Extreme measures for desperate times
In most democratic societies, calling in the army to help solve problems that are in the purview of civil society is the ultimate surrender, an admission that normal systems and practices have broken down. So finance minister Tito Mboweni's announcement recently that the army will help clean up the Vaal River system is an admission of defeat by the carefully structured layers of authority designed to ensure we get clean water in our taps, and that those without running water and sanitation are also provided for.
Yet South Africans, wary as they may be of military involvement in a civil-society matter, may well be rejoicing that at last someone in the higher echelons of government has realised that whatever systems we have now to safeguard our water supplies are either in disrepair or buckling under the triple burden of neglect, underinvestment and nonpayment for services.
When the 1994 constitution was negotiated, it was deemed politically useful to give local government sweeping powers over water supply. This may have placated those arguing for greater devolution of powers to local government, but making water an "own affairs" function - to use the old terminology - has backfired with tragic consequences.
Today, we report on the state of water affairs in the West Rand town of Randfontein, where the sewage plant has been broken for all of eight years in spite of several contracts having been awarded to make repairs, and the municipality - surprise, surprise - has no money for chemicals and chlorine. There are many Randfonteins in SA.
It is quite usual for our leaders to slug back bottles of mineral water as they hold media conferences or gather for meetings which, while understandable from a convenience point of view, gives the impression that for the rich and the powerful, clean water is a given.
Perhaps we need to take a new look at our water affairs, and if this means depriving local satraps of water functions, so be it. The way things are now, only the most ardent constitutionalist would argue that the army has no place cleaning up our rivers.
It's a dramatic step, but alas, it has come to that. Salute! Here's to clean water.