If neoliberalism has burdened the earth with the monetization and commodification of everything, the future of progressive – indeed socialist – politics may well be the expansion of the philosophical strategy of decommodification. Such a future is being seeded today in South Africa, in militant grassroots and mass-organizational campaigns: for free water and electricity, for access to antiretroviral Aids medicines in the public health system, for a universal Basic Income Grant, for lifeline telecommunications via a renationalized provider and for land rights. Victories are being won, and the linkage of issues and constituencies is occurring rapidly. Shortage of space prevents this article from covering more than the water issue, but similar principles and processes are at work in other sectors. Water is also a subject which conjoins red and green politics, and forces ecological aspects of not only despoliation of water sources, but also physical (not merely socially-constructed) scarcity, especially in the world’s largest urban complex without a river or lake for water supply: Johannesburg.
The process is not dissimilar across the world, as Michael Perelman shows.  The context is a period of overcompetitive global accumulation ,  overaccumulation crisis,  rising/crashing financial markets and, especially, the spatio-temporal-ecological displacement of capitalist crisis.  These processes have all affected South Africa profoundly, in part because the attendant ideology of neoliberalism defined the parameters of the political deal that resulted in democracy in 1994. 
As a result, the post-apartheid nexus of capital and state power adopted as its central philosophical wisdom the commodification of nature and society, particularly in the conflict-ridden cities. The reduction of most urban citizens to mere workplace fodder and consuming units is the hallmark of capitalist urbanity, as David Harvey explains:
A city is an agglomeration of productive forces built by labor employed within a temporal process of circulation of capital. It is nourished out of the metabolism of capitalist production for exchange on the world market and supported out of a highly sophisticated system of production and distribution organized within its confines. It is populated by individuals who reproduce themselves using money incomes earned off the circulation of capital (wages and profits) or its derivative revenues (rents, taxes, interest, merchants’ profits, payments for services). The city is ruled by a particular coalition of class forces, segmented into distinctive communities of social reproduction, and organized as a discontinuous but spatially contiguous labor market within which daily substitutions of job opportunities against labor power are possible and within which certain distinctive quantities and qualities of labor power may be found. 
For some, the idea of pure urban commodification is worth celebrating. Recall the notion of the former World Bank chief economist Larry Summers, codified in his infamous 1991 memo: ‘I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that’.  In much the same spirit, a leading United Nations Habitat staffer, Shlomo Angel, enthusiastically explained urban neoliberalism in a house journal during the run-up to the UN’s 1995 Istanbul housing conference: ‘The city is not a community, but a conglomerate of firms, institutions, organizations and individuals with contractual agreements among them’. Consequently, according to Angel, urban policy should focus on ‘creating a level playing field for competition among cities, particularly across national borders; on understanding how cities get ahead in this competition; on global capital transfers, the new economic order and the weakening of the nation-state.’ 
These general features of capitalist urbanization permit short-term decisions that may at surface level appear rational, within the context of impersonal, speculative flows of capital, an atomized labor market, and a myriad of consumer ‘choices’. Occasionally, a major state investment in the built environment such as a sewage or water treatment system is made when capital accumulation is anticipated to require infrastructure some decades into the future, or when the construction lobby scores a coup. But this is rare: such investments are far more common when the borrowing of capital is cheap, when the city settles into a predictable rhythm of production, residential settlement and transportation needs, and when ruling elites look up from their money-making to envisage future needs. In an era of mega-slums, forward urban planning of the older Keynesian-city type happens less and less, especially when in South Africa approximately five million people are HIV positive and the state and capital adopt a cost-benefit analysis that denies most citizens and employees access to needed anti-retroviral medicines, simply because if they die, the 42% pool of unemployed labor stands ready as a reserve army.
This is not merely a case of uneven and combined development in the world’s most unequal society. The United Nations Panel on Water declared in 1998 that ‘water should be paid for as a commodity rather than be treated as an essential staple to be provided free of cost.’  World environment and water conferences during the 1990s, from Rio to Dublin to The Hague, established ‘water as an economic good’. The same principle was applied in South Africa in 1994, the year of political liberation, when in the country’s first ‘democratic’ White Paper on water, the minimum price of water was set at ‘marginal cost’ – i.e., the operating and maintenance expenses associated with covering the next unit of water’s production cost. As we will see, this approach had a lethal impact.
2. The Commodification of Water
In a setting where the vast majority of black South Africans lacked access to direct household water and sanitation, the new government’s mandate was to decommodify, not commodify water. Providing water as an essential staple free of cost for at least a ‘lifeline’ amount to all residents was one of the African National Congress’ (ANC) 1994 electoral promises, within the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP). Such a strategy would have required a nation-wide water pricing policy with higher unit amounts for higher-volume water consumers, especially large firms, mines and (white) farmers. This was not an impossible task, but the first post-apartheid water minister, Kader Asmal, refused to grasp the nettle. His rejoinder to the demand that he respect the promised 50 liters per day lifeline supply of water was telling:
The positions I put forward are not positions of a sell-out, but of positions that uphold the policy of the South African government and the ANC … The RDP makes no reference to free water to the citizens of South Africa. The provision of such free water has financial implications for local government that I as a national minister must be extremely careful enforcing on local government. 
