South Africa

New ‘mafia’ entrenched in municipalities 

Water shortages in some of South Africa’s largest metros have resulted in the emergence of a ‘water tanker mafia’ that exploits the lack of normal water supply to extort people and municipalities. 

This is feedback from water scientist at the University of the Free State, Professor Anthony Turton, who told Newzroom Afrika that water shortages in Gauteng are part of the trend of infrastructure collapse. 

“This is part of a new trend where we can see that our infrastructure is not in healthy shape at all, and politicians are only waking up now,” Turton said. 

He explained that the supply of water is a complex issue and any fixes, even if they are the right decisions, will only result in improvements in the next five to ten years. 

Gauteng has been particularly hard hit with water shortages so far in 2024, with parts of KwaZulu Natal experiencing shortages last year. 

“Johannesburg is on the brink of a catastrophic water supply crisis. Rand Water and Joburg Water’s failure to manage water resources has pushed our city to the edge,” WaterCAN executive manager Ferrial Adam said.

Adam highlighted the alarming reports of dangerously low reservoir levels, emphasising the immediate need for action.

Some water reservoirs and towers in Johannesburg were reported to be empty, with 14 at 10% or less.

“The levels of reservoirs are at historic lows, posing a grave threat to the well-being of our communities,” she said.

Anthony Turton, professor at the University of the Free State

Turton said this crisis of local governance has been exploited by a so-called “tanker mafia”, which deliberately sabotages infrastructure to win and prolong contracts to supply water tankers to the affected areas. 

Turton pointed specifically to KwaZulu Natal as an example of how this type of mafia thrives. 

“There is a thriving tanker mafia in KZN that actively sabotages the water infrastructure. They do this to continue and prolong their contracts with the municipalities to provide water tankers across communities that need water,” Turton said.

He added that these tanker suppliers do not source their water from safe, potable sources. Instead, they take unsafe water from dams or rivers as they are paid per tanker. 

“These elements thrive on chaos, and they need to be investigated with urgency.” 

Turton said this mafia is now embedded in local municipalities in areas with water shortages and that other vested interests benefit from the disruption of water supply to users. 

“It is well-known across South Africa that the tanker mafias are very well entrenched,” he said. 

“But, realistically, there are many vested interests in disrupting the system that may serve the interests of certain entities but not the national interest.”

He mentioned that acts of sabotage on water infrastructure are often a precursor to widespread social unrest. 

“What we do know is during the 2021 looting in KZN, the precursor to that was tampering with valves and infrastructure. In fact, they destroyed valves in some municipalities,” he said.

“We have seen in recent unrest in Durban that there have been videos of activists damaging water valves and infrastructure.”

“This could well be a part of a trend, and it is important we get on top of this. This has the potential to be a national security concern.”


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