Over the years South Africa has been hit by high volumes of social protests. Protestors claim that they protest over lack of service delivery and water is one of the elements of service delivery. In 2012 the frequency, geographical spread and violence of service delivery-related social protests in post-apartheid South Africa reached unprecedented levels. Water service delivery issues rose in prominence among various reasons cited for protests. While this ascendance is remarkable, grievances over water services are not new. Water service delivery issues have been (and still are) a part of a range of conflated grievances that masquerade under the general rubric of ‘service delivery’ issues and underpin many rallying calls for social protest action. Although such conflation reflects the inter-relatedness of social services, it also masks the precise nature of the specific water service delivery issues in question.
While protests highlight the prevalence of water services delivery issues in diverse and dynamic local contexts, the crafting of protest narratives and repertoires and the journalistic reporting of most protest events has often obscured the finer details of perceived grievance issues and how these transform into protest action. It appears as if media articles on service delivery protests focus on protests that journalists find to be newsworthy. The most common limitation, however, is that complex permutations of multi-level eruptions, which occur at grass-root level, are often overlooked. These are commonly social protests which are non-violent and in which only a few people participate. Moreover, this includes inter- and intra-household and community level negotiation and contestation over water and other basic services. The growing visibility of water ‘service delivery’ issues has thus not yielded clear understandings of the political, economic, social, institutional, historical and cultural environment within which social protests tend to occur, the exact nature of grievances over water service delivery and how grievance issues mutate into violent protest action.
Research findings show that most social protests associated with water service delivery tend to occur in working-class urban and peri-urban localities characterised by high levels of poverty, unemployment, inequality, relative deprivation, marginalisation and disjuncture’s (including communication breakdown) between water services development planning at municipal and national levels and water use at local household and community levels, irrespective of the political party affiliation of local government. Other issues include infrastructure theft, breakdown and obsolescence, and lack of financial budgets to repair existing infrastructure and/or develop new infrastructure to accommodate burgeoning demands offset by rapid urbanisation. Critically, however, protest mobilisation and organization are a major determinant of the specific repertoires protestors use to engage with authorities.