History of Water and Sanitation in South Africa

South Africa is a country that continuously struggles to provide basic water and sanitation services to its citizens. The complications involved in this dilemma are not new to cities like Cape Town; however the recent turnover in the region’s politics has challenged this issue with a national initiative (Hattingh et al, 2007).

Time of Transition

The national government of South Africa played no role in providing public water or sanitation services during the apartheid era. The government was a largely centralized power dominated by the wealthy white minority. Therefore a new government was required before the people of South Africa, in particular the black population, would see any changes to their municipal support (Hattingh et al, 2007).

As early as 1994, the government had declared formal ownership of all water and sanitation services by assigning the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) the daunting task of assuring that all South Africans had “equitable access to water supply and sanitation” (Muller, 2003). DWAF started the Community Water Supply and Sanitation (CWSS) Program in 1994, which targeted key areas for instituting a water and sanitation system. Their National Sanitation Program was established to increase the rate of distribution of water and sanitation services (City of Cape Town, 2008).

DWAF’s vision for the management and delivery of water services in South Africa is as follows:

“Water is life, sanitation is dignity.

All people living in South Africa have access to adequate, safe, appropriate and affordable water and sanitation services, use water wisely and practice safe sanitation.

Water supply and sanitation services are sustainable and are provided by effective and efficient institutions that are accountable and responsive to those whom they serve.

Water is used effectively, efficiently and sustainably in order to reduce poverty, improve human health and promote economic development. Water and wastewater are managed in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner” (City of Cape Town, 2008).

Then in 1996, as the apartheid era came to a close in South Africa, the new national government drafted a constitution depicting their vision of a novel free country. Contained within this constitution was a Bill of Rights that provided South Africans with their first environmental liberties, including the right to free water and sanitation services (Appendix A). For the first time in South African history, its citizens were legally entitled to “an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being” (RSA, 1996) – a provision already commonplace to most of the developed world. However, there is a considerable difference between “human right” and “service rendered”, particularly when the government presiding over the services is unprepared to fulfil such promises. Therefore, of the 40 million people living in South Africa at the time, more than a third were still denied access to a basic water supply while more than half lacked basic sanitation (Hattingh et al, 2007).

As a result, the state set out to develop new policies targeting these water and sanitation problems. Among these policies were the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) of 1998, the Water Services Act (WSA) of 1997, and the National Water Act (NWA) of 1998 (Preambles recorded in Appendix A). Now, the government faced the challenge of working backwards to institute a water and sanitation system into an already developed and inhabited land (Hattingh et al, 2007).

New Millennium

The Municipal Systems Act (Preamble recorded in Appendix A) of 2000 moved the accountability for water services onto the local government, making it each city’s responsibility to provide basic water and sanitation services for all of its residents. In order to fund the water and sanitation improvement efforts, local governments were permitted to receive money from the national government using the Municipal Infrastructure Grant (MIG) or Equitable Shares, or to use money that had been collected locally (City of Cape Town, 2008).

In 2003, the national government released a three phase policy known as “the water ladder” to systemize their work and its progress. In the first phase or “step”, a basic level of water service would be provided to all citizens. This first step is the government’s priority and an objective that they wish to accomplish within the next few years. The second step would then introduce an individual tap to each citizen’s property, raising their status to an intermediate water service level. Finally, the projected result would see all residents reach a full level of water service, including running water in individual homes (City of Cape Town, 2008). Table 1 summarizes the definitions of the water service categories.

Table 1: Water Service Latter (City of Cape Town, 2008)


Water Service Definition


No access to basic water supply as defined below.


a) The provision of potable water:

• 25liters per person per day

• within 100 meters of a household

• less than 25 households per tap

• less than 7 days interruption of supply to any consumer per year

b) The provision of appropriate education with respect to effective water use


Yard tap


House connection

The water ladder policy can also be adapted for a sanitation system. The first step would provide a basic level of sanitation service to all citizens, which would once again constitute the government’s first priority. The second step would supply communal bathroom facilities for clusters of residents that are located close to their homes. The final step ultimately presents all residents with a toilet in the home that connects to a municipal waste management system (City of Cape Town, 2008). Table 2 shows what each of these service categories entails.

Table 2: Sanitation Service Ladder (City of Cape Town, 2008)


Sanitation Service Definition


No access to basic sanitation as defined below.


a) Access to a toilet which is:

• safe

• reliable

• environmentally sound

• easy to keep clean

• provides privacy and protection against the weather

• well ventilated

• keeps smells to a minimum

• prevents the entry and exit of flies and other disease-carrying pests

b) The provision of appropriate health and hygiene education

c) Maximum of five families per toile


Communal toilet facilities in close proximity to homes


On-site, water-based conservancy tank or suitable waterless technology