It took a neoliberal leap of logic to redefine the word ‘lifeline’ to mean, not free, but instead the equivalent of the operating and maintenance costs (i.e., full marginal-cost recovery, namely the break-even cost of supplying an additional unit of the water to the customer). Under the influence of his own neoliberal bureaucrats and the World Bank, this slippery semantic solution was applied with increasing ruthlessness during the late 1990s.
The main neoliberal criticism of a free lifeline and rising block tariff offered by Bank water official John Roome, the taskmanager of the controversial Lesotho Highlands Water Project, was that municipal privatization contracts ‘would be much harder to establish’ if poor consumers had the expectation of getting something for nothing. If consumers didn’t pay, Roome continued, Asmal needed a ‘credible threat of cutting service.’  This was part of Roome’s advice, which the Bank’s 1999 Country Assistance Strategy for South Africa later termed ‘instrumental’ in shifting South African water policy. 
Finally in August 2000, when a cholera crisis emerged in poverty-stricken KwaZulu-Natal province and social protest rose to new heights, Asmal’s replacement (after a 1999 cabinet reshuffle), Ronnie Kasrils, admitted that ‘lifeline’ should really mean ‘free’. But a rapid neoliberal reaction by the Department of Trade and Industry prevented the government from paying for the cross-subsidy by charging corporations more. Indeed, on this basis, neoliberal hostility to subsidies was a general phenomenon within the post-apartheid state. In 1996, Dr Chippy Olver, then deputy director-general of the Department of Constitutional Development and subsequently the director-general of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (and main manager of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development) told the Mail & Guardian newspaper that low-income people should not receive lower-priced electricity than large firms, such as the energy-guzzling Alusaf aluminum smelter (they pay, on average, four times more).  He remarked offhandedly, ‘If we increase the price of electricity to users like Alusaf [so as to cross-subsidize low-income consumers], their products will become uncompetitive and that will affect our balance of payments.’ 
Instead, the commodification of water – especially in the 1994 Water and Sanitation White Paper and in a 1998 Water Pricing Policy – was meant to generate more rational utilization of scarce water resources, beginning with marginal-cost based pricing. ‘Make the polluter pay’ was one of the components. Yet the strategy fell foul of the standard problems associated with the neoliberal version of ‘environmental economics’. John Bellamy Foster’s essay on ‘The Ecological Tyranny of the Bottom Line’ cites three fatal contradictions:
the radical break with all previous human history necessitated by the reduction of the human relation to nature to a set of market-based utilities, rooted in the egoistic preferences of individuals;
the radical displacement of the very idea of value or worth, resulting from the domination of market values over everything else … it is this widespread humanistic sense of systems of intrinsic value that are not reducible to mere market values and cannot be included within a cost-benefit analysis that so often frustrates the attempts of economists to carry out contingent value analyses among the general public; and
[market-based environmental economic] solutions, while sometimes attenuating the problems in the short term, only accentuate the contradictions overall, undermining both the conditions of life and the conditions of production. The reason for this is the sheer dynamism of the capitalist commodity economy, which by its very nature accepts no barriers outside of itself, and seeks constantly to increase its sphere of influence without regard to the effects of this on our biosphere. 
In the same spirit of Lawrence Summers, however, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) continue promoting the sphere of influence of water commodification without regard to its effects. The Bretton Woods Institutions’ central coordinating and strategizing role in water management deserves more consideration, not only because of their influence in South Africa, but because they are key agents in the commodification of water across Africa and the Third World. The IMF has drawn many water-related issues into its own structural adjustment programs, whether the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility, Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility or Poverty Reduction Strategy Program. 
No single institution has had more important intellectual functions, water
policy advisory influence, and project-related power than the World Bank,
and none has promoted commodification so aggressively. The Bank is a regular coordinator of, and leverage-point for, donor resources. It is a catalyst for several large dam projects, a project and water sector lender, a ‘Knowledge Bank’ source of information, a facilitator of civil-society involvement and a promoter of a limited version of ‘community participation’ in water projects. The Bank is also a government policy adviser, an investor in privatized water infrastructure (through the International Finance Corporation), a host to numerous African water agencies’ Water Utilities Partnership, and the main agency imposing stipulations upon water sector management via structural adjustment and debt relief conditionality. The Bank can, therefore, claim not only to have a coherent perspective and wide-ranging market-oriented framework, but also to have applied these to water projects and policies across Africa. The African Development Bank has generally followed the same patterns.
