Saturday February 21, 2009
On Thursday 12 February 2009 members of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front participated in a protest-march held in Johannesburg as part of the Coalition Against Water Privatisation’s Women and Water Campaign. The protest went from Library Gardens in central Johannesburg, a historic meeting point for protests in the city, to Mayor Amos Masondo’s office in Braamfontein, near Constitution Hill. The march was to demand that Masondo withdraw his appeal of the pro-poor Johannesburg High Court ruling of Judge Tsoka, which ruled that the forced installation of pre-paid water meters and the prepayment water system is unlawful and unconstitutional, and that City of Johannesburg and Johannesburg Water provide residents of poor townships with 50 litres of free water per person per day.
The Women and Water Campaign is an important campaign seeking to highlight the fact that, although all poor people in Southern Africa suffer from a shortage of water due to lack of basic service delivery and the privatisation of water, which makes it unaffordable to most, this suffering is felt most acutely by poor women. Living as we do in a sexist society it is almost always women that have to do all the cooking, cleaning and laundry. All of which they need water for. It is therefore women who have to walk long distances to collect water from rivers and queue, sometimes for hours, at communal taps. It is women who risk being attacked and raped when they have to go out alone, sometimes in the morning before the sun is up or late into the evening, to get water so they can prepare meals for their boyfriends, husbands and children. As women are very often the only breadwinners in families in South Africa, often employed as domestic workers, it is they who feel the double-edged oppression not only of having to work for a wage, but of having to do all the unpaid housework at home which, in the majority-white suburbs where they work, they are paid – albeit too little – to do. This is made worse by the fact that water privatisation means they can only get a measly 25 litres per person per day, far less than adequate, and have to go to great lengths to get water if they cannot afford to pay for more than that.
Water, as we know, is life. Without clean and adequate drinking water we could not survive. The privatisation of water, therefore, is the privatisation of life. It is an attempt to commodify human existence, and those who seek to turn human life into a commodity should face the full wrath of the people. The privatisation of water, most painfully experienced by poor women, is intolerable. So too is the oppression and exploitation of women. To have a strong working class, one that can stand up to those that are trying to install pre-paid water meters in poor communities and make us pay for the right to life, we need to be united. Men and women need to stand together against privatisation, cut-offs and the installation of pre-paids and demand free water, education and basic services for the poor. This is why it is vital that we afford the Women and Water Campaign the maximum support it deserves. Because it is not just a campaign for the freedom and dignity of women, as important as that is to the freedom and dignity of all, it is a campaign for the freedom to live.
Unfortunately the march to Masondo did not receive this maximum support, and the turnout was less than desirable.
An interesting aspect of this protest was that the vast majority were women. One bus was women only. The usual male speakers and singers remained in the background throughout the protest. There was no male speaker or main singer, and even at the march men remained in the background. They were there to show their support for women in struggle, but they knew that this struggle should be led by the women themselves.
The memorandum was to be handed over to Masondo on dirty old panties, and many women were wearing these old panties over their trousers. Others had pads stuck on their clothes.
Once the protest arrived at the Mayor’s office everyone lined up in front of the building and shouted for Masondo to come out. Struggle songs were sung and speeches made, some of them very radical. Women spoke against pre-paid water meters and water cut-offs, accusing Masondo of being a criminal because women don’t have enough water for sanitation. The dirty panties were a symbol of not having enough water to wash them. Another reason why Masondo is a criminal is because so many babies die every day because of bad sanitation. After a while a woman, Shirley Mguli from the petition’s office came out, not Masondo, to accept the memorandum she thought would be given to her. After more fiery speeches, in which the police and Masondo were ridiculed, many women took off the panties they wore over their trousers or had in their pockets and threw them, all at the same time, at the police and Mguli. There was no memorandum, only dirty panties. A strong statement of poor women.
Altogether it was a very strong message that was sent at this protest, showing how important women are in the struggle against privatisation and for service delivery. Let the struggle not stop there. Protest-marches and delivering memorandums can be a good way to raise awareness and to give the authorities an ultimatum, but the only way to win the struggle for service delivery and dignity is through popular mass direct action and confrontation.