Redressing Racial Inequities through
Water Law in South Africa
Interaction and Contest among Legal Frameworks
BARBARA VAN KOPPEN
In the apartheid era prior to 1991, South Africa was a country torn by formal racial divisions. Under a comprehensive official policy of racial segregation, and in an attempt to create a society of whites only, the government of South Africa broke off its association with the British Commonwealth and created a white republic in 1961.1 Simultaneously, in an attempt to confront the reality of a black majority within its borders, the republican government instituted a program of “separate development” through which it carved out a number of black states inside its own boundaries.
Comprising no more than 13.5 percent of the country's area, these ten arbitrarily created administrative territories—called Bantustans or Homelands— were allegedly the original areas of settlement of what the state had identified as the country's nine main African ethnic groups. Within these territories, several of which were highly fragmented, black Africans could aspire to self-rule (Ross 1999: 135).2 In reality, these areas—whose nominal autonomy went unrecognized internationally—served merely as dumping grounds for blacks who were deemed in excess of numbers acceptable within the white republic. They acted as dormitories from where black men commuted to work in white South Africa while the women, most of whom stayed behind, were relegated to the roles of procreators of a future labor force and of caretakers for the sick and elderly (Omer-Cooper 1994). Moreover, these areas became economically very weak, as forced removals led to huge population densities that often far exceeded the carrying capacity of the land (Ross 1999). The new multiracial government of South Africa, which was elected to power in 1994, continues to be confronted by these institutions that had been put in place by its predecessor.