True, there are occasional disagreements amongst Bank staff. A mid-1990s debate occurred over whether retail water prices should follow a rising block tariff or instead more closely approximate the cost of production ‘full cost recovery’.  The victory of the latter argument within the Bank during the late 1990s seemed to herald an era of full-fledged water commodification, at the same time the Bretton Woods Institutions were most dogmatically insistent upon similar principles in relation to macroeconomic policy: in a phrase, ‘get the prices right’. Also of critical importance is the role of Bank water management in development projects such as water supply enhancement or via restructuring Riparian water law so as to end centralized administrative allocation of water, to be replaced by water trading in specially-designed markets. In virtually all such cases, the Bank has developed policies and projects that further the commodification of water.
Commodifying water entails highlighting its role mainly as an ‘economic good’, attempting to reduce cross-subsidization that distorts the end-user price of water (tariff), promoting a limited form of means-tested subsidization, establishing shadow prices for water as an environmental good, solving problems associated with state control of water (inefficiencies, excessive administrative centralization, lack of competition, unaccounted-for-water, weak billing and political interference), and in the process, fostering the conditions for water privatization. Concrete manifestations are obvious once we consider the most recent Africa-wide Bank statement on rural water resources management: Sourcebook on Community Driven Development in the Africa Region – Community Action Programs.  The Sourcebook insists upon two crucial aspects of commodification in water policy. First, ‘… work is still needed with political leaders in some national governments to move away from the concept of free water for all.’  Second, financial mechanisms still need fine-tuning:
Promote increased capital cost recovery from users. An upfront cash contribution based on their willingness-to-pay is required from users to demonstrate demand and develop community capacity to administer funds and tariffs. Ensure 100% recovery of operation and maintenance costs. 
Social disasters from such rigid neoliberal policy directives were strewn across Africa, especially when low-income people simply could not afford any state services, or when parents cut back on girls’ schooling or healthcare because cost recovery became burdensome. In October 2000, the Bank was instructed by the US Congress never to impose these user-fee provisions on education and healthcare, and in 2002 a campaign by progressive NGOs in the US expanded to decommodify water as well.
3. Death by Commodification
The logical implications of the drive to commodification are the formal privatization (or corporatization) of services and the fragmentation of the public sector. Both processes were set in train in South Africa, with the French company Suez landing water contracts in small towns even before the end of apartheid, leading to the company’s capture of the largest-ever private water concession in the world – Johannesburg. In addition, privatization or even merely corporatization of water led inexorably to an arm’s-length, fractured relationship between the water and health departments within the state. The South African Department of Health acknowledged this problem more than a year before the cholera outbreak:
It is common knowledge that lack of water and sanitation is a common cause of cholera, diarrhea or other illnesses that afflict so many in our country and that there is a relationship between various communicable diseases, including TB, and conditions of squalor. Yet we often have not structured our institutions and service delivery systems in ways that can easily respond to these realities. 
One indication of the problem of water commodification was the rash of disconnections – affecting an estimated 10 million people,  including 275,000 households in 2003  – in supplies by the state, private suppliers and even NGOs which ran rural projects. To illustrate through a controversial case study, water commodification at the cholera epicenter in Ngwelezane in KwaZulu-Natal resulted in the disconnection of thousands of people from their previously free water supply in August 2000. More than 130,000 people, nearly all low-income Africans, came down with cholera, and more than 300 died, many as far off as Johannesburg, Limpopo Province and the Eastern Cape. The Sunday Times reported,
“This week, a startling picture emerged of the sequence of events that led up to the outbreak around Ngwelezane. Authorities discovered that some areas were still receiving free water in terms of a 17 year initiative of the former KwaZulu government to deal with the 1983/4 drought.
‘It was eventually noticed, and it was decided to switch off the supply’, said the chief executive of the Uthungulu Regional Council, B.B. Biyela. ‘The people were given sufficient warning and the supply was cut off at the beginning of August’.
The first cases indicating cholera were noticed in Matshana and Nqutshini in the second week of August. The first case confirmed was on August 19. At this point, health officials asked the Mhlathuze Water Board to reconnect the free water supplied by the former homeland government to the Nqutshini area.” 
The connection fee of R51 (then US$7) imposed by Biyela was unaffordable for thousands of people. He cut off their water supply using a ‘pre paid meter’ self disconnection strategy, thus saving a few tens of thousands of rands but costing the provincial KwaZulu-Natal health authorities and the sick people tens of millions.
The matter did not end at that point. According to Sunday Times reporter Mawande Jubasi, cut-offs were still occurring in cholera zones 18 months after the epidemic began:
David Shezi stole water for his eight children after he could no longer take the humiliation of seeing them begging for water from neighbors. But while he sat in a cell at a police station on KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast, the man who went to the police about the theft continued to sell water to desperate people.
Samson Nqayi, chairman of the Dangaye Water Authority, a subsidiary of Umgeni Water, said he complained to police about Shezi and five co-accused to make an example of them. Nqayi, who owns a water truck, sells 25 liters of water for R1 to those who have no piped water. He also charges them R500 to install pipes to their mud huts…
Shezi is poor, earning only R500 a month by selling fruit and vegetables to motorists near his home in Umgababa. Five years ago he saved R500 to get water connected to his hut. But then school fees and transport and food costs drove him into debt.
