Paying tribute to the PEOPLE who matter most

Previously, I have been asked why I chose Bolivia as a setting for my book. I assume the answer lies in me securing a sponsorship to embark on a study tour to Bolivia, Chile and Nicaragua. If this wasn’t the case, I would never have known Bolivia, its people and the llamas. As they say, everything happens for a reason.

Between 1997 and 2000, I was a member of a team (Community Water Supply and Sanitation) employed by the then Department of Water Affairs & Forestry (DWAF), led by the late, flamboyant and passionate Professor Kader Asmal. Back then, DWAF was always abuzz with activity. Every lunch time Professor would cross Schoeman Street, walking to the local shop, flanked and eclipsed by men wearing earpieces and dark suits. DWAF became one of the best performing departments in the country. It attracted the best engineers and other professionals. Professor Asmal used to joke that he made the water sector “sexy” because he successfully shed the misconception of a Department concerned only about ‘forests’ and other “boring technical issues” related to dams. I remember he had a 5 year development plan to eradicate water and sanitation backlogs, especially in Limpopo, Eastern Cape, North West, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga provinces, by accelerating planning and capital expenditure programme of water services projects. He mobilised private sector companies, setting up institutional and stakeholder partnerships, both at national and provincial levels, including Project Steering Committees for each individual project. Through an impact assessment study conducted by the World Bank, many successes were recorded. However, shortcomings of this programme were also highlighted, bringing to light issues of sustainability, viability, community ownership and operations and maintenance.

During this period, I met a gentleman by the name of Mr Richard Noth, an American-based, Independent Consultant and Senior Consulting Advisor for water sector management and finance. He was seconded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on an assignment in the late 90s to advice the DWAF on issues of institutional development, finance and public private partnerships of water and sanitation services. Richard has had many years of experience in management, advising governments in 25 countries (including Bolivia and South Africa) on a range of management and other factors supporting sustainable environmental infrastructure. He directed 22 development projects, recently Chief of Party for USAID in Jordan and US Navy in Guam. This is how I got to know Bolivia, through Richard. I am not conversant in Spanish. Richard therefore accompanied me on field visits to La Paz and El Alto, to interact with local communities there, playing the role of an interpreter for me and advisor for the local people. I am highly indebted to Richard for his willingness to assist me during this study tour. Most importantly, for unlocking the doors of Cabinet Ministers, Regulators and Chief Executive Officers of water operators in Bolivia. Looking back, I wouldn’t have written this book, let alone embarked on a study tour to Bolivia, had it not been the support of Richard and Mr Sergio Guzman of USAID.

 Both countries, Bolivia and South Africa share something in common. Tradition. Culture and Natural Resources. The one extreme though is that Bolivia is one of the poorest countries, with the lowest per capita per income, in the world. It’s common knowledge that poverty retards and undermines people’s capacity to think, to learn and to grow. The scourge of poverty works against the rights of the poor and their dignity.

Bolivia straddles the centre of South American countries of Peru and Chile. The capital of Bolivia, La Paz, is located within towering, barren and magnificent mountains that takes your breath away. This is a welcoming sign of a home of the oldest Spanish capital, a city with mesmerising and fabulous landscapes. The high mountain passes and bumpy roads are characterised by sheer slopes with blind hairpin bends, notoriously called roads of death.

Tradition and culture is an important landmark for Bolivia. The city is embellished by the most colourful and friendly-looking Andes people. During any normal day, the indigenous Andean women wear multi-layered skirts and petticoats, with plaited strands of hair. The more affluent, in their normal western-style attires. Their street corner businesses are dominated by shoe shiners, weavers of ponchos and textiles. The majority rural peasants of Bolivia are dispersed along the mountain ranges and survive by breeding and herding llamas, which give them a sense of pride, wealth, transport and wool. Like coca leaves, llamas provide a great value to Andes peasants, particularly those living along the Altiplanos. Coca leaves play an important cultural, physiological and economic role for the indigenous people.

Compared to other South American countries such as Argentina, Peru and Brazil, Bolivia is a little known country. Yet, this is a country which can be credited for its role in the branding of a soft drink, Coca Cola, which bought the rights from Bolivia in 1886 for the use of coca leaf. Buying these rights was a turning point of departure in shaping the social, economic and political discourse of the Bolivian society.

Bolivia, like South Africa, shares a lot in common because exploitation of natural resources in South Africa is also premised on privilege and economic power. The question is; what can South Africa learn from these experiences, in protecting the rights and interests of the indigenous rural communities where mining activities are becoming rife? Is there still some platinum fever left in the provinces of North West and Limpopo? Are the vulnerable rural communities well-organised to challenge the status quo created by the most powerful mining groups? What lessons can we learn from the 16th century Potosi silver mining in Bolivia and the experiences of the Bafokeng tribe, in Phokeng (Rustenburg) and how best do we position local communities, develop and strengthen their local leadership, through youth, tribal authorities and women empowerment?

The manner in which natural resources and commodities are regulated, exploited and distributed, should serve as a concern for the South African government, especially when the livelihoods of local communities are simply left out at the mercy of the mining magnates. It should be stated that those who exploit natural resources at the expense of the indigenous communities are actually committing human rights abuses. The challenge to the Department of Minerals and Energy is to transcend the current regulatory regime and introduce stricter mining ethics which ensure ongoing economic impact analysis of these mining activities, in terms of sustainable jobs, rural income, through royalties and share ownership. The Department should regularly monitor and determine how rural communities benefit and measure how the mining activities impact on their lives. Historically, marginalised peoples have relied on the endowed natural resources and biodiversity, in terms of subsistence usage. Creating a culture of empowerment requires a conscious effort to understand the dichotomous relationship between indigenous people and their natural environment. The latter has an intrinsic value to them, such as their cultural and historical heritage. It is therefore not unreasonable for communities in Bolivia, South Africa and elsewhere, to ask for a share of the natural commodities.