Water Rights in Namibia and the Revenge of the Neoliberals
A brief history of how the ruling party and opposition sold the voters down the river during the height of the 2021 pandemic.
In March — shortly after Swapo suffered heavy losses in the November 2020 elections — the new minister of urban and rural development, Erastus Uutoni, sent a letter to all top municipal officials instructing them to start to enforce immediate debt recovery measures, by disconnecting the water supply of households that had fallen into arrears.
This move marked a complete U-turn in government policy, because in March 2020 the previous minister of urban and rural development, Peya Mushelenga issued an urgent plea to all regional and local authorities to stop all water disconnections and to reconnect all households whose water had been disconnected over debt so that all residents can practice good hygiene and regular handwashing to prevent the spread of Covid19.
It was around this time President Geingob declared a state of public health emergency in late March 2020. There were only three recorded Covid19 cases in the country at the time. Though unpopular and highly disruptive, the data shows that the emergency measures helped somewhat to ‘flatten the curve’ throughout 2020 and infection numbers stayed low.
But public frustration was high and government’s inability to offer anything other than repression and movement restrictions to curb the spread of the virus, cost the governing party dearly in the November election.
Despite early successes in containing the virus, there was a first notable rise in cases during the December holiday. By the end of March 2021— when the new minister was calling for the resumption of water cuts — the number of infections had reached 182 per day. Despite the health implications, the government insisted on cutting water supply to the poor and installing expensive prepaid water meters for low-income households.
The decision to resume water cuts also undercut all the efforts and sacrifices made by the community to ‘flatten the curve’ over the preceding year, because once the winter began to take hold from April to May the country started seeing record numbers of daily infections, with the weekly average Covid19-related deaths rising from 4 per day in March to over 75 deaths per day in July.
THE SPINELESS OPPOSITION
What was most shocking — and also revealing — was that the normally vocal opposition parties, which had taken hold of most urban and rural municipalities by December proceeded without any hesitation to implement Swapo’s aggressive debt recovery policy and to enforce payment by the harshest methods, even though the municipal debt was built up over decades and was inherited from previous councils run by Swapo.
The effects of their tortuous debt recovery methods were immediate.
By end of March there were mass demonstrations against water cuts at the usually quiet village of Aranos in the South, newly taken over by the LPM, which had promised during the election to ‘Restore the Dignity of Our People’. But once in office they proceeded without hesitation to disconnect the water supply of the people who voted them into office. Soon Aranos would have to request the Ministry of Health to provide separate figures for the numbers of Covid19 cases at the village, as infections began to soar.
Similarly, at Windhoek the coalition of IPC, PDM, NUDO and AR in one of their first policy announcements said they would resume household water cuts and install prepaid water meters for those who cannot pay their bills.
At Rehoboth, where residents had been subjected to long-term water cuts, the council now led by RITMA, also proceeded to install prepaid water meters without investigating the likely impact of this technology on public health.
The same is true of Keetmanshoop, where on 24 February the municipality as a first order of business issued a notice to defaulting residents that their water would be disconnected by the end of that day if they did not pay up.
Also at Walvis Bay (run by a coalition of IPC, PDM, WB Ratepayers and LPM) the council at first opportunity resolved to start disconnecting the water of pensioners, the unemployed and other vulnerable people in Narraville over unpaid (and often unpayable) debt, despite the lingering economic crisis.
This was also done by councils in the North, like Oshakati which is still run by Swapo, where they even disconnected the water supply of a 99-year-old woman in winter amid the worst pandemic crisis in living memory.
At Rundu the council resisted calls since March to suspend household water supply, but this week news hit that Rundu’s water supply was disconnected after Namwater imposed a prepaid system on the whole town, effectively cutting off the whole town when their credit runs out, leaving thousands of people stranded, whether they had been paying or not.
In a report published today Namwater said they want to impose prepaid bulk water systems on Khorixas, Otavi, Okakarara, Stampriet, Maltahöhe, Berseba, Tses, Gibeon, Karasburg and Keetmanshoop. Prepaid bulk water systems have already been imposed on Katima Mulilo, Rundu, Rehoboth, and Arandis.