When his water was cut off three months ago he became dejected. He used a pipe to bypass his water meter. Then he was arrested with five other men in his village. ‘I did not want to do it but I had no option’, he said. ‘I should be getting free water. I tried to do it the right way and I failed. Now I am sure I will go to jail because my wife and children were thirsty’.
Shezi is among one million poor people in KwaZulu-Natal who are forced into drastic measures to get water. On Friday, 300 members of an informal settlement near Queensburgh, Durban, were collecting water from the cholera-infested Umhlatuzana River. Their supply had been cut by the [Durban] unicity.
These people are the losers in a water war between the national Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, Umgeni Water and the municipalities of Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Ugu and Umgungundlovu. The municipalities and Umgeni Water say they do not have the money to provide free water. They asked Water Affairs and Forestry for R400 million and got only R120 million. 
What is most important here is that privatizers – whether water seller Samson Nqayi, multinational corporation Suez or even corporatizing KwaZulu-Natal municipalities and water boards which are moving to full cost-recovery systems – are simply taking no responsibility for the social and personal costs of cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, TB or other Aids-opportunistic infections incurred by health clinics and the patients.
A company making profits out of water sales feels no guilt when women and children suffer most. It does not repair environmental damage when women are forced to cut down trees to heat their families’ food. It pays none of the local economic costs when electricity cut-offs prevent small businesses from operating, or when workers are less productive because they have lost access to even their water and sanitation.
The ability to avoid the social implications of public goods associated with water and electricity allows huge multinational corporations to make enormous profits by expanding infrastructure systems just to the point where low-income people live. Usually this is a geographic decision, so that areas served by privatized services are noticeably ‘cherry-picked’: wealthy consumers get the services but poor people are denied access. Even before the logic of privatization sets in, the necessary preliminary work by the neoliberal state – commercializing, delinking water from other state functions, raising tariffs, cutting off people who cannot pay their bills – all have the same effect, as Biyela proved in Ngwelezane.
As a result, the key determinant is not whether water is privately or publicly managed, but rather whether it is in the process of being commodified. At that point, men like Biyela are just as lethal in the public sector as they would be if acting as chief executive officers of a privatized water company.
4. Against Commodification
The demand for lifeline supplies of water and electricity is being made from the urban ghettos like Soweto where disconnections remain a problem, to the many rural areas which have still not received piped water. The need for free access to antiretroviral medicines for five million HIV-positive South Africans is acute. A campaign for a Basic Income Grant has also been taken up by churches and trade unions. The Freedom of Expression Institute and many community groups are campaigning for lifeline telephone systems and public ownership. The Landless People’s Movement objects to the failure of a commodified land reform policy designed by the World Bank, and insists upon access to land as a human right. Such demands, based upon the political principle of decommodification, are central to campaigns ranging from basic survival through access to health services, to resistance against the privatization of municipal services.
The verb decommodify has become popular amongst progressive strategists in part through studies of social policy conducted by Gosta Esping-Andersen, a Swedish academic. In his book The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism,  Esping-Andersen points out that during the first half of the twentieth century, the Scandinavian welfare state grew because of urban-rural, worker-farmer, red-green alliances which made universalist demands on the ruling elites. Those demands typically aimed to give the working class and small farmers social protection from the vagaries of employment, especially during periodic recessions. They therefore allowed people to escape the prison of wage labor, by weaving a thick, state-supplied safety net as a fall-back position. To decommodify their constituents’ labor in this manner required, in short, that the alliance defend a level of social protection adequate to meet basic needs. Over a period of decades, this took the form of generous pensions, healthcare, education, and other free state services which, like childcare and eldercare, disproportionately support and liberate women.
The electoral weight and grassroots political power of the red-green alliance were sufficient to win these demands, which were paid for through taxing wealthy households and large corporations at high rates. They were defended until recently, when corporate power and the ideology of competitiveness forced some cutbacks across Scandinavia. A similar although much less far-reaching construction of welfare-state policies occurred elsewhere across the world, in the context of a Cold War that required western capitalism to put on a more humane face against the East Bloc and to maintain state spending, in the spirit of John Maynard Keynes, so as to boost macroeconomic growth.
In the post-war US, in contrast, corporations lobbied more effectively against state entitlements such as healthcare and pensions, preferring to hold control over workers through company health and pension plans which would then deter workers from going on strike. (The failure to decommodify labor-power helps explain the durability of the US trade union movement’s pro-corporate – and often pro-imperialist – position, until it began shifting leftward in the mid-1990s.)
As the 1950s-60s virtuous cycle of economic growth and expanding social policy came to an end, it was replaced not by a strengthened socialist struggle as the limits of such reforms were reached, but rather by an era of neoliberalism, which began during the late 1970s. Because the balance of forces has been inauspicious, for a variety of reasons, this recent period of class war by ruling elites continues to be characterized by austerity-oriented economic policies, shrinkage of social programs, privatization, trade and financial liberalization, corporate deregulation, and what is often termed ‘the commodification of everything’.
