Between October and November 2020, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute in partnership with the Mail & Guardian launched its "Claiming Water Rights in South Africa" research series through its Water Rights Webinar Series. The research series forms part of the global #ClaimYourWaterRights campaign initiated by End Water Poverty.

CWR Case study covers 1234Synthesis

In October, SERI launched the first two case studies from the research series as well as the synthesis report entitled, “Claiming water rights in South Africa”. The case studies, entitled “Residents of Marikana informal settlement use expropriation as a tool” and “Farm dwellers fight for access to water in uMgungundlovu district municipality”, were launched on 6 and 20 October 2020, respectively. The Marikana and uMgungundlovu case studies examine the issue of municipal services delivery on privately-owned land from the perspectives of informal settlement residents and farm dwellers.

SAM 1696The case study of the Marikana informal settlement explores the Fischer case in which the City of Cape Town was ordered by the High Court to expropriate the land on which the 60,000 residents of Marikana in Philippi live, in terms of section 9(3) of the Housing Act in 2017. The case illustrates how expropriation in terms of the Housing Act can be utilised as a tool to widen access to urban land for poor people and to provide them with services where they already live. The experiences of the residents of Marikana illustrate how important it is to tackle the struggle for tenure security, services and ultimately a dignified life, using a range of mutually reinforcing strategies including community organisation, engagement, protest, self-supply and litigation.

The webinar panel included Nkosikhona Swartbooi (Social Justice Coalition), Mr Mzwanele Jokani and Innocentia Hewukile (Marikana I residents), Thulani Nkosi, SERI) and Sipho Kings (Mail & Guardian). SERI’s Thato Masiangoako facilitated the discussion.

71088610 2668560213208637 3313673010958827520 nThe uMgungundlovu case study is about the government providing water services on privately-owned land – a perspective from farms. The uMgungundlovu District Municipality is located in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It comprises several local municipalities including uMsunduzi and uMshwathi, with the provincial capital Pietermaritzburg falling in uMsunduzi.  Much of the region is agricultural and home to many labour tenants and farm dwellers who are particularly vulnerable groups, owing to the long history of land dispossession and labour tenancy in the area.

SERI’s Kelebogile Khunou facilitated the panel discussion with Siyabonga Sithole (Association for Rural Advancement), Mlungisi Mncwabe (Siyanqoba Rural Transformation Forum), Simone Gray (Legal Resources Centre) and Sarah Smit (Mail & Guardian).

In November, SERI launch the final two case studies in the research series, entitled entitled "Makana local municipality – provincial intervention in a municipal crisis" and "Maluti-a-Phofung - a community doing it for themselves ". These two case studies look at water rights claiming by communities who live in municipalities that are in deep crisis and have been the subject of multiple provincial interventions.

15Jan MakandaDissovled AM 1920x1280 NewFrameOn 3 November 2020, SERI launched the third report on the water crisis in Makana’s local municipality which explores provincial intervention, which is framed as a key remedy to address municipal failure, from a legal and practical perspective and draws lessons from the Makana experience. The Makana Local Municipality is in crisis and has faced various challenges related to service delivery, administration, and finances, many of which have recurred over long periods of time.  The Eastern Cape Provincial Executive Council has intervened several times over the years in terms of section 139 of the Constitution. Amidst growing concerns that neither of these interventions had resulted in much change, community activists, led by the Unemployed People’s Movement, began to advocate for the dissolution of the municipal council and eventually turned to the Makhanda High Court. The Court confirmed that Makana Municipality was in breach of its constitutional service delivery obligations and directed the province to dissolve the Makana Municipal Council.

Panellists included Dr. Tracy Ledger (Public Affairs Research Institute), Pam Yako (Former Provincial Administrator of Makana Local Municipality), Ayanda Kota (Unemployed People’s Movement), and Athandiwe Saba (Mail & Guardian). The discussion was facilitated by Lisa Chamberlain (lead author of the research series and Wits Law School and Research Associate at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, Wits University).

CarteBlanche screenshot harrismith water heroes 2On 17 November 2020, SERI launched the Maluti-a-Phofung case study which reflects on the efforts of an unusual coalition of residents and community leaders in Maluti-a-Phofung – known as the Harrismith Water Heroes – who, in the face of continued poor service delivery by local government took it upon themselves to fix their town’s water infrastructure. The provision of basic services in Intabazwe, Harrismith and surrounds had deteriorated steadily over the past decade, fuelled by political in-fighting, crippling debt, and the collapse of governance and administration within Maluti-a-Phofung municipality.

SERI’s Alana Potter chaired a panel discussion including Sam Twala (Chairman, Harrismith Water Heroes), Neil MacLeod (former Head, eThekwini Water and Sanitation, eThekwini Metro), John Butterworth (Director, IRC’s Global Hub, self-supply expert) and Bongekile Macupe (Journalist, Mail & Guardian).

These are some of the key take-aways the emerged from the discussions:

  • Community resilience and agency: We witness again and again the extraordinary endurance, creativity, and resilience of communities.
  • Communities and activists employ a wide range of strategies and tactics to realise their rights including protest, litigation, local government engagement, and self-supply, each with its own costs and benefits. Various combinations and coalitions are needed at different times. It’s a long game. Self-supply has short term benefits, and although it remains controversial, it provides a fascinating lens through which to explore practical and legal implications of community agency and government regulation.
  • Strategies: Protest, self-supply, and litigation usually come after years of failed attempts to engage the state.
  • Coalition and cooperation: Rights claiming coalitions are by no means unusual. The mix of people and organisations that join forces to claim rights can be, and are, unusual. All the cases illustrate this, whether between AFRA and municipalities in uMgungundlovu, or between a farmer, community leadership, and municipal employees in Maluti and between the Grahamstown Residents Association and the Unemployed People’s Movement in Makana. 
  • Municipalities are poorly equipped as agents of service delivery, and there are clear disjuncts between political and administrative roles and functions. This, combined with corruption, is crippling.
  • Rights framework is necessary but not sufficient: Constitutional rights and state budgets and resources are desirable and necessary, but they are not sufficient to ensure that rights are realised.
  • Unresponsive, criminalising, and brutalising: Municipalities have failed to recognise informal settlements and do immense harm by criminalising informal settlement residents instead of engaging them meaningfully as occupiers who are protected by the law. This was exemplified in the brutal eviction of Bulelani Qolani during lockdown.
  • It is crucial to contextualise and understand unlawful occupation against the backdrop of historical land dispossession.
  • The important role of the language used particularly in the media and how the criminalising language used by officials plays itself out in terms of the violence communities are met with, the narratives they must confront when litigating and the tiresome work of having to paint themselves as deserving of basic services, and various other protections and freedoms.


  • Download all the reports here.
  • Find recordings of the webinars here.