Johannesburg, South Africa
May 16-19, 2002
Until liberation in 1994, South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle was often fought out over specific problems that ordinary people experienced in townships: compulsory Afrikaans in the schools of Soweto (1976), substandard services in Port Elizabeth (late 1970s), inadequate housing and transport in Durban and Cape Town (early 1980s), forced removals and oppressive labour relations, undemocratic apartheid-puppet municipalities, or rent and services boycotts. Local-level grievances generated intense political mobilisation and visionary demands for change.
Since the government embraced neoliberalism during the late 1990s, communities and labour have fiercely resisted commodified urban services, through persistent non-payment of bills, illegal reconnection of water and electricity, fury over public-health epidemics, and many other forms of advocacy, activism and social anger. These remind us that the New South Africa is still not free.
Hard-won freedoms are being worn away by neoliberal state policies including privatisation, corporatisation, service cut-offs and full-cost recovery policies. Along with the government’s broken electoral promises, bureaucratic obstruction, corruption, political demobilisation and repression of legitimate dissent, an explosive cocktail is being brewed—from DA-controlled Cape Town to IFP-run KwaZulu-Natal to more than 250 ANC-controlled municipalities across South Africa.
So we are coming together to reflect upon current knowledge and experience on these questions:
- What progress has been made to assure the society’s rights to state services, and to empower workers, communities and women to bring those services to all people in ways that are affordable, humane, pro-women and environmentally sensitive?
- How does the unequal distribution of essential municipal services--especially water, sanitation, electricity, waste removal, as well healthcare, housing and others—afflict our society, and in particular, women, children and elderly, our health (and especially the health of our five million HIV+ citizens), municipal workers and communities?
- Is the privatisation of those essential services so far advanced that we will now send a large portion of our services payments to a Paris or London corporation, instead of circulating those resources back into our municipalities and communities?
- Will the free lifeline services promised in the 1994 election (and again in 2000) finally become a reality, or remain a public-relations exercise?
- What has driven the South African government to cut off the water and electricity supplies of more than ten million of our 42 million people, and what can we do to prevent any further cuts? Are the courts effective? What kinds of social protests safeguard social rights?
- Are other cities in Southern Africa, and across the world, similarly affected, and how are progressives in these places reacting?
- Is the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development—to be held in Johannesburg’s wealthy Sandton suburb in August-September--a useful forum for aggrieved communities, workers, women and environmentalists to make their case for “Services for All!,” or just another money-eating elite talk-shop? Will the commitment to privatised infrastructure in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development make that initiative part of the problem?
- What are the international experiences of services privatisation?
- What arguments and alternatives are emerging locally and globally for essential services?
The Johannesburg conference will educate, inspire and allow the sharing of experiences and views. New Social Movements Films will also be shown, featuring new, entertaining documentaries that make the links between local and international campaigns for water, electricity and a decent environment, and the neoliberal economic policies which so many campaigns must ultimately confront and defeat.