Yet nobody questions these dubious policies.
UNITED AGAINST THE POOR
Despite this massive change in public water policy, not a single question or criticism has been raised in Parliament or in the press. What this shows is that there is complete unity on major policy issues: there is ideological agreement between the ruling party and all the opposition groups. Despite superficial differences, there is real unity on the core issues of socio-economic policy: the commodification and privatisation of land and water.
In this way they also hope to outsource the responsibility for the provision of social justice and basic water rights to the market to decide the price and distribution of goods, so the question of who gets and who doesn’t depends entirely on who can pay for it. This — true to neoliberal thinking — would mean access to water is not a right but a privilege of those who can afford it.
This worldview (market fundamentalism) is not only shared by the Swapo party and its infantile political offspring, but is hegemonic and all-pervasive throughout the politics of the day. The fact is that Swapo and its rivals share the same political DNA. This is so for three key reasons: by virtue of their political origins, their class character and their economic program.
The opposition, like pieces of a broken mirror, have proven for the most part to be mere factions, splinters (refractions) of Swapo. They are a manifestation of its internal contradictions externalized, but they are all essentially unified in their defense of the system of capitalism, for the sake of which they have been willing to deny even their own voters and small children a bit of water.
THE FALL OF NEOLIBERALISM
Let me explain why neoliberalism is unsustainable. When the government in March 2020 ordered all councils to reconnect water supply to the poor and provide ‘free water’ to communal taps in informal townships, it was also implicitly admitting that the normal rules of capitalism could not remain in force as it would lead to the uncontrollable spread of disease.
The very idea of water as a public good and moreover the idea of distributing it freely, goes against the impulse of capital, which is to grow and accumulate more of itself. The decision to open the taps of the poor, despite profit losses. was an admission by the government that the denial of basic services to the poor would accelerate the spread of the dreaded disease. In other words, it became clear that capitalism constituted a major threat to public health: failure to curb it could also present an existential threat to the regime.
The State had to rush in to implement urgent interventions in every sphere of public life to stave off impending disaster. Thus, by providing free water to the poor the core neoliberal policies (less state involvement in the economy, less regulation, less social welfare, commodification of the means of life, leave distribution to the market) were thrown out the window.
This sudden reversal of public policy in March 2020 stemmed from the realisation that existing ‘free market’ policies (putting profit before people and planet) would lead to large-scale disease proliferation, potentially to the collapse of public services and implosion of the State.
In that sense, Covid19 exposed some fatal weaknesses in neoliberal logic, because the system represents a clear and present danger to public health. Further, if disconnecting the water supply of the most needy is the rational and good thing to do, this brings into question what we mean by ‘civilisation’.
In 2020, governments the world over were suddenly keen to hand out cash to the public, to accommodate the homeless. Some countries started paying monthly allowances, they put a ban on evictions, offered tax concessions, put the homeless in shelters, among urgent measures to curb the pandemic, but in Namibia there was little concession to the longsuffering public.
State coffers had been hollowed out by three decades of official thievery and reckless waste of public resources. The cupboards were bare. There was a once-off N$750 allowance paid to a few lucky people who qualified.
Yet the year 2020 did not mark the complete death of neoliberalism. Soon the neoliberal forces would return to the stage somewhat revitalized, but now rebranded as “the progressive forces”. Working under the guidance of their corporate overseers they would soon begin to attack the poor.
The cries of the landless youth, women and children were ignored or answered with police repression, with forced removals and arrests, all under the guise of providing “radical leadership”.
THE FAMILY FEUD
In a bruising fight with its own children over control of the country’s purse and the best seats at the table, Swapo found itself against the ropes in November 2020. Their wastefulness and the real cost of high-level corruption over three decades were brought to light by the fact that the country was left defenseless and poorly equipped to deal with a disaster of such proportions.
In the municipal elections, Swapo took a real hammering, losing the major urban centres and many smaller towns and villages, leaving it in control only of peripheral councils in the northern and eastern parts. The election marked an historic shift in voter behaviour; the political map was in a sense redrawn and the voters had high hopes of fundamental reforms. But that was not to be.
