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Press Release 
Hlengiwe Cele 

Media Brief - Our water: our heritage and legacy

As South Africa commemorates national heritage month in September, the Water Research Commission (WRC) has taken this opportunity to emphasise water’s role in various aspects of our country’s rich heritage. By hosting an open lecture platform event, which forms part of the broader Khuluma Sizwe Series of WRC Dialogues, on 28 September 2012 at Freedom Park, Pretoria, the WRC aims to draw attention to the space that water has occupied in shaping both our heritage and our legacy. The dialogue looks at the artistic, historical, socio-cultural and socio-political heritage of water through the eyes and experiences of notable figures in the fields of arts and culture, politics and history. In so doing, it intertwines the many ways in which water has shaped who we are.

Water and religion

Water plays a central role in many religions and beliefs around the world, as is also the case in South Africa. Seen as a source of life, it widely represents rebirth. Water cleanses the body, and, by extension, purifies it. These two main qualities confer a highly symbolic – even sacred – status to water.

Almost all Christian churches have an initiation ritual involving the use of water. Baptism has its origins in the symbolism of the Israelites led by Moses. Water also has a special place in Hinduism since it is believed to have spiritually-cleansing powers. To Hindus all water is sacred, especially rivers. In Islam water is important for cleansing and purification. Muslims must be ritually pure before approaching God in prayer. Fountains symbolising purity are also sometimes found in mosques. In southern Africa, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) has a strong belief that baptism gives orientation and is linked to restoration of inner balance and rejuvenation of energy.

The healing power of water

Many cultures and religions in South Africa ascribe to the healing power of water. In the traditional view of the Ngunis, people with psychological problems as well as those bewitched are ‘inhabited’ by animals. Patients would be steamed and a cloth with hot water would be used to ‘beat out’ the animals. Seawater is prized, especially by those living inland, for its healing capabilities. Children travelling on school outings to resort towns such as Durban have been known to fill bottles with seawater to take back home. Followers of the ZCC have a very special ‘water place’ at Haenertspruit, in Limpopo, where the water has been blessed by a ZCC religious leader. It is believed that water from this slow-moving river can help to discard bad things people might be saying about you.

Early southern African cultures and water sources

Historically, communities lived very close to the rivers without any need for large-scale storage of water. In pre-colonial times, water from rivers, springs and fountains was generally free for anyone to use. In times of drought, rather than store water or seek ways to increase water supply, communities would drastically reduce their water consumption.  Colonial records remark on how little the Tswana-speaking tribes of the dry northern areas of South Africa would drink in times of need. This extra special bond between ancient people of southern Africa and water has long been realised.

According to University of the North West Professor Johann Tempelhoff, South Africa’s leading water historian and keynote speaker at the WRC Dialogue on 28 September, “The first glimpse is of the Late Stone Age people, the San, who were remarkable water workers, were resilient in a southern Africa that started drying up about 5 millennia ago.” In the rainless areas inhabited by the San, every drop of moisture was savoured, and over hundreds of years the San developed an intimate knowledge of the weather, the climate and the natural world they depended on. Life centred on the limited water points, and rain was revered, playing an important role in San folklore.

Unfortunately, little is recorded of the use of water, especially for irrigation purposes, prior to the arrival of European settlers in the fifteenth century. "There seems to be a historical blind spot regarding the acknowledgement of the heritage of indigenous irrigation technology," says Tempelhoff.

The first farmers knew the importance of water resources

Later, the arrival of the Khoi brought about a way of living based on a new knowledge about making pottery and smelting metal, but also about agriculture and deep respect for rain. The Bantu-speaking people reached the south of the Limpopo River around 350 and 450 AD.  Unlike the Khoisan, they preferred a more established lifestyle. They dominated the wetter, eastern parts of southern Africa. The communities considered rain more important than the rivers, and the locations of settlements were dictated mainly by the availability of other resources, such as thorn trees to construct fences. Water sources were historically used for drinking and cooking while the rivers were used as sources for washing and bathing.

The Khoi practiced agro-pastoralism and agricultural produce included grains such as sorghum, babala, manna, and rapoko, and pulses such as black beans and peanuts. At first it was thought that the early farmers only practiced dry-land farming but we now know that they applied rainwater harvesting and other traditional irrigation and water storage techniques.  Traces of pre-colonial irrigation techniques have been reported at various sites.

Contemporary hydro-political history of South Africa

Looking back and looking forward, post-colonial South Africa has seen a number of accomplishments in the water sector, most notably in water services provision, albeit it unequally distributed. Politics played an important role in the development of South Africa’s water resources as projects were implemented in all of the country’s main river basins for the benefit of the minority white electorate, especially after 1948, when the National Party came to power. Water also played an important role in the establishment of former ‘Bantu’ homelands, especially when irrigation projects were set up to supply water to these territories’ agrarian economies. Thus water was not only an economic resource, but also a way in which racial policies were given effect. By 1994, the disparity between rich and poor was stark, and nearly 18 million people had no access to safe drinking water or sanitation facilities.

The necessary goal of redressing past racial and gender inequality through the provision of safe and clean water meant that South Africa’s water reform in the 1990s was expected to deliver changes in process (holistic, decentralised, participatory and economically cost-effective), and positive social outcomes, while simultaneously ensuring higher environmental standards as stipulated in the 1998 National Water Act. However, the prospect of redistribution from existing ‘haves’ to ‘have-nots’ considerably raises the political risks and expectations attached to the implementation of such reform. The challenge in reconciling process and social outcomes plays itself out, for example, in service delivery protests such as those recently witnessed.

Despite these challenges, South Africa can be proud of a host of achievements in the water sector. By 2006, the water backlog had been reduced by half while the sanitation backlog had been reduced from 52% to 31%.

Former South African President Dr Nelson Mandela once stated “Political freedom alone is not enough if you lack clean water. Freedom alone is not enough without light to read at night, without time or access to water to irrigate your farm, without the ability to catch fish to feed your family. For this reason the struggle for sustainable development nearly equals the struggle for political freedom. They can grow together or they can unravel together”.

The heritage of water, our heritage, therefore relates not only to the historical development of technology and architecture but also to those intangible values that have shaped our beliefs and practices – that inner sense that water has walked South Africa’s long journey to freedom.

Sources: WRC coffee table books:

Our Water Our Culture - A glimpse into the Water History of the South African People, authored by Marlese Nel, Sbongile van Damme and Eberhard Braune, and edited by Lani van Vuuren.

In the footsteps of Giants – Exploring the History of South Africa’s Large Dams, authored by Lani Van Vuuren.


Mr Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO, Water Research Commission 
Mr Mbangiseni Nepfumbada, Acting DDG Policy and Regulation, Department of Water  Affairs
Professor Mathole Motshekga
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