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Environment and Planning A2013, volume 45, pages 25532571


Dis/articulations and the hydrosocial cycle:

postapartheid geographies of agrarian change in the
Ceres Valley, South Africa
Anne-Marie Debban
Department of Geography, San Diego State University, 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego,
CA92182, USA; e-mail:
Received 5 December 2012; in revised form 6 August 2013
Abstract. This paper analyzes the role of the hydrosocial cycle in producing and sustaining
uneven geographies of capitalist agriculture in the Ceres Valley, a major center of South
Africas high-value deciduous fruit industry. I explore ways in which the mobilization,
appropriation, and transformation of water resources become intertwined with and
reinforce the radicalized capitalist relations that have characterized the local political
economy of export fruit production since the 19th century. These relations have solidified
over time as they have been able to adapt to shifting politicaleconomic and political
ecological dynamics. Focusing on the postapartheid period, I examine how white agrarian
capital has been able to maintain and even strengthen its dominance over the regional
economy despite the dramatic shuffling of political and economic priorities. I pay particular
attention to how the fatal combination of the liberalization of agricultural markets and the
financialization of water supply becomes articulated through interconnected sociospatial
processes of dispossession, devaluation, and disinvestment. I argue that questions of
access to and control over the hydrosocial cycle not only reveal how marginalized and
radicalized social actorsfarm workers, small-scale farmers, township residentsbecome
differentially articulated with and disarticulated from existing and emerging circuits of
capital accumulation. It also opens promising analytical and political avenues through
which to illuminate and confront uneven geographies of capitalist development in ways
that highlight the linked sociospatial processes of production and social reproduction.
Keywords: disarticulations, political ecology, hydrosocial cycle, postapartheid South
Africa, agrarian change, Ceres Valley

1 Introduction
South Africas political transition from apartheid to democratic rule in 1994 was accompanied
by a period of dramatic economic restructuring. These changes were aimed at stimulating the
development of a globally competitive export-oriented economy through the promulgation of
neoliberal reforms, including the deregulation and reregulation of different economic sectors,
the privatization of state entities, and the liberalization of finance and trade. Initiated bythe
apartheid government in the 1980s during a general and prolonged economic crisis, the neo
liberal restructuring of the economy intensified and accelerated under the democratically
elected African National Congress (ANC) government.
The shift away from a largely inward-looking and state-supported economy produced
deeply uneven effects between and among different economic sectors. One of the moredeeply
affected sectors was agriculture, which historically benefited from and depended on an
elaborate state infrastructure that tightly regulated production and distribution regimes and
provided financial support (Bernstein, 1996). On the one hand, the sharp decline in state
support, along with the liberalization of trade, severely weakened the maize, wheat, and dairy
industries, which faced intense global market competition and volatility; on the other hand,


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high-value and export-oriented sectors such as the wine, fruit, sugar, and wool industries
thrived and experienced rapid growth (Greenberg, 2003). At the same time, these sectors have
seen a growing concentration and centralization of capital coupled with changes in forms and
patterns of agricultural employment that have resulted in job losses, spurred the proliferation
of informal settlements, and generated the need to straddle multiple livelihood strategies
(Bernstein, 2004; duToit and Ewert, 2002; Hart, 2002). In view of South Africas history
of colonial conquest and racial dispossession, the shifting dynamics of capitalist agriculture
in the postapartheid period must necessarily be linked to the reproduction of white agrarian
capital, and the way this reinforces existing patterns of racial exclusion and dominance in the
countryside (Bernstein, 1996; duToit, 2004; Greenberg, 2003; 2010; Williams etal, 1998).
A growing body of critical scholarship has emerged examining the shifting dynamics of
export-oriented agricultural production in postapartheid South Africa. Emphasis has been
put on the changing sociospatial patterns of agricultural labor relations and markets (duToit
and Ally, 2003; Ewert and duToit, 2005; Mather and Greenberg, 2003); the gendered and
radicalized divisions that structure labor dynamics (Barrientos and Kritzinger, 2004; duToit
and Ewert, 2002; Ewert and duToit, 2005; Orton etal, 2001); the relationship between
agricultural restructuring and land reform (Cousins, 2007; Greenberg, 2003; Kepe, 2009;
Moseley, 2007); the linkages between global market integration and black economic
empowerment strategies (duToit etal, 2008; Raynolds and Ngcwangu, 2010; Williams,
2005); and the integration of black farmers into global commodity circuits (Mather and
Greenberg, 2003; Ponte and Ewert, 2009).
A general trend in this literature has been the examination of agrarian change as a
uniquely social process. The result has been neglect of the ecological bases that produce and
sustain capitalist agriculture.