Soon the neoliberals would exact vengeance on those who could no longer pay and who had benefited from ‘free water’ in the preceding months.
When analyzing the underlying unity of conception, the shared world outlook and ideological unity between the ruling party and the opposition it is important to bear in mind that — with the exception of PDM and NUDO — all the contenders, including LPM, RDP and AR were founded by Swapo dissidents and are the ideological offspring of Swapo. They share the same political DNA. This can be seen in their political culture and their policy.
THE CENTRE-RIGHT AXIS
The PDM, which is in full agreement with the policy of water cuts and installing prepaid meters, sees itself as a centre-right party, that is to say conservative and pro-capitalist. PDM leader McHenry Venaani counts Margaret Thatcher among those he is inspired by and is famously said to have a framed photo of him meeting the Iron lady, whom the Welsh kids knew better as ‘Maggie Thatcher the milk-snatcher’, because of the cuts in social welfare and mass privatization of public services she set in motion.
The point is that there is ideological harmony between the neoliberal (Thatherite) policy of the ruling party and its political children, the so-called opposition and the centre-right, which is where the core weight of official politics is now located. There is no real left opposition in the field.
Even the mayor of Windhoek, who styles himself as a ‘leftist radical” is in fact propped up by a conservative centre-right coalition. Indeed, ahead of the signing of the coalition agreement in August (pictured above) Amupanda openly abandoned his own political program in order to stay on as mayor.
He is now spearheading the economic program of the centre-right (pro-capitalist) forces that keep him in office. The would-be-radical has in effect become the poster-boy for water cuts, prepaid meters and forced removals.
The dispute within the Swapo family is essentially about who should run the house; who should be in charge of the national purse, the greedy parents who bankrupted the country or their rude offspring.
The dispute is over who can better implement their existing policies, such as water cuts, privatization of public assets and services, as well as the imposition of prepaid systems, as prescribed by the banks and lenders. The question for these leaders is not whether they should implement these policies, but who can best do it.
By “it” here I mean repress and exploit the people. But invariably, neoliberalism means a reduction in the level and quality of services, as well as higher prices, as can be seen with the expensive and often faulty prepaid water meters imposed on the poorest households.
The mass eviction of shack-dwellers in Windhoek since February also show that State violence and repression are the indispensable handmaidens of neoliberal policymakers. They go hand in hand. That should explain why the mayor of Windhoek said this week there would be “zero tolerance” for land occupations, and that homeless people would be dealt with “swiftly”.
All this points to ideological hegemony of neoliberal thought, which means there is almost complete control over the realm of ideas (of what may be thought and said).
The role of ‘civil society’ gatekeepers has been to restrict the scope of public debate and narrow criticism down to how to best implement the given policies of the state and international investors. The moment anyone goes beyond the accepted range of debate by questioning the logic of the policy and even the rationality of the system itself, they are considered beyond redemption, and their mental health or professionalism may well be brought into question.
HAUNTING SILENCE IN THE PRESS
This ideological unity and total hegemony of neoliberal thinking within civil society is reflected in the absolute haunting silence on the part of the media and public policy institutions over the disconnection of water supply to the poorest people amid an unprecedented pandemic.
It is noteworthy, that not a single research institution, no lawyer, nor academic body, nor NGO, nor editorial nor member of Parliament has even raised the question of how water cuts affect the spread of the pandemic, the economy, and public health in general.
This enduring silence more than any political speech demonstrates not only the intellectual barrenness of the ruling elites, but also the fact that there is complete ideological unity on the side of the ruling class when it comes to the water rights of the people: Those who cannot pay cannot have. That is their mantra. Those who have money can use as much water as they like.
This view is evidently shared by all the bourgeois parties, their newspapers and media outlets, their research bodies, their academics, indeed the entire superstructure of what is unironically called ‘civil society’ is under the hegemonic and hypnotic sway of neoliberal beliefs, which form the basis for their corporatist world outlook and their open hostility towards the poor.
