Neels Blom Writer at large
The Vaal River. Picture: SOWETAN
The Vaal River. Picture: SOWETAN

Is SA at war? It will not be the first time the country asks this question of itself and of its government. This time, however, the answer may be more complex than in earlier instances of a clear and imminent threat to national security.

The question arises because finance minister Tito Mboweni has told parliament that he is sending in the army to solve the country’s water crisis, specifically the unremitting wastewater pollution of the Vaal River system at Emfuleni, as confirmed by an army inspection.

TimesLIVE quoted Maj-Gen TT Xundu as saying the situation amounts to criminal conduct and that the area will be declared a military zone.

For South Africans weary of decades-long service-delivery failures, Mboweni’s plan may seem to be the right thing. That SA faces a clear and imminent threat to its water supply — and therefore to its economy and its social fabric — is undisputed.  And the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), which is constitutionally mandated to provide or maintain essential services, seems made for purpose.  

Yet, the question remains, is the country at war? If so, who is the enemy? And is the best defence against the water and sanitation crisis the deployment of armed troops?

To be fair, Mboweni probably did not have weapons in mind when he made the announcement, but rather machinery and engineering skills. “The understanding is that the military engineers would be helping on the technical issues with treatment in the key problem works,” says Wits water expert Mike Muller.

“The military needs to have the operational capacity to treat water. If it can put this capacity to practical use, it could benefit both the Vaal residents and the military. But that can only be a short-term solution. In the longer term, we must ensure that municipalities have the capability to run the systems, or that they give that task, and the money for it, to others who can.”

To carry out its immediate task, the SANDF is well-equipped, says Eric Pelser, a researcher and writer at the Institute of Security Studies. “The SANDF’s peacekeeping role in Africa has served it well. An army marches on its stomach and builds infrastructure.”

The main purpose of deploying the military is the government’s admission of the crisis and that it is prepared to take drastic action, says Pelser. “But it also demonstrates a lack of imagination. You have to ask how the military would fix a problem of malfeasance and incompetence at municipalities? Is there no one better to assess and remedy the situation? What about retired engineers?”

The water & sanitation department agrees that the military is not the best option, but that it is the “most workable at the moment”, and includes security issues, says spokesperson Sputnik Ratau. He says the department will not be deploying so-called military engineers, but engineers who will be working for the military.

The military’s role will be to provide security. The extension of this beyond the Vaal/Emfuleni area will be decided when water installations have been declared national key points, says Ratau.

The department’s position raises wider issues. Anthony Turton, an expert in water politics who forecasts on the extent of the violent service-delivery protests that have become a daily occurrence countrywide, says the intervention reflects a realisation of the true extent of the crisis at municipal level nationally, but also a profound misunderstanding of the drivers of the problem.

“The very pillars of government at the municipal level are failing, which means the provincial and national governments will also fail when the cumulative stresses get too much. This realisation is starting to sink in at the new cabinet,” Turton says.

For the ANC as a liberation movement with deep roots in an armed struggle, it is logical to fall back on the military in times of crisis, says Turton. “However, and here is the caveat, the core issue is whether the military is inadvertently being set up to fail? The Emfuleni crisis is not an engineering one; it is the manifestation of a systemic failure.”

Turton agrees with the military view that there is most certainly a breakdown in law and order, which makes it a national security crisis. What is not clear is whether the security crisis has been caused by the destruction of SA’s economy, or whether lawlessness is the driver of systemic failure.

Either way, the question is whether the government will resort to military intervention each time there is a crisis, as the apartheid government did in its final years.  If so, says Turton, it means the security forces are needed to secure an embattled government against its own people.

If SA is indeed at war, and if Turton’s view is accurate, it means South Africa is at war with itself. The enemy  is us.

blomn@businesslive.co.za