In a setting as unequal as South Africa – with 45% unemployment and, alongside Brazil and Guatemala, the world’s highest income disparities – the neoliberal policies adopted during the 1990s pushed even essential state services such as water and electricity beyond most households’ ability to pay. Some of these policies were adopted before political liberation from apartheid in 1994, but many were the result of influence on Nelson Mandela’s ANC by the World Bank, US AID and other global and local neoliberals during the late 1990s.
Problems associated with the neoliberal approach to basic services often relate to the dismissive regard with which positive eco-social externalities associated with water/sanitation, energy and other services are understood by neoliberals. The failure to fully incorporate social and environmental benefits of state services is typical of commodification, because when state services undergo commercialization, the state fragments itself as water, electricity, health and other agencies adopt arm’s-length, non-integrated relationships that reduce them to mere ‘profit-centers’. Service disconnections follow logically.
The first stage of resistance to the commodification of water and electricity often takes the form of a popular demand for a short-term, inexpensive flat rate applicable to all consumers. In Durban, community groups are, at the time of writing, mobilizing for a R10 monthly fee for all municipal services, alongside an insistence that no one’s supply be cut off. More compellingly, for medium-range policy a redistributive demand for decommodification is advanced by groups like the SA Municipal Workers Union, Rural Development Services Network, Johannesburg Anti-Privatization Forum and Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC): a specific minimal daily amount of water (50 liters) and electricity (1 kilowatt/hour) to be supplied to each person free. The free services should be financed not only by subsidies from central government, but also by a rising block tariff in which the water and electricity bills for high-volume consumers and corporations rise at a more rapid rate when their usage soars to hedonistic levels.
When charged at ever-higher rates, the consumption of services by hedonistic users should decline, which would be welcome. South Africa is a water-scarce country, especially in the Johannesburg area which depends upon water from socio-ecologically destructive Lesotho dams. Since South Africa is one of the world’s worst sites of greenhouse gas emissions (when corrected for population and relative income), conservation through higher rates for large consumers makes eco-socio-economic sense on merely technical grounds.
These demands, grounded in decades of social struggles to make basic services a human right were originally given political credibility with the promise of lifeline services and rising block tariffs in the Reconstruction and Development Program of 1994, the ANC’s campaign platform in the first democratic election. They were partially incorporated into the 1996 Constitution, which guarantees that ‘everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being … everyone has the right to have access to healthcare services, including reproductive health care; sufficient food and water; and social security’.
Partly because of a successful September 2001 Constitutional Court case by a community (Wallacedene) led by a courageous activist (Irene Grootboom), and partly because cholera and the December 2000 municipal elections threatened to embarrass the ANC, the ruling party did reintroduce its free lifeline services promise. In July 2001, the free water policy became official, notwithstanding widespread sabotage by municipal and national bureaucrats responsible for administering the policy. Subsequently, there have been no new water privatizations, in large part due to the fear that cherrypicking and supply cuts will be deemed unconstitutional. Moreover, some of the major pilot cases have resulted in disaster.
For example, Saur had to renegotiate its Dolphin Coast contract in mid-2001 due to lack of profits, with research showing that it regularly denies services to poor people. For similar reasons, Saur also pulled out of its Maputo, Mozambique contract in late 2001. Having been thrown out of the small town of Fort Beaufort (also known as Nkonkobe), Suez’s subsidiary is responding with a lawsuit for millions of dollars in damages – much as did Bechtel in the celebrated case of the uprising against water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
The Johannesburg Water Company, also managed by Suez, is controversially introducing pit latrines, in spite of porous soil and the spread of the E.Coli bacteria, to prevent poor people flushing their toilets. If these are unacceptable because of South Africa’s dolomitic soils, Johannesburg Water offers a low-flush ‘shallow sewage’ system to residents of ‘condominium’ (single-storey) houses arranged in rows, connected to each other by sanitation pipes much closer to the surface. Given the limited role of gravity in the gradient and the mere trickle of water that flows through, community residents are required to negotiate with each other over who will physically unblock sewers every three months.
Moreover, Johannesburg officials also sabotaged the ANC’s ‘free basic water’ promise as early as July 2001, when revised water tariffs were issued following the December 2000 municipal elections. Those tariffs provided a very small free lifeline, 6,000 liters per household per month, followed by a very steep, convex curve, such that the next consumption block became unaffordable, leading to even higher rates of water disconnections in many settings. The 6,000 liters represent just two toilet flushes a day for a household of eight, for those lucky enough to have flush toilets. It leaves no additional water to drink, wash with, or clean clothes or the house.
Optimally, a different strategy based upon decommodification would provide a larger free lifeline tariff, ideally on a per-person, not per-household basis, and then rise in a concave manner to penalize luxury consumption (Figure 1). Johannesburg’s tariff was set by the council with help from Suez, and has an extremely high price increase for the second block of consumption. Two years later, the price of that second block was raised 32%, with a 10% overall increase, putting an enormous burden on poor households which used more than 6,000 liters each month. The rich got off with relatively small increases and a flat tariff after 40kl/hh/month, which did nothing to encourage water conservation. 