It is this total grasp over public policy and the absence of intellectual dissent that partly explains why neither the ruling party nor the opposition hesitated in the least to start cutting people’s water supply at the first opportunity. They launched into this totalitarian attack on the poorest and most vulnerable people at a time when Covid19 was known to be mutating into more infectious variants, such as the Delta variant.
Over 2500 people died in Namibia during the Third Wave in the four-month period from April to July 2021 since the water cuts started: that is FIVE TIMES more Covid19-related deaths than the entire preceding year (523).
PRESS FREEDOM: AS LONG AS NO DIFFICULT QUESTIONS ASKED
Yet nobody asks if there is any link between the sudden rise in numbers of infections in the City and the mass water cuts. Nobody holds these officials to account; instead even once-respected reporters now “worship” their elected public officials. Nobody questions the rationality of the water cuts and what impact it had on the sharp mid-year rise in deaths and infections.
City officials have flat-out refused to reveal how many households they had disconnected so far and for how long, and continue to deny any link between the water cuts that resumed in May and the disproportionate number of infections in Windhoek recorded by the start of June.
They are washing their hands of it, insisting there is no link between their policy and the thousands of lives that were lost since water cuts resumed.
The deafening silence of the media and the total lack of critical thought around this issue of fundamental water rights points to an intellectual drought, but further demonstrates the extent to which the media (is controlled and) controls the narrative. Moreover, when it comes to water cuts, privatisation and prepaid water, they unquestioningly accept the line of Maggy Thatcher and the neoliberals: ‘There is No Alternative’.
The parameters of so-called ‘press freedom’ are set in a way that it creates the bare illusion of freedom of thought. If you start to question the logic of the system itself or imagine something beyond it you are no longer considered a journalist but some kind of extremist. Only journalists that unquestioningly accept the order of things are welcome to stay on in the profession. Thus critical voices are filtered out of the mainstream media.
Except for a few instances, neoliberal thinking now thoroughly dominates every aspect of public life and discourse. If a journalist or academic should go beyond the ordinary range of questions and start to question the rationality of these draconian policies or the system itself, they would soon find themselves isolated and treated as a sort of leper, for committing the great sin of suggesting there might be an alternative to torturing and killing the poor.
VIOLATION OF THEIR OATH OF OFFICE
All councillors on taking office swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, yet across the board they now find themselves in violation of Article 8, which states that no person may be subjected to torture, cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment or punishment by any organ of the State. And moreover, all persons have the inherent and inviolable right to dignity.
Any reasonable legal scholar would agree that in terms of the elementary principle of audi alterem partem, (the right of both parties to be heard) the arbitrary water cuts constitute not only a violation of dignity and a form of torture and collective punishment, but also an administrative injustice, as municipalities are taking life-threatening decisions against residents without affording them any opportunity to be heard, not least before a court of law.
Namibia is a signatory to international conventions on the rights of children and disabled people, among other legal instruments, such as the Geneva Convention on prevention of collective punishment, which form part of Namibian law, a fair interpretation of which would no doubt confirm that indiscriminate water cuts are unlawful, unconstitutional and inhumane.
True to their beliefs, our policymakers nevertheless insist they cannot provide anything “for free”, but this is a false premise. It ignores the fact that the entire public infrastructure they now control was built using tax revenue, meaning generations of Namibian workers had already paid off the cost of municipal infrastructure, so they’re not really getting anything “for free”.
Moreover, how much did Namwater pay to take over the country’s water infrastructure in the late 1990s? Let me tell you. It was transferred to the parastatal at zero cost: Yes, for free. But the very people whose taxes and labour were used to build up that infrastructure, many of whom are pensioners today, are being targeted for disconnections, even though they built up the city that these new councillors now control.
REPRODUCING RACIAL INEQUALITIES
Neoliberal policy also aims to ‘depoliticize’ the issue of price, affordability, as well as basic water rights and the distribution of goods, preferring to leave it to the market to decide who gets and who doesn’t. But given the unequal distribution of wealth left by some 120 years of colonial rule, it is inevitable that black and brown communities left at the bottom of the economic ladder would suffer a disproportionate number of disconnections and health risks, through no fault of their own.
