Liquid violence: The politics of water responsibilisation and dispossession in South Africa

Michela Marcatelli
Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa; mmarcatelli@sun.ac.za

Bram Büscher
Wageningen University, The Netherlands; Visiting Professor Department of Geography, Environmental Management and Energy Studies University of Johannesburg; Research Associate Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology Stellenbosch University; bram.buscher@wur.nl

ABSTRACT: This article introduces the notion of liquid violence to explain structural and racialised water inequality in contemporary South Africa. Investigating the Waterberg region in Limpopo Province from a water perspective reveals a growing surplus population composed of (ex-)farm workers and their families. Following their relocation – often coerced – from the farms to the town of Vaalwater, these people have been forced to rely on a precarious water supply, while white landowners maintain control over abundant water resources. And yet, as we show, this form of structural violence is perceived as ordinary, even natural. Our biopolitical concept of liquid violence emphasises how this works out and is legitimised in empirical practice. The argument starts from the neoliberal idea that water access depends upon the individual responsibilisation of citizens. For the black working poor, this means accepting to pay for water services or to provide labour on farms. For white landowners, it implies tightening their exclusive control over water and resisting any improvement to the urban supply involving the redistribution of resources. Supported and enabled by the state, liquid violence operates by reworking the boundaries between the public and private spheres. On the one hand, it blurs them by transforming the provision of public water services into a market exchange. On the other hand, and paradoxically, it hardens those same boundaries by legitimising and strengthening the power of those who have property rights in water.

KEYWORDS: Individual responsibilisation, property rights, violence, water, South Africa