Figure 1: Divergent water pricing strategies
Johannesburg (2001) v. ideal tariff for large household
Source: Johannesburg Water (thin) and own projection (thick)
In Durban, South Africa’s wealthiest municipality, a similar process has recently been measured. The 1997 consumption of water by the one third of the city’s residents who have the lowest income was 22 kl/household/month. Shortly afterwards, a ‘Free Basic Water’ strategy was adopted (for just the first 6 kl/hh/month), but steep increases in price for the next blocks of water were imposed. By 2003, the price of the average liter of water consumed by the lowest-income third of billed residents had doubled from R2 in 1997 (about US$0.30) to R4 (Figure 2). According to Reg Bailey, who runs Durban’s water tariffs, that price increase resulted in average consumption by low-income consumers diminishing to 15 kl/household/month during the same period. (The price elasticity for water was, hence, a disturbing -0.55 – an extremely large impact for what should be a basic need, hence relatively impervious to price change.) In contrast, for middle- and high-income consumers, the price rise was a bit higher, but the corresponding decline in average consumption was much less (the price elasticities, respectively, were -0.14 and -0.10).
In sum, although they provided the pilot case of Free Basic Water, Bailey and his colleagues established a system in the late 1990s and early 2000s that led to much greater inequality. Like the Johannesburg case, it simply goes to show that the ‘devil is in the details’, and that the struggle over the shape and slope of the tariff curve is indeed a proxy for class struggle. Durban’s new radical social movements began major mobilizations against water apartheid during 2004-05, and some initial concessions are encouraging.
Figure 2: The impact of price increases on water consumption by different income groups, Durban, 1997-2003.
Source: Bailey and Buckley. 
In Johannesburg, Durban and beyond, the drift towards electricity privatization also remains an acute source of conflict. The SECC holds ongoing protests against politicians who insist that the inclement privatization of the state electricity utility, Eskom (which is the process of being fragmented and partially privatized), requires cutoffs of power to those who can’t pay. At one point in 2001, when Eskom was cutting the supplies of 20,000 Soweto households each month, activists went door-to-door like Robin Hood, illegally reconnecting people for free. The SECC achieved folk-hero status as a result, and succeeded in stopping the electricity cuts. 
The other acute embarrassment for the South African government remains its fear of alienating international pharmaceutical companies. Hence Mbeki maintains an Aids-denialist posture, claiming that antiretroviral medicines are either too toxic or that they don’t work. But the same spirit of decommodification has emerged from the TAC and its international allies like the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Medicins sans Frontieres and Oxfam. Like activists demanding free water and electricity, the Campaign has also hit the barrier of transnational (and local) corporate power.
Similar conflicts were imported into the broader World Summit on Sustainability (WSSD) process, beginning at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Privatization of basic services is moving ahead at great speed globally, under the rubric of Public-Private Partnerships. The WSSD termed these ‘Type 2 Partnerships’ and put great emphasis on constructive state/corporate/NGO relationships. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development was drafted by a neoliberal team under Mbeki’s direction, and also calls for a massive dose of foreign investment in privatized infrastructure. If African leaders genuinely embrace the neoliberal plan, which would simply extend the economic policies that have ravaged the continent the past two decades, the most powerful water privatizers and Eskom would be the main beneficiaries. Mbeki won official endorsements of the plan at both the June 2002 summit of the G8 leaders in Alberta, Canada and the July launch of the Africa Union in Durban. Demonstrations by anti-capitalists from African and Canadian social movements embarrassed Mbeki at each event, leading him to brand the criticisms ‘easy, routine, uninformed and cynical.’  But by mid-2005, not only was Eskom active in dozens of African countries, even Rand Water – Johannesburg’s catchment management parastatal agency – had catalyzed APF and SECC opposition by successfully bidding on a joint venture with a Dutch company that will privatize the water system of Accra, Ghana, in a World Bank funded project. Accra-Johannesburg activists responded to the challenge by establishing strong solidarity relations.
5. Conclusion: Towards Green Socialism?
What the South African experience these last few years shows is that commodification of water doesn’t work and will be resisted, especially if combined with cutoffs of services. These services create additional social welfare in the form of public/merit goods, but only if they are not privatized, because solely the state – if it genuinely represents society – has an in-built incentive to use services like water and electricity to promote public health, gender equity, environmental protection and economic spin-offs.
Not only do privatizers ignore public goods, they are also inevitably opposed to free lifeline supplies and redistributive pricing. Hence, as so many South Africans have learned these last few years, the fight against privatization is also a fight to decommodify the basic services we all need simply to stay alive. And by winning that fight, there is a chance that the state can be won over to its logical role: serving the democratically determined needs and aspirations of that huge majority for whom the power of capital has become a profound threat to social and environmental well-being.
