Earth & Environment
May 15, 2024

Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink: Political stagnation and water fragility in South Africa’s Free State

After 30 years of post-Apartheid single-party rule, corruption and ineffective governance are widespread in South Africa. In the Free State Province, the situation with respect to water and sanitation provision is so dire that it amounts to a human rights crisis. Reinstating water rights and addressing Free State water fragility will require a paradigm shift in the political landscape, not least the replacement of a cadre deployment system that sees party faithful placed in decision-making positions at the expense of technically literate and experienced civil servants.

Water, the elixir of life, is the basis upon which all living things exist. It is also a source of conflict within individual, community, regional, national, and international arenas. As per resolution A/RES/64/292, adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 2010, safe and clean drinking water and sanitation are basic human rights. Water is unique among the human rights enshrined in international and domestic laws in that it is truly finite. Moreover, it is the only human right that is completely necessary. Human life can be sustained without civil liberties or political participation; humans can even survive for long periods without food – but without water, life is soon extinguished. Yet access to this precious resource varies greatly depending on geographical, historical, socio-economic, and political factors.

In South Africa, water rights are enshrined in law, and the country’s Human Rights Commission mandates that the government must provide at a minimum: (1) ‘At least 6,000 litres of free water per household at a flow rate of no less than 10 litres per minute, within 200 metres of a stand, and safe for human consumption’; (2) ‘A toilet or ventilated pit latrine which is safe, reliable and environmentally sound, easy to keep clean, provides privacy and protection against the weather, well-ventilated, keeps smells to a minimum and prevents entry of flies and other disease-carrying pests’; and (3) ‘No consumer can be without water for more than seven days per year.’ Sadly, the reality for many, including the most marginalised communities, does not reflect these goals, with the state lacking the capacity to provide these most basic of provisions.

According to international metrics, while not yet considered a failed state, South Africa is in a fragile and perilous economic and political situation. The Free State Province, a landlocked region in the centre of the country, offers a microcosm of the ever-worsening situation, in particular with regards to water and sanitation. Since 1994, the regional government run by the African National Congress (ANC) has failed to reverse a history of unequal provision of infrastructure and basic services, including water, during the colonial and Apartheid eras. It has also exacerbated the issue via corruption, lack of investment in crumbling infrastructure, declining human capacity in government, inefficient management, ineffective legal and political structures, unequal distribution of resources, and ideological policy-making.

Today, communities, individuals, and businesses across the
Free State lack adequate and regular access to safe water, resulting in a human rights disaster.

The issue is not simply one of water supply, with a large proportion of the population distributed along major rivers, it is also one of pollution of freshwater sources. Today, communities, individuals, and businesses across the Free State lack adequate and regular access to safe water, resulting in a human rights disaster. The impacts are far-reaching and severe, with schools and medical facilities experiencing closures. There is a rising threat of water-borne diseases and a loss of dignity for many in the community. Moreover, economic impacts are increasingly felt, with water-based fragility significantly contributing to disinvestment, unemployment, and poverty in the Free State.

A number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the region have stepped into the void left by ineffective government, and where they can, provide those services that should be supplied by public offices. For example, these NGOs test water samples and provide bottled water to the communities suffering most acutely from water insecurity. However, the scale of the issue is beyond what individual organisations can reasonably address, both financially and practically. With the crises impacting every village and town in the province, only a State-led solution can do more than add sticking plasters.

In an attempt to address the grievous issues in the provision of water and sanitation in South Africa’s Free State, the Democratic Alliance, a political party led by Roy Jankielson in official opposition to the ruling ANC, has set out to document current areas of Free State water fragility, including those relating to politics, economics, the environment, security, and society.


Colonial and Apartheid South Africa did not invest in infrastructure for poor and marginalised communities. As such, the ANC, which took power in 1994, inherited a deeply unequal distribution of resources and services. In the first two decades after Apartheid, improvements were made, including those to water provision, with mains water connections rising from 85% to 91% of all households. However, while inequality in the system has improved, South Africa is still one of the most unequal societies in the world. 30 years of single-party governance has seen a slide into inefficiency, cronyism, and outright corruption. In particular, since the Zuma administration came to power (2009–2018) and in the years since, the country has seen a negative spiral of economic stress and social tension, with implications for water and sanitation provision.

Safe and clean drinking water and sanitation are basic human rights.

