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The water commons, small-scale farming and democratic eco-socialism









By Matthew Wingfield 

The extractive logic of capitalism, grounded in South Africa in 1652, has led to centuries of dispossession intertwined with enclosures of the commons (Vishwas Satgar 2022). In Cape Town, one of the first sites of colonisation across the country, the dispossession of land went hand in hand with the control of water by both Dutch and British colonial administrations (Green 2020). The political ecology of water in Cape Town has not faced significant reconfiguration, with industries which allegedly can provide “value” from this resource largely unchallenged in their usage – and frequent contamination – of this precious resource. The drought around 2017-2018 in the Western Cape, however, highlighted the limitations of this extractive relationship to water, which further laid bare the deeply unequal water provision and infrastructure entrenched during the colonial and apartheid eras.

While extractive and instrumental relations with water resources have remained largely unchanged, despite the transition from apartheid, the current context of the climate crisis opens up both the need and the potential to do so. The drought in the Western Cape – during which household water supply was at risk of being shut off due to low water levels (known colloquially as Day Zero) – brought the middle-class face-to-face with water scarcity, often only experienced by the poor and working class (Nate Millington and Suraya Scheba 2020; Steven Robins 2019). As Satgar has argued, “A heating planet, induced by human action, unhinges all our certainties and places everything in jeopardy. It challenges our fixation with growth economics, ‘catch-up’ development and every conception of modern progress that has incited our imaginations” (2018, 1). The climate crisis, while exposing the cannibalistic logic of capitalist development, also highlights the importance and potentialities of systemic alternatives that can be leveraged as both mitigation and later as adaptation tools. One of the fundamental sites which calls for the reconfiguration of the political ecology of water use is agriculture.

Agriculture accounted for around 57% of South African water use in 2014 (Steve Hedden and Jakkie Cilliers 2014), increasing to 67% in 2018 (Zachary Donnenfeld et al., 2018), and is forecast to keep growing, even as water scarcity becomes more ubiquitous. As Kregg Hetherington argues regarding industrial agriculture, “human and plant health regimes were often thought of together. And yet [more recently] they are increasingly thought of as completely distinct. That rift enabled a further blind spot in the way they [European industrial agriculturalists] thought about human welfare” (2020, 14). The extractivist logic embedded within colonial expansionism remains inextricably linked with various industries, especially that of agriculture. Through this logic, “nature” (read as soil and water in this case) is seen as something that should be used for the generation of commodities, thereby transforming resources into objects of value. While the economic short-sightedness of such systems is well theorised (Friedrich Engels 1981 [1959]; Karl Marx 1976 [1867]; Joel Kovel 2007), the concomitant environmental impacts are of interest, especially in the context of the climate crisis.

If the “land debate” in South Africa is read through a political ecological lens, the linkage between land dispossession, resource extractivism, and the unequal impacts of the climate crisis are revealed. The climate crisis highlights who and what is seen as expendable in the name of profit. It further exacerbates the dire impacts of the historical (and increasing) enclosure of the water commons across the country. In Satgar’s reading of Marx through an ecological lens, he argues that “the historical experience of the commons has been about life-enabling socio-ecological systems entangling human and non-human relations, ranging from land (including soils), water (oceans and freshwaters systems) and biodiversity (including plants, insects, and animals) to labour, energy and more recently the cybersphere and Earth system” (2022, 6). The enclosure of the commons, justified through exclusionary flows of capital, and dependent on grossly underpaid precarious wage labour (broadly understood as use-values), has met its point of reckoning.

The drought in the Western Cape, followed closely by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, highlighted the limits and consequences of the human/nature dichotomy, which is continually reproduced in neoliberal society. However, these crises also opened up spaces in which alternative socialities and ways of interacting with the environment could be mainstreamed. One important site of political ecological reconfiguration is that of agriculture. While the drought enabled a sharpening of a critique against industrial agriculture and its associated water use (read abuse), it also repositioned small-scale regenerative agriculture. While alternative models to industrial monocropping and its dependence on synthetic fertilisers and insecticides have long been established, the drought and COVID-19 allowed them to move in from the margins. As Kovel has argued, “as the contradictions of society unfold, cracks in the system appear, moments of rupture when the possibility of new configuration arises” (2007, 245). The current moment of water variability (flooding and scarcity), contextualised within the climate crisis, gives rise to the possibility of reclaiming, reformulating, and reconstituting the water commons through a democratic eco-socialist lens.

The immediate future of South Africa, as the climate crisis increases in its severity, will be forged through the engagements between those who aim to enclose the commons and those who aim to reclaim it (Kovel 2007; Satgar 2018). Furthermore, while commodification of water resources and their exploitation by industrial agricultural operations seems to be increasing, the connections between those who aim to protect water, and reconstitute the water commons in South Africa, give rise to the possibility of a just transition, that permeates all sectors of society. The focus on what Kovel (2007) calls “ecocentric production”, which foregrounds ecological sensitivity and well-being, exists as a sharp deviation from the political ecology rooted in South Africa for almost 400 years.

As many scholars, NGOs, frontline activists, and an emerging mass of political leaders have acknowledged, the Paris Agreement in 2014 has rapidly lost its shine and transformative allure; the lack of transformative action coming out of the COP process follows suit. The small-scale transformative democratic eco-socialist alternatives in South Africa, therefore, exist as useful examples of what is possible through the delinking from the extractive logics which underpin our relations with natural resources, and especially water. The mainstreamed “water wise” practices and more egalitarian forms of political ecology that emerged during the Day Zero crisis should not be overlooked; both the material and social reconfigurations during this time offer insight into how society (with the environment as its integral component) can and should be reimagined during a time which could spell extinction for our species.

The content of HKWM-Blog publications is the responsibility of its authors and of InkriT e.V. and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.


Matthew Wingfield is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University, and the Political Education and Climate Science Secretary of the Climate Justice Charter Movement (CJCM). Both his academic and activist work is focused on the transformative potentialities emerging in the context of the climate crisis.


Z. Donnenfeld, C. Crookes and S. Hedden, “A delicate balance: Water scarcity in South Africa”, in: Southern Africa Report 13 (2018), 2-23.

F. Engels, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy [1959]. Moscow 1981.

L. Green, Rock Water Life: ecology and humanities for a decolonial South Africa. Durham 2020.

S. Hedden and J. Cilliers, “Parched prospects: The emerging water crisis in South Africa”, in: African Futures Paper 11 (2014), at: http://hdl.handle.net/2263/49110

K. Hetherington, The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops, Durham/London 2020.

N. Millington and S. Scheba, “Day Zero and infrastructures of Climate Change”, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Studies, vol. 45, n° 1 (2020), 116-132.

J. Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The end of Capitalism or the End of the World? London 2007.

K. Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 [1867]. London 1976.

S. Robins, “‘Day Zero’, Hydraulic citizenship and the defence of the commons in Cape Town: A case study of the politics of water and its infrastructures (2017–2018)”, in: Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 45, n° 1 (2019), 5-29, at: https://doi.org/10.1080/03057070.2019.1552424

V. Satgar (ed.), The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives. Johannesburg 2018.

Id., “Marx, The Commons and Democratic Eco-Socialism”, in: Rethinking Africa Series, 4 (2022), 4-21.