The socialist strategy has always entailed making profound demands – in some discourses, ‘a transitional program’ and in others, ‘non-reformist reforms’ – upon the capitalist state. When invariably the class power of capital is challenged in the process, no matter how feasible the demands are in fiscal/administrative respects, the question of socialist revolution inexorably emerges. The demands for decommodification are popular, sane, logical and backed by solid democratic organization. On behalf of capital, the state must resist, and the South African state has typically done so by deploying the rhetoric of globalization.
Where does that leave those arguing for traditions of human rights (both civil/political and socio-economic), decommodification and socialism-from-below? In coming months and years, four sorts of tasks present themselves:
link up the demands and campaigns for free services, medicines and universal-entitlement income grants;
translate these from the spheres of consumption to production, beginning with creative renationalization of privatized services, restructured municipal work, expansion of the nascent cooperative sector and establishment of state-driven local generic drug manufacturing;
strengthen the basis for longer-term alliances between poor and working people that are in the first instance rooted in civil society and that probably within the next decade will also be taken up by a mass workers’ party; and
regionalize and internationalize these principles, strategies and tactics, just as Pretoria politicians and Johannesburg capital intensify their subimperialist ambitions across Africa.
One very hopeful sign of the last point is the emergence of radical urban social movements in the largest South African cities. Third World debt repudiation and campaigns to kick out the World Bank and IMF, supported by the growing movement around the world to defund the Bank through the World Bank Bonds Boycott tactic, are common starting points. 
Additionally, the more that South African subimperialism—evident in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development  – emerges as a key problem, the more unity these movements will find in common opponents, such as Rand Water. The African Social Forum will also continue expanding through debt, trade, environment and other sectoral networks.
The terrain is, therefore, being prepared for a deep-rooted challenge to capitalism. Aside from short-term splits over divided loyalties to exhausted political parties, which can be expected not only in South Africa but in many sites of African struggle, the prospects for unity between radical communities, labor, women, environmentalists and health activists have never been greater. The kinds of internationalist, anti-capitalist sentiments that rocked Europe during 2002 and scared so many globo-elites in their summits and conferences in prior years are becoming rooted in at least some Southern African soils. Through growing direct links to similar grassroots campaigns in places as diverse as Accra, Cochabamba, Narmada Valley and Porto Alegre, the struggle to decommodify life has enormous potential to grow from autonomous sites of struggle like Soweto into a full-fledged socialist movement.
In his book The Making of Green Knowledge  Andrew Jamison establishes a dichotomy between ‘green business’ and ‘critical ecology’, which can be transcended in what we can call a dialectic between neoliberal environmental economics (sometimes described as sustainable development) and the environmental justice demanded by eco-social movements. The future of eco-socialism requires this kind of transcendence:
Dialectics of Environmentalisms and Eco-socialism
|Terrain||Green Business||Critical Ecologies||Eco-socialism|
|Type of agency||TNCs, states and global agencies||Environmentalist and green NGOs||Hybrid red-green networks|
|Forms of action||Commercial, brokerage||Popularization, resistance||Exemplary mobilization|
|Ideal of ‘science’||Theoretical, expert||Factual, lay||Situated, contextual|
In the first row, Jamison concedes that green business can sometimes, perhaps often, co-opt environmentalism into the nexus of capital accumulation, using concepts of sustainable development. The critical ecology movements resist, drawing upon concepts of environmental justice. But the battle of environmentalists and green NGOs against TNCs, states and global agencies will not succeed without a dialectical advance to the next stage: hybrid red-green networks.
As for emblematic forms of action, the commercial, brokerage functions of green business come into direct cultural conflict with the repertoire of resistance tactics utilized by the eco-social justice activists. The eco-socialist project, in contrast, has to advance to the stage of what Jamison terms ‘exemplary mobilization’, in which the ideas that ‘Another World is Possible’ and ‘Socialism is the future, build it today’ become more than the slogans of Porto Alegre and the SA Communist Party, and take on real meaning.
Intellectual buttressing remains crucial, and hence the ideal articulation of ‘science’ is also worth dwelling upon briefly. South Africa witnesses multiple environment/development discourses, ranging from the ‘theoretical, expert’ inputs – no matter how flawed in reality – of promoters working from a green business standpoint, to the factual and lay languages of activists. What we must seek to build upon is the second, by defying the first, and in the process achieving a situated, contextual science. The knowledge sources that undergird such efforts are typically divided into the technical disciplines of green business, the political traditions of eco-social justice, and the transcendental experiences of the eco-socialist project. As for the terrain of competencies, the green-business suits claim professionalism; the critical ecologists invoke personal commitment; and eco-socialists strive for a synthetic understanding of personal, professional and, above all, political.
With a similar grasp of the dialectic challenge, one of the leading contemporary historical materialists, David Harvey, insists that eco-socialist programs must be explicitly forward-looking, and hence must
deal in the material and institutional issues of how to organize production and distribution in general, how to confront the realities of global power politics and how to displace the hegemonic powers of capitalism not simply with dispersed, autonomous, localized, and essentially communitarian solutions (apologists for which can be found on both right and left ends of the political spectrum), but with a rather more complex politics that recognizes how environmental and social justice must be sought by a rational ordering of activities at different scales. 
