphone from her corner of the sidewalk in Blairgowrie, Niamh Faherty continues to harangue the crowd. “If we are in this situation here, imagine what less advantaged neighborhoods are going through! “, she laments.

She doesn't think she says it that well. A few days later, 30 km away, south of Johannesburg, residents of Soweto converged in front of a restaurant, their arms full of jerry cans. They have had no water for four days. Again. This was already the case two weeks earlier. And last month too. The tanker trucks supposed to ply the streets are random. No one knows exactly where and when to find them. As in Blairgowrie, the community is holding on with great solidarity. Here, there is no swimming pool to open to neighbors to wash the children, but the owner of a restaurant with a borehole supplies everyone free of charge.

Around the garden hose which passes from one can to another, the residents all point to the same culprit. “Our ANC is very bad... We should vote for the others for once... We want that to change! », breathes a resident. In charge since the end of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) has long reigned supreme in Soweto as in the rest of the country. But for the first time since Nelson Mandela came to power, his heirs are threatened with losing their majority in the elections scheduled for May 29.

Not “optimal” maintenance

In this street in Soweto where Nelson Mandela's historic house still stands, anger is brewing. “They have been in power for 30 years and they have done nothing for the people! On the contrary, it gets worse. They claim that we are united but do you see ANC leaders coming to fetch water? », grumbles Trévor, 47, who came with his 3-year-old son. “People have been suffering since 1994. At least before, we had water,” a security agent goes so far as to lament.

Three kilometers away, the neighborhood municipal councilor stands idly in front of a city water authority depot to requisition tank trucks. ANC elected official Lefa Molise recognizes that he is almost as powerless as his constituents. “Honestly, no one can explain to you why there is no water. When we repair somewhere, it breaks elsewhere. Maintenance may not be optimal,” he euphemizes.

He too laments the “lack of will” to repair collapsing infrastructure, before correcting himself when the prospect of elections is mentioned: “People unfairly blame the ANC. The party is overwhelmed with reproaches even when it has nothing to do with it. » Either way, the anger is real. Lefa Molise knows it. “We are worried, worried but not afraid,” he smiles behind imposing sunglasses.

On Monday March 18, lightning struck a pumping station again, forcing the city of Johannesburg to implore residents to use water sparingly. Two days earlier, an hour away, the capital, Pretoria, assured that the province’s water supply was “on the verge of collapse”.