In the United States they call it “disaster capitalism”: profiting when things fall apart, especially when the victims are poor and can’t sue. Big companies — which have paid to get politicians their seats — call in those favours and get contracts to fix things when natural disasters strike. Think New Orleans and Puerto Rico after their hurricanes.
In South Africa, we love a good metaphor. Corruption is people thinking with their stomachs, so we call it “chowing”. Anyone who works around government uses this metaphor.
Regarding sewage treatment, the model at play looks exactly like disaster capitalism.
It starts with a wastewater treatment plant, which takes waste from baths and toilets and treats it. The water that is released into rivers should be clean enough to drink.
We have 824 of these plants, mostly run by municipalities. They aren’t maintained; that budget is taken up by corrupt officials and huge salaries. There are no engineers at municipalities outside the big metros, so the plants grind to a halt — literally: faeces solidify in the plant and the pipes that supply it. We know this because we have seen it at dozens of plants across the country.
The sewage bypasses more than 700 plants and eventually runs into the rivers.
People protest. They know that sewage is flowing past their homes on the way to the rivers because of corruption. Sometimes that gets media attention.
A minister or local bigwig calls in contractors to do emergency fixes. Friends and supporters get contracts. Sometimes they do a good job. Often they don’t.
The last information from the water and sanitation department noted 16 emergency interventions in 2016, at a cost of nearly R200-million.
As a source put it: “If you can chow when things are burning, why fix them?”
This is a vicious cycle that benefits politicians and those to whom they give patronage. It ignores everyone else. This must change.
Sewage is infrastructure. Infrastructure requires a lot of planning and takes a long time to build. When things go wrong it isn’t an accident. Someone has decided to let that happen.
We only seem to display righteous rage when people die in numbers, such as when children keep dying from diarrhoea in Bloemhof. But sewage flowing into rivers kills people, all the time. It just isn’t recorded as a death from sewage.
We need to change the language we use. Allowing a wastewater treatment plant to break down — because of negligence or direct action — must be treated as murder. Delaying the construction of a water treatment plant or water scheme to profit friends is murder. Each one of these actions kills people.
The motto of the department of water and sanitation is, “Water is life. Sanitation is dignity.” They must act to make this true.