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Public Interest and Human Rights Groups Protest Upcoming Trial of South African Activists

Aug. 8, 2002

Public Interest and Human Rights Groups Protest Upcoming Trial of South African Activists

Trial coincides with World Summit for Sustainable Development; Both Fail to Provide Voice of the People

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Citizen groups delivered a letter today to Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo, condemning the treatment and arrest of activists who protested their lack of rights to basic water and electricity in South Africa and are facing trial this month. The letter asks for charges to be dropped and demands the immediate implementation of free water and electricity for all impoverished people, as was internationally advertised by the South African ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), two years ago.

Controversy over the arrests comes as delegates from more than 100 nations prepare to meet in Johannesburg later this month for the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD), a United Nations-sponsored forum. The summit, which is being held 10 years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, will address major environmental challenges that affect the planet on a global scale, including water, energy, agriculture, biodiversity and trade/globalization. It will be held from Aug. 26 to Sept. 4.

As the Summit unfolds to a global audience, however, the local trial will depict exactly the type of treatment that many of the world?s poor are now enduring. Due to increasing privatization measures by the government, many people cannot afford the rising costs of water. As death and illness rise among the poor, many South Africans are expressing their anger in the form of public protests.

“This trial gives the wrong message on the eve of the World Summit,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The world?s leaders need to stop trying to profit from a precious natural resource and start designating water as a basic, human right.”

The letter to Masondo was signed by Public Citizen, Global Exchange, Center for Economic Justice, Municipal Services Project, Polaris Institute and the Council of Canadians.

With a 50 percent increase in pricing of water and electricity in the past two years in some areas, many South African families are unable to pay charges that often require half the average household income. In parts of South Africa, poor households pay 10-15 times the price paid by wealthy households, and often for an inferior service.

The trial, to be held on Aug. 15, focuses on the April protest, during which activists from the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee gathered in front of the mayor?s house to protest the cut-off of their services, the tariff increases and the inability to address their grievances in relation to water and electricity. When several people tried to cut off the mayor?s utilities, one of the mayor?s bodyguards fired eight shots into the crowd, wounding two people. Subsequently, 87 members of the Soweto Crisis Committee were arrested for public violence, including many elderly and several children.

“After the arrests, it took the courts 11 days to hear the charges ? 11 days these people spent in a notorious jail,” said Hauter, referring to the infamous Diepkloof prison. “These people were simply protesting their inability to access a basic human right. What do you expect to happen when water is treated as a commodity instead of a public trust?”

International protests against the trial are being planned at South African embassies around the world on Aug. 15. On Aug. 31, tens of thousands of activists plan to march in Johannesburg during the WSSD to oppose privatization of their water and electricity services.

To read a copy of the letter that was sent to Mayor Masondo, please click here.