Notwithstanding South Africa’s rights-based rhetoric and various attempts to tinker with environmental management problems through technical, market-oriented solutions, two factors are obvious: the imperatives of ecological exploitation and the impossibility of more fundamental reversals of environmental degradation. In contrast, an eco-socialist perspective starts with the very ingredient missing from virtually all post-apartheid government initiatives: popular mobilization. In this sense, the issues associated with the survival of society’s oppressed communities can only be understood and tackled through an increasing convergence of green, brown, feminist, racial/ethnic justice, and class politics.
There are several initiatives underway, including an alternative global treaty to decommodify water, that make this point.  In South Africa, a variety of environmental and development struggles are, similarly, aiming to decommodify increasing aspects of life.  Even if they sometimes took the form of ‘IMF Riots’, at least 882 protests over inadequate urban water/sanitation and other services took place in 2004-05.  These are bound to have an increasing impact upon South African politics, and along with a potential split between the trade unions and the ruling party in coming years, represent fairly ripe objective conditions for the renewal of a bottom-up socialist political program. For as neoliberal economic orthodoxy continues to prevail in so many areas of South African environment and development, and as centrist sustainable-development discourses, policies and legislation fall far short of resolving the interlocking crises, it is to more radical confrontations with powerful forces that South Africa’s eco-social justice movements inexorably will be drawn.
1. M. Perelman, Steal this Idea (New York: Palgrave, 2002).
2. R. Brenner, The Boom and the Bubble ( London: Verso, 2002).
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6. H. Marais, South Africa: The Political Economy of Transformation (London: Zed Books and Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2000); N. Alexander, An Ordinary Country ( Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2002); P. Bond, Against Global Apartheid: South Africa meets the World Bank, IMF and International Finance (London: Zed Books and Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2003); P. Bond, Talk Left, Walk Right: South Africa’s Frustrated Global Reforms (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004); P. Bond, Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa (London: Pluto and Pietermaritzburg: University of Kwa-ZuluNatal Press, 2005).
7. D. Harvey, Consciousness and the Urban Experience (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 250.
8. L. Summers, ‘Memo’, Office of the World Bank Chief Economist, Washington, 12 December 1991, http://www.whirledbank.org.
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14. Mail & Guardian, 22 November 1996 (Johannesburg).
15. Mail & Guardian, 22 November 1996 (Johannesburg).
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17. S. Grusky, ‘IMF makes Water Privatization Condition of Financial Support’, PSIRU update, 2001, http://www.psiru.org.
18. P. Bond, Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press and London: Merlin Press, 2002).
19. World Bank, Sourcebook on Community Driven Development in the Africa Region: Community Action Programs, Africa Region, (Washington DC, 17 March 2000), Annex 2.
20. World Bank, Sourcebook on Community Driven Development.
21. World Bank, Sourcebook on Community Driven Development.
22. Department of Health, ‘Health Sector Strategic Framework, 1999-2004′, Department of Health, Pretoria, 1999.
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26. Sunday Times, 20 January 2002 (Johannesburg).
27. G. Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).
28. Bond, Talk Left, Walk Right, Chapter 8.
29. R. Bailey and C. Buckley, ‘Modelling Domestic Water Tariffs’, Powerpoint presentation to the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, Durban, 7 November 2005.
30. Washington Post, 6 November 2001 (Washington).
31. Business Report, 4 July 2002 (Johannesburg).
33. P. Bond, Fanon’s Warning: A Civil Society Reader on the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Trenton: Africa World Press and Cape Town: AIDC, 2005).
34. A. Jamison, The Making of Green Knowledge: Environmental Politics and Cultural Transformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
35. D. Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1996), 400-401.
36. M. Barlow and T. Clarke, Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (Toronto: Stoddart, 2002); R. Petrella, The Water Manifesto: Arguments for a World Water Contract (London: Zed Books, 2001); P. Bond and K. Bakker, ‘Blue Planet Targets Commodification of World’s Water’, ZNet Commentary, 27 July 2001, http://www.zmag.org.
37. Bond, Unsustainable South Africa.
Patrick Bond, director of the UKZN Centre for Civil Society (http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs/default.asp?10,24,8,55), is a political economist who has pursued longstanding research interests and NGO work in urban communities and with global justice movements in several countries. Since 2000, Patrick has authored/edited these books: Trouble in the Air: Global Warming and the Privatised Atmosphere (with Rehana Dada); Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa; Fanon's Warning: A Civil Society Reader on the New Partnership for Africa's Development; Talk Left, Walk Right: South Africa's Frustrated Global Reforms; Against Global Apartheid: South Africa meets the World Bank, IMF and International Finance; Zimbabwe's Plunge: Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Searth for Social Justice (with Masimba Manyanya); Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest and Cities of Gold, Townships of Coal: South Africa's New Urban Crisis.