The Dynamics and Discourses of Water Allocation Reform in South Africa

Working Paper

Perceptions of water as an increasingly scarce resource have gained global dominance, and caused many countries to reform their water legislations. South Africa has positioned itself in the vanguard of such reform efforts, as it passed the National Water Act in 1998, four years after the end of apartheid. The Act was lauded as a progressive piece of policy, with the redress of past injustices as one of its overarching aims. But, to date, there has been little progress in terms of redistribution of water use rights.

This paper argues that bringing water under the ambit of the State, in combination with the particular political conjunctures in post-apartheid South Africa, opened up space for the emergence of particular narratives around water use rights that framed the continued use of existing users as pivotal for sustainability, and redistribution to ‘historically disadvantaged individuals’ as associated with a high degree of risk. These framings of sustainability contrasted with more complex and dynamic framings at the regional and local levels. Though water allocation reform is essentially a deeply political issue, the increasing technocratisation of the reform process served to mask contested understandings, through e.g. the use of innocuous-sounding terms such as ‘existing lawful use’.

Through an analysis of the allocation discourses emerging at the national level and a case study of Inkomati Water Management Area, this paper argues that the entrenchment of existing users in the interests of ‘sustainability’, the increasing technocratic approach to redistribution, and the social dynamics and discourses at the regional and local levels narrowed down the room for manoeuvre, resulting in the water allocation reform ending in a temporary impasse.