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Department of Water Affairs and Forestry / Directorate: Communications Services

Fax: (012) 324 6592 Tel: (012) 336 8264

Monday 21-02-2000



Chairperson, the honourable Premier, Mr Lionel Mtshali, UAWS President, Mr Francois Ombanda, President of the Congress, Mr Brian Walford, Administrative Secretary, Mr Koffi N’Dri, ambassadors, diplomats, consuls, delegates, distinguished ladies and gentlemen.

It gives me great pleasure and pride to host the 10th Congress of the Union of African Water Suppliers, the first Congress to have taken place in Southern Africa. Such an important event does not only mark a significant turning point in the water sector in our country, but also an important milestone at the beginning of our African Century.

I am also told that this is the first time that your Congress has been held in an anglophone country. We are very pleased to greet our friends from the north. Just this month, some of our best ambassadors were guests in West Africa. I am, of course, referring to our very own Bafana Bafana.

As you know, our relations with Africa are very important to us and those links are being strengthened every day. We are, as our President has constantly said, an integral part of Africa. Your solidarity sustained us during our long years of alienation. And our futures are bound together. The African Renaissance represents a revival of the spirit of the past greatness of Africa; a beacon that will guide us towards our shared future.

At the heart of any society lies the well-being of its people. The South African Reconstruction and Development Programme is the road map we have drawn up to guide us on our journey towards an equitable and just society. Such a society must look to the ills we have inherited, towards a society that will alleviate the plight of its many victims. Our milestones will be marked by the progress we make in building a better life for our people.

It will be a long journey. And it is not a journey we can make alone. South Africa is, as I have said, an integral part of Africa, and Africa is a part of us. We need to work together, as Africans, for the development of our Continent; for societies that are free of poverty, equitable and just. We must listen to one another and learn from one another.

We need to look critically at the successes and failures in our country and across our borders. And we need to use these successes and failures to build for ourselves a comprehensive framework of knowledge and experience. Armed thus, we can address the problems with which our people have to contend throughout the continent.


Water scarcity

One of the more serious problems we have to overcome in a Continent which suffers from serious drought is how to ensure that people have sufficient water for their needs. We need to take into account the fact that, in the coming decades, water will become ever more scarce, putting an increasing burden on African leaders to ensure that there is equitable access and distribution. Throughout our deliberations in the next few days we have to be aware that our ultimate goal is to find ways to help us better to reach the unserved, and to do so within carefully-designed structures.

When my government came to power in 1994, we were faced with the task of overcoming decades, if not centuries, of terrible neglect of our people. Since then, we have served some 9.2 million people with basic water supplies. In rural areas, 50% of people now have access to water. About 4 million people have received new supplies to RDP standards. Over 6 million have seen an improvement in the reliability and quality of their water supply. In urban areas … and of course the improvement I speak is in those urban areas that were previously disadvantaged by apartheid … the proportion served is up to 92%

Substantial progress has also been made in sanitation, particularly in urban areas. Through the Department of Housing’s programmes, 5 million people have benefited from improved sanitation. As housing support moves increasingly into rural areas, household sanitation will undoubtedly improve.

Yet, despite these achievements, there are still millions of people, especially in the rural areas, who still do not have access to adequate, fresh water and sanitation services. Over the last decade access to water and sanitation has increased slightly, but not enough to keep pace with population growth. The absolute number of people without adequate water and sanitation continues to grow.

We have a long way to go and much to do. And when I say "we", I do not mean only the political leaders and strategists whose task it is to guide our nations forward. I mean society in the fullest sense of the word. In his opening address in Parliament on 25 June 1999, President Mbeki committed the Government to working in close partnership with the people, "to ensure that we draw on the energy and genius of the nation to give birth to something that will surely be new, good and beautiful".

There is no doubt that a robust civil society increases the capacity of the state to deliver effectively. The state is not separate from society; it cannot operate in isolation or insulation. It must draw on the skills, the energy and the wisdom of all who are part of it. It must work in partnership with civil society, communities and the private sector.

The role of communities

It has become commonplace to acknowledge that communities should have a voice in matters that affect them. What government needs to do is to ensure the kind of environment in which this can happen.

Thus, while it is important to establish national priorities and programmes to provide basic services for all, people must be empowered to take control of their lives. No project can be sustained if people have no sense of ownership or participation in that project. And no project can be sustained if the other circumstances in people’s lives are not addressed. Human dignity is an expression we use a great deal. But it is not something that can be granted on paper or endowed by the words of politicians. It is something people must feel and experience.

Another aspect we need to keep in mind is that, however great our expertise, however superior our knowledge and understanding, we do not know it all. Those who live at the heart of a problem are the people who truly understand its nature. It is this wisdom that we must draw upon in our relationships with our communities. They have much to teach us and we have much to learn.