The historic context of unequal wealth distribution in society means that policies do not affect everyone equally, and while the policy generally hurts the poor, because of the disproportionate negative impact on black and brown communities, there is an element of racial discrimination to water cuts and prepaid water services. It also creates two levels of service, one for the rich and one for the poor. This amounts to a form of economic apartheid.
The neoliberal economists argue that they are merely guided by accounting principles and must enforce a policy of “cost-recovery” to balance their books. But good public health policy cannot be determined by mere accounting principles. The political task of the radical representatives is to fight to restore state subsidies for the provision of water services, which requires political leadership and a commitment to social justice, not a mere accounting degree.
Given that the country lost over 2,500 people to Covid19 in the four months after the mass water cuts resumed in the capital in May, the affected families and communities are within their rights to ask where does the loss of life feature on the balance sheet of the government’s cost-recovery policy?
Instead of punching up by challenging the government to restore the water subsidies that it withdrew from municipalities 20 years ago, the new “fearless revolutionaries” found it easier to punch down and punish the voters for the financial crisis. They seemed to prove that the writer Hannah Arendt was right when she predicted that the day after taking office, even the most vocal revolutionary would turn into a total reactionary.
WATER CUTS, LOCKDOWNS AND ECONOMIC COLLAPSE
Not long after Windhoek started implementing the mass household water cuts, President Geingob had to intervene and put the country back under lockdown because by June daily infections numbered in their thousands.
By mid-year Namibia was put on a no-fly list by several European countries and the tourist-dependent economy slid into further decline, leading to even more job losses. As a result even more families were struggling to pay municipal bills, for which they would in turn be punished with electricity and water cuts, as well as forced to accept prepaid water meters.
Yet no-one stops to ask if the official policy of water cuts perhaps led in any way to the sudden rise in infections and the lockdown itself.
Thus the government and opposition seem intent on punishing the poor for a crisis that the authorities largely worsened by irrational policies that put the public at risk. Not a stitch of research was done to model or project how their water cuts and prepaid water meters would affect the spread of disease.
Officials were guided not by any precautionary principle, nor by any research data, nor by the principles of administrative justice, but seemingly by the precepts of market fundamentalism, by the principles of their neoliberal religion, which ranks personal profit as far more sacred than the preservation of life itself.
THERE IS NO REAL OPPOSITION
The point of this article has been to show that there is ideological unity and harmony between the government and its rivals (the alleged opposition). Despite the noise, insults and all vain pretenses to the contrary, all these bourgeois parties at core subscribe to the same fundamental principles of neoliberal ideology (in short: profit before people).
This indisputable fact is demonstrated most clearly by their total and shared commitment and readiness to disconnect the lifeline water supply of the poor — even in the middle of a winter pandemic, and against the advice of leading public health specialists — while still claiming to be fighting the pandemic.
This brutal fact should dispel any illusion that these remorseless politicians are somehow ‘progressive’ or ‘revolutionary leaders’ or ‘radicals’. The fact is no truly progressive leader would ever deny water to a needy person. Only a heartless tyrant or an outright fascist can do that.
The fact the public have to face up to is that — despite their internal rivalry — the bitter fight for positions and (repositioning) within the ruling party and among its political offspring, all opposition groups are fundamentally united in their worldview and against the interests of the urban working class and the rural poor, who they treat more or less openly as the enemy.
The water cuts must be seen as a deadly tactic in the silent class war being waged by Swapo and its neoliberal allies against the Namibian people.
It should suffice to conclude by remembering that in Germany’s early efforts to colonise this country — as during the Battle of Waterberg in 1904 — the Kaizer’s forces sought to defeat and subdue the locals by cutting off access to traditional water points, thus denying them water and driving them into the Omaheke desert. This was an essential component of the genocidal strategy in 1904 and a means of bringing the people to their knees.
Today, the same parties that are most vocal about the payment of genocide reparations for the crimes committed by Germany are the very same ones employing the same old colonial tactics by seizing control of the people’s land and water resources, and cutting off access to the poor. Such a sorry state of affairs was best described by Kwame Nkrumah as neo-colonialism.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —