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The state and water resources development through the lens of history: A South African case study

Larry A. Swatuk
University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada;

ABSTRACT: This article sets contemporary challenges to good water governance in South Africa within an important historical context. While it is correct to say that 'the world water crisis is a crisis of governance', it is problematic to assume that all states can follow a similar path toward environmentally sustainable, economically efficient and socially equitable water resources governance and management. The nexus of decision-making power varies within and beyond states, and over time. Gramsci (1971) describes this as the "constellation of social forces". Where this constellation of social forces achieves consensus, a 'historic bloc' is said to emerge giving rise to a particular state form. The South African state form has varied greatly over several centuries, giving rise to various historic blocs. The resulting body of laws and policies and the varied forms of infrastructure that were developed to harness water for multiple social practices over time constitute a complex political ecological terrain not easily amenable to oversimplified frameworks for good water governance. This article outlines the role of water in the history of South Africa'€™s multiple state forms. It shows that over time, water policy, law and institutions came to reflect the increasingly complex needs of multiple actors (agriculture, mining, industry, cities, the newly enfranchised) represented by different state forms and their characteristic political regimes: the Dutch East India Company; the British Empire; the Union of South Africa; the apartheid and post-apartheid republics. Authoritarian, semi-authoritarian and democratic state forms have all used central-state power to serve particular interests. Through time, this constellation of social forces has widened until, today, the state has taken upon itself the task of providing "some water for all forever" (slogan of the Department of Water Affairs). As this article suggests, despite the difficult challenges presented by a mostly arid climate, this means 'adding in' the water demand of millions of people, but not 'allocating out' those privileged under other constellations of social forces as they contribute most substantially to economic growth. The implication, therefore, is a modified hydraulic mission involving significant new infrastructure and, in all likelihood, inter-basin transfers from beyond South Africa'€™s borders.