R Meissner is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of South Africa, specializing in international politics, international and local water governance, water security, transnational interest groups, theory of international relations and philosophy of natural and social sciences. He is the author of several academic books including Reflections on the State of Research and Technology in the Maritime and Maritime sector in South Africa.
1. How do you think the municipal government can formulate and strengthen policies and practices by coordinating the views of people with different lifestyles on water security?
South African municipalities usually, but not always, have what is called stakeholder liaison department staffed by officials whose duty it is to communicate with the municipality’s residents. These officials also liaise and communicate with other directorates or departments within the municipality. The latter practice is supposed to facilitate coordination within the municipality and between the municipality and the public. This briefly and simplistically describes the formulation of internal municipal structures to communicate with the public and coordinate across internal municipal structures. However, what often happens is that communication with the public is not effective because of staff shortages and the shortage of other resources like finances to implement information and technology (ICT) platforms that could make it easier to communicate with the public. Then there are also political considerations that could either hamper or strengthen public communication. For instance, in South Africa there is a phenomenon called service delivery protests, which occurs when a community within a municipality is unhappy about the services they receive from the local government. Sometimes these protests can turn violent. Even so, residents of lower income communities have realized that these protests can be quite effective in attracting the attention of the municipality to their plight. If interruptions of water services, for instance, occurs regularly, then people might protest in the streets and the municipality responds by communicating with the community. Over the past decade these service delivery protests have unmasked the inefficiencies in regular and up-to-date communication municipalities are supposed to have with residents. What also happens during before local government elections is that political parties make promises and start to address people’s grievances in a bid to win favor with the electorate. That said, communication between municipal officials then happens more often before elections. To strengthen policies and practices, civil society organisations, like rate payer’s associations have, called on local governments to communicate better and to replace officials who are not doing an effective job in delivering services. With this in mind, and in my opinion, municipalities should communicate on a constant basis with various socio-economic groups and particularly the poor. Service delivery protests are a phenomenon that is somewhat unique in poorer communities. It is therefore of the utmost importance to communicate effectively with these communities. One way of doing this is to cooperate with civil society groupings or organisations in these communities. Here rate payers’ associations, faith-based organisations (churches), welfare organisations, and other groupings can play an important function in communicating the wishes of communities regarding water security. These organization have their ear on the ground (i.e., they know what is happening in communities that experience water insecurity problems, and they often know ‘better’ than municipal officials because such the members of such organisations live and operate within the community.
2. Could you please elaborate on why the municipal government is at the heart of the democratic system that has emerged in South Africa since the political transition?
Municipalities are indeed the form of government closest to the people. In other words, the first tier of government a resident might communicate when experiencing water security or insecurity problems is with the municipality. Municipal offices and officials are also relatively geographically close to residents (residents don’t have to travel far to municipal offices to pay water bills or to bring certain problems under the attention of their ward councilor). Each municipality is geographically divided into ward councils. Every five years, we have local government elections in South Africa. During these elections, and by-elections that happen when a ward councilor passed away, for instance, we elect our ward councilors. These councilors are from the various political parties that contest elections. When a problem occurs with respect to water services, we would first contact our ward councilor to find out what is happening and what the municipality intend on doing about the problem. I, for instance, can call our ward councilor to discuss a problem or suggest improving a service. The ward councilor sits on the municipal council where decisions are made about water service delivery. The election of ward councilors and the communication with ward councilors facilitates communication between residents and political structures at local government level.
3. At present, millions of people in South Africa still lack access to safe water resources due to poor sanitation conditions, and many farmers are unable to achieve expected harvests due to an unstable water supply. In addition to the government, what do you think the people of South Africa can do to ensure water security?
Over the past decade corruption has eaten away at government efforts to increase water service delivery, so in effect much of the gains to supply more people with water between 1994 and around 2012/13 had been eroded. Regarding the agricultural sector, South Africa experiences what is called climate variability, which is influence by the El Nino Southern Oscillation phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean. The drought of 2015-2019 which was linked to a strong El Nino, had a severe impact on South African farmers. However, we have very good commercial farmers that uses modern technology, and we also have well established irrigation schemes in various parts of the country. It is mainly at subsistence farming level that farmers were hard hit by the drought, but these farmers usually have employment on larger farms of rural towns. This means we don’t experience famines as in other parts of Africa. That said, by 2020 the drought was over in many parts of the country, except the Eastern and Northern Cape Provinces. Last year and this year again farmers will have record high harvests. With this in mind, civil society, including private businesses, play an important role in ensuring water security. Recently, a few private organizations such as businesses and rate payers’ associations in the Kgetlengrivier Municipality and the town of Hartbeesfontein, have stepped in to deliver water to residents. This is due to mismanagement of government funds and the appointment of people who are not suitably qualify in these, and other, municipalities.