In Africa, communities have often taken the initiative in increasing their access to water and sanitation. There is an urgent need to promote and support such community initiatives, and to integrate and institutionalise such initiatives in the formal service sector.

We can rely on the will and inherent abilities of rural communities to manage their own water and sanitation provision. However, this does not diminish the State’s obligation to ensure that these communities have reliable and sustained access to the utilities they need. We have the obligation to ensure that community control and management will benefit the entire community. This requires clear legally-binding agreements about roles, responsibilities and jurisdiction.

The private sector

In South Africa, we are extremely fortunate in the support we receive from the private sector.

Not a month goes by without former State President, Mr Nelson Mandela, officially opening a private sector-sponsored initiative such as a school or a health facility in a previously disadvantaged rural area. A number of important projects have demonstrated the private sector’s commitment to the goals of reconstruction and development.

However, partnerships between the state, the private sector and civil society need to be formed against a background of specific obligations and gains. Many people today believe that the state should divest itself of many of its assets and offer them up for sale to the private sector. There are many very reasons why this makes good sense from the state’s point of view. But it only makes sense if, by privatising an asset, that asset becomes an even greater asset to those it is designed to serve. In other words, one cannot privatise simply to divest oneself of the responsibility of delivering a service, nor simply to raise some ready cash for the national budget. The very act of privatisation must be hinged on the certainty of greater delivery, more efficiency, wider community benefit and long term economic growth. In other words, privatisation must benefit, not only those who acquire the assets, but those whose lives it is designed to improve. We must have a more efficient post office, more and better housing, a wider telephone network, better refuse collection and other service delivery. Thus, privatisation must improve the quality of the society in which we live. It must contribute to the national priority of a better life for all our people.

This is why my government stresses the importance of partnerships. Partners work together. They share interests and goals. They have a common cause and vision.

Partnerships in the water sector are not new. Private companies have been involved in water services provision for many years, both here and throughout Africa. The issue is not the 'involvement' per se; it is how the partnership is formed, and against what type of legal and institutional background it will operate. Obviously there is money to be made from water provision in large urban areas. This does not mean, however, that we should abandon the poorer rural and peri-urban areas where cost recovery may be minimal.

My Department is looking at creative different ways of formulating an enabling environment, through well-designed structures and regulations. An area where I have a personal interest, is getting the assurance that our water utilities, both public and private, our water boards, and even my own Department managing the nation’s water resources, operate as efficiently and as cost-effectively as possible for the benefit of the end customer. I was, therefore, pleased to note that the topic of performance indicators is included on your agenda. This is a subject, which we in South Africa are only recently starting to address. We value the input and experiences of those countries and companies who have well-established performance monitoring systems.

I believe that the private sector has the potential to bring much-needed financial investment in infrastructure, management skills, technical expertise and efficient and effective approaches to service delivery to the table. If it can balance these values with sufficient compassion for poor rural households’ inability to afford expensive services, then we will be on our way to equitable partnerships. If the private sector does not balance its expectations of profit with compassion, we will fail as many others have done.

In all of this, we must remember that the State is ultimately responsible for the delivery and provision of water supply and sanitation services. No matter who holds the money, government remains accountable to the people. This is, after all, why I am standing here today. It is my job to ensure that the decisions we take here and elsewhere are in the best interests of the people who elected this government. Any contractual arrangement negotiated, any change in the regulatory framework must be guided by this.

The way forward

The critical challenge, therefore, is to find ways of stepping up the pace at which the poor can gain access to sustainable water and sanitation services. We need to find ways in which to promote the formation of effective and beneficial partnerships – amongst countries and among all actors within countries. We need to find ways to include the private sector, non-governmental and community-based organisations, with a view to harnessing the resources of civil society based on mutual strength and comparative advantages.

In closing, I would like to indicate that your Congress is an important platform from which to debate and discuss various institutional, legal, financial and other technical issues that impact on the water industry. However, with your permission, I would like to challenge you to address the issues of water and sanitation from the perspective of those who suffer most in terms of daily living conditions, disease and untapped economic opportunities.


I would like to end by saying, once again, how important it is to meet as Africans to discuss African problems. We have, in the past few years, met regularly with our immediate neighbours, but we need to get closer to our friends from further north, to cross cultural and linguistic barriers. I believe that Conferences such as this, where the people of Africa can meet and discuss common issues, contribute greatly to our vision of a united Continent.


Collectively, this esteemed gathering represents a hugely diverse spectrum of water and sanitation experts. We are indeed privileged to be exposed to so much wisdom and knowledge. Due to my many commitments, I will not be able to stay with you for the entire conference. However, I will be receiving detailed reports on your discussion here.

I would now like to officially open this Congress, and wish all the delegates the strength and stamina to fulfil our common vision for the people of Africa.

Thank you