The ideological basis of the ruling ANC, the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), is deeply rooted in communist principles and was developed to address past injustices and strive for a better future. This ideology was instrumental in bringing about the end of Apartheid. However, the adoption of a cadre deployment structure to achieve these goals in post-1994 South Africa has resulted in a system that is deeply flawed and lacking in accountability. Cadre deployment has seen the placement of party faithful in positions of power at all levels of national and local government at the expense of individuals with greater technical expertise. Moreover, many of the most skilled and/or experienced civil servants have retired or moved to the private sector. This has resulted in a significant lack of human capacity at all levels of government. Today, decisions over water and sanitation issues are commonly made by those without the requisite knowledge and experience and whose decision-making is driven by loyalty to a single political perspective, together with vested political interests. Moreover, decision-makers often have more than a political interest; corruption is recognised as being systemic, reaching its tentacles across all levels of government and private industry.

Ultimately, the other factors in the State’s hydro-fragility – economic, environmental, security, and social – stem from this political mismanagement, with those in power answerable to the governing party, not to the communities that they serve.


Of all the factors at play in the Free State water crisis, the economic dimension is the most self-reinforcing. As economic pressures become more acute, spending on services such as water is reduced and provision suffers; at the same time, serious water insecurity drives individuals further into a cycle of poverty and economic inactivity, further damaging the economic stability of the region. And the cycle continues.

Mirroring the wider economic uncertainty currently experienced by South Africa, the Free State has seen a stagnating and even contracting economy in recent years. The lack of a stable and adequate water supply and sanitation network contributes significantly to this issue. Economic factors in the hydro-fragility of the State stem from rising debt (of both individual residents and businesses, and of municipalities themselves), freshwater scarcity owing to pollution, and treated water loss due to mismanagement and an ageing infrastructure. The province’s only designated Special Economic Zone has failed, in large part because of a collapse in municipal services, including the provision of water and sanitation networks.

The lack of access to safe water in the Free State has far-reaching implications.

Municipalities across the country are struggling to address rising debt. On the one hand, residents and businesses unable to pay their allocated rates have fallen into debt to the state. In the Free State, a 2022 estimate suggests that municipalities are owed 28,37 billion rand (~1.5 billion USD) by residents, of which payments due for water and wastewater services account for almost 50%. As a consequence, the municipalities themselves are falling into debt, rendering them unable to purchase bulk services such as water supply and electricity.

The loss of treated water is also a major economic issue in the Free State. In Mangaung, the largest municipality in the province, it is estimated that almost half of all treated water is lost from leaking distribution pipes, amounting to 1,781 billion rand (~94 million USD) of lost drinking water in a decade. A lack of regional funds and little incentive for outside investment means that a proposed solution, a 200 km pipeline to supply water to the municipality, is unlikely to be completed this decade. Across the State, the water loss level is ~39%, considerably higher than the national average (19%).

Environmental issues

Of the 19 municipalities in the Free State, 14 are classified as bad with respect to the microbiological and chemical pollution of drinking water; only three are classified as good. When water in the State’s 21 water treatment plants was tested, almost half were found to contain water that posed ‘a serious acute health risk to residents’. Of 96 wastewater systems in the Free State, 64 are considered to be in a critical condition, and residents suffer from flows of open sewage and heavily polluted waterways. Not only does this pose a significant threat to human health, but it is also an ecological disaster, severely impacting on animal health and contributing to the destruction of nature reserves. Vibrio cholerae and E. coli have been identified in river water samples, and a cholera outbreak was reported in 2023.

Almost half of the State’s treatment plants contain water that poses ‘a serious acute health risk’.

Beyond the direct impact to residents, these issues also threaten economic growth. In particular, poor sanitation and the resulting environmental issues are a significant issue for the tourism and agricultural industries in the Free State. With regards the latter, the contamination of food crops further impacts on food security in the region.

However, environmental issues are not simply a consequence of ineffective water and sanitation management. Global and national environmental pressures also play a role in exacerbating the issue. On a global scale, water resources are threatened by an increasingly insurmountable environmental issue – climate change. As a semi-arid country, South Africa already experiences low rainfall (average of ~450 mm per year compared with 860 mm per year globally) and has few aquifers (groundwater storage). This situation is expected to worsen with climate change. At the same time, national pressures from population growth, urbanisation, agriculture, mining, and electricity generation are putting ever-greater strain on the system. As water resources dwindle across the country, governments and communities must plan ahead to mitigate the impacts. In the Free State, when even current demands cannot be met, planning for an even less secure future falls by the wayside.

E. coli and Vibrio cholerae have been identified in river water samples and can cause severe illness.


The dire state of water and sanitation provision in the Free State has driven individuals and groups to take direct action via protest or criminal activity. Both avenues ultimately further damage the physical infrastructure and economic capacity of the system, resulting in an ever-downward spiral. On the one hand are criminal gangs (the ‘water mafias’). Some establish their own water infrastructure, often by commandeering State-funded facilities. Others sabotage the government network. The goal of both is to drive end-users to their ‘private’ service provision. Both approaches weaken State capacity and further impoverish residents.

