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Water wars in Ficksburg

South Africa

South Africa has been enjoying pleasing levels of economic growth in recent years, although it witnesses extreme disparities in incomes and wealth.

Free State, an administrative region, is located in the central part of the country. It's dominated by agriculture, with maize, soya, sorghum and asparagus widely grown. Ficksburg, one of the most important towns in Free State, is known as a transit point to the Kingdom of Lesotho and for its annual cherry festival.

The backdrop

Despite a South African government claim that 94% of its citizens enjoyed access to safe, clean drinking water1, the actual proportion is likely to be lower on any given day, as some pipes run dry. Furthermore, the quality of water can be cause for concern.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of protest in the world2, with thousands of demonstrations reportedly taking place each year. While generally calm3, these are an opportunity for citizens to vent and draw attention to a wide variety of grievances ranging from unemployment, low wages, police brutality, evictions, government corruption and distribution or urban land and housing. Dissatisfaction with service delivery (primarily water and sanitation) is cited as one of the key factors which trigger protests across South Africa.

The escalation pathway

In early 2011, Ficksburg experienced severe water shortages. Residents of Maqheleng Township were forced to walk long distances with wheelbarrows and buckets to collect drinking water. Businesses in the town also faced similar shortages, with no prior warnings that supplies with suddenly stop.

The water shortages were triggered by a drought which hit this region4, and allegedly exacerbated by a valve system which did not have sufficient pressure to pump water from the nearby river in Meqheleng Reservoir5.

Furthermore, sanitation conditions were poor. Owing to poorly maintained infrastructure, sewage reportedly flowed across streets and into residences. This water scarcity was not a recent problem: the townsfolk of Ficksburg had been suffering from water shortages for three to four years.

The event

On 13 April 2011, 4,000 protestors marched towards the Setsoto Municipal Council to protest this situation, including 33-year-old Andries Tatane. Andries had a history of political activity. He was formally a member of the African National Congress (ANC), and had left three years prior to join the Congress of the People (COPE). Several months before the event of 13 April 2011, he had joined the Meqheleng Concerned Citizens (MCC) and was a possible candidate for municipal elections the following month6.

At the protest, police reportedly fired water cannons at the protestors. Following an altercation with a policeman, several police officers hit Andries with batons before he was shot, allegedly with rubber bullets7, in the chest. He died at the scene twenty minutes later.

A number of investigations took place into Andries’ death, and seven police officers were charged with his murder. They were, however, found not guilty of this crime on the basis that their identities were not able to be verified, as they were wearing helmets during the event, which was recorded on video footage8.

Early intervention


  • Better communication between the MCC (as well as other community groups) and the Setsoto municipality.
  • Better communication/open forum with local police force to improve levels of distrust.
  • Better police training – less ‘shoot first, ask questions later’.
  • Introduce form of recognition (eg number on helmet) to identify police members during protests, which will introduce accountability and build trust with population.
  • Employment of members of the direct community.
  • Better management of resources to train those involved with repairing/replacing faulty infrastructure.
  • Higher quality infrastructure.
  • Provide drinking water in adequate quantities to serve the effected communities, via tankers (temporary) – organised time and locations.
  • ANC needs to produce effective contingency plans to ensure safe drinking water is available – greater administrative communication.
  • Employ individuals at the municipal based on experience and qualifications, not simply on ANC loyalty.
  • Increased policing of municipals activities to prevent corruption.

During event

  • Improved police training.
  • Communication between MCC and the police in organising the march.
  • Less questionable 'non-lethal' force available to the police.
  • Increased police presence.


  • Ineffective infrastructure to be replaced adequately to prevent further financial costings to the municipality.
  • Organised open forums between community groups and the police.
  • Better contingency plans in place to effectively tackle droughts/water quality.
  • Fulfil justice by:
    • sentencing the police officer who murdered Andries Tatane
    • sentencing the senior staff of the Setsoto Municipality who were involved in theft, fraud and corruption.

Key themes

Drought/extreme weather event, government, police, poverty, unemployment, unrest, water shortages.


  1. AllAfrica, 2014. South Africa’s Water Wars [analysis]. [online] Available at https://search.proquest.com/docview/1498266240?accountid=8318 (accessed 15 May 2019).
  2. Grobler, A., 2011. Senior officials deployed to tackle Ficksburg services. [online] Available at https://mg.co.za/article/2011-04-21-senior-officials-deployed-to-tackle-ficksburg-services (accessed 15 May 2019).
  3. Harding, A., 2012. Ficksburg asks if ANC still part of the solution? [online] Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16444548 (accessed 15 May 2019).
  4. Khalane, S., 2011. Protestors killed in vain as taps still run dry. [online] Available at https://www.newframe.com/protesters-killed-vain-taps-still-run-dry/ (accessed 15 May 2019).
  5. News24, 2011. Free State municipality in ‘total disarray’. [online] Available at https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/Politics/Free-State-municipality-in-total-disarray-20110721 (accessed 15 May 2019).
  6. News24, 2012. Lessons in how to fix Ficksburg. [online] Available at https://www.news24.com/Archives/City-Press/Lessons-in-how-to-fix-Ficksburg-20150429 (accessed 29 August 2019).
  7. Rademeyer, J, 2013. Claim that 94% in SA have access to safe drinking water…doesn’t hold water. [online] Available at https://africacheck.org/reports/claim-that-94-of-south-aclaim-that-94-in-sa-have-access-to-safe-drinking-water-doesnt-hold-water/  (accessed 27 August 2019).
  8. South African History Online, 2011. The Death of Andries Tatane. [online] Available at https://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/death-andries-tatane (accessed 15 May 2019).
  9. Polity, 2011, DA: Statement by Lindiwe Mazibuko, Democratic Alliance spokesperson, on the Ficksburg mayor (19/04/2011). https://www.polity.org.za/print-version/da-statement-by-lindiwe-mazibuko-democratic-alliance-spokesperson-on-the-ficksburg-mayor-19042011-2011-04-19 (accessed 23 August 2019).
  10. Wikipedia, 2019 Andries Tatane. [online] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andries_Tatane (accessed 29 August 2019).


Water wars in Ficksburg - PDF