A new type of mafia is thriving in South Africa

 ·18 Oct 2023

Several parts of South Africa are struggling with water shortages as taps dry up for weeks at a time – and criminal syndicates, dubbed ‘tanker mafias’, are benefitting from this as they try their best to keep the crisis going.

Gauteng’s main metros and parts of Durban and Cape Town are currently facing major water supply issues, with households going without water for days and, in some cases, weeks.

The deteriorating situation recently forced the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, to intervene. On 27 September, he announced a new initiative – “water-shifting” – which is similar to that of Eskom’s load shedding.

While many of the country’s authorities and regulators of water provisions in South Africa have blamed load shedding, climate change, capacity, and even wasteful residential consumption as the main culprits for the crisis, experts have said the root cause is simply poor governance – with authorities neglecting the deterioration of water infrastructure.

Although poor governance is the main cause of the water strife in South Africa, “tanker mafias” are now taking advantage of the chaos, destroying and sabotaging infrastructure further for contracts.

This is according to water expert and University of the Free State professor Dr Anthony Turton, who spoke with eNCA and pointed to Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) as an example.

“There is a thriving tanker mafia in KZN that actually 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,” he said.

Alarmingly, Turton added that the tankers also cut corners on their water sources as they are paid per tanker load.

“The water they provide to residents is taken straight from dams and rivers – not quality controlled or taken from clean water supply points,” he said.

“These elements thrive on chaos, and they need to be investigated with urgency”. Turton noted that this is the same for sewage infrastructure in the country, where there is a growing trend of mafias destroying sewage works to benefit from sewage pump rentals.

Social unrest warning

An estimated 50% of the water from bulk water suppliers in South Africa does not reach the end consumer due to leakages, theft, and failing infrastructure. “It is not a water scarcity issue. It is an institutional failure issue,” Turton said.

He added it is not a national institutional failure but rather the local failure of municipalities to maintain and upgrade their water infrastructure. Local municipalities have shown they cannot correct things that have gone wrong despite multiple warnings and signs of failure.

“We can say that places like Johannesburg Water are a perfect example of state failure at a local level.”

“It is in the great interest of the majority of society to resolve this issue. If we do not get this right, there will be an external correction through legal intervention in the courts or a suspension of the Constitution through some or other kind of popular uprising and extrajudicial means.”

To prevent this in the short term, the government has implemented what it has called ‘water shifting’ to avoid the entire collapse of some local water systems.

“Water shifting is to the water sector as load-shedding is to the energy sector,” Turton said.

This essentially prevents a local angry mob from taking to the streets and protesting. That is really all it does. It keeps some people happy for some of the time.” South Africa’s deteriorating water infrastructure essentially threatens to plunge the country into widespread social unrest if taps continue to run dry.

Read: One way the government can keep inflation low and grow the economy

Show comments
Subscribe to our daily newsletter