Residents suffer from flows of open sewage and heavily polluted waterways.

On the other hand are groups of protesters, which have become a common occurrence in the Free State. Of 205 service delivery protests between March 2021 and June 2023, 69 were linked to the provision of water and sanitation. Some of these protests have turned violent, not only resulting in human injuries but also damage to property and infrastructure. Other protests relate to land claims. South Africa relies on water supplied by its neighbours, including Lesotho. In the 1990s and 2000s, large infrastructure projects (dams and reservoirs) were completed in Lesotho with the goal of providing water to the Gauteng Province, ‘the thirsty economic powerhouse of South Africa’. Some 15,000 people were displaced during the construction process, many of whom now claim land along the Lesotho/Free State border as compensation for this loss. Ongoing conflicts along this border pose a significant threat to security in the Free State and impact on economic activity, in particular agriculture.

With corruption endemic throughout the State, there is little political pressure to address these security issues, which continue to blight the lives of residents, and further inflame the intensity of the water and sanitation crisis.

Social issues

Water is necessary to sustain human life, not only at the most basic biological level but also at the social level. Individuals without reliable access to safe water are effectively unable to fully participate in social or economic activities. As such, the water and sanitation crisis in the Free State is a large contributor to the high levels of unemployment, poverty, and debt. With these come the full array of social problems, from crime and homelessness to family breakdown and poor health. Beyond individuals, the lack of water severely hampers the ability of schools and medical facilities to operate, further exacerbating entrenched social issues within communities.

The water and sanitation crisis in the Free State is a large contributor to the high levels of unemployment, poverty, and debt. With these come the full array of social problems, from crime and homelessness to family breakdown and poor health.

Today, more than half of Free State citizens are considered to live in poverty. As the situation worsens, the province has seen an exodus of those with the skills and ability to seek work elsewhere, most of them young, stripping the State of potential wealth generators and critical cogs in the social structure.

Looking to the future

The Democratic Alliance has put forth a number of recommendations to address these issues to prevent further deterioration. The time has come to cease claiming historical excuses and instead look to the here and now, recognise the gravity of the situation and urgent need for action, and to implement solutions as soon as possible. The Democratic Alliance’s suggestions are based around three principles for addressing fragile systems, as put forward by the World Bank: strengthening institutional capacity, building social resilience, and creating a landscape that is attractive to private investors. Among them, the first requires a sea-change in the culture of governance and public service provision, with action taken to address corruption and increase ‘transparency, accountability, and responsiveness’. Beyond that, the Democratic Alliance lays out five specific initiatives to address the water and sanitation crisis:

1. Decision-making by individuals with technical qualifications and experience in the management of scarce water resources and water distribution networks. To this end, a political and governance structure that facilitates ideologically driven decision-making by small groups of people must be reformed.

2. Significant investment in the infrastructure of the water and sanitation networks.

3. Stronger and more far-reaching oversight by legislative bodies, including the power to oversee the spending of public funds, particularly as they relate to the management of water, sanitation, and the equity of their provision.

4. Prosecuting the perpetrators of corruption, water pollution, and others involved in water-related crimes; the legislation to achieve this exists already but is not currently implemented to the extent needed.

5. Building social capacity by establishing education programmes for water consumers, highlighting the scarcity of water as a resources and approaches for its sustainable use.

The Free State has the opportunity to take on the mantle of change, to fight inefficiency and criminality at all levels of governances, become of model of innovation and investment,
and perhaps leave a legacy of water security
for generations to come.

With similar examples of hydro-political fragility playing out across South Africa, and indeed the world, the Democratic Alliance argue that the Free State offers a case study in the mismanagement of water and sanitation provision. However, the State also has the opportunity to take on the mantle of change, to fight inefficiency and criminality at all levels of governances, become a model of innovation and investment, and leave a legacy of water security for generations to come. However, such a reversal will require a change in the behaviours of individuals, businesses, and communities, capacity building and upskilling of the civil service, and most importantly, a paradigm shift in the political landscape.

Personal Response

What do you see as a more likely scenario, reform of the ANC to retain power or the loss of power to alternative political movements?
The ultimate solution is not to try to have a better ANC-run government, which has indicated that they cannot self-correct. South African voters who go to the polls for the provincial and national elections on 29 May 2024 will have to consider removing the current governing party and vote for a political party with a proven track record of good service delivery where they govern. The Democratic Alliance has demonstrated this with multiple international awards for good governance in the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town.
This feature article was created with the approval of the research team featured. This is a collaborative production, supported by those featured to aid free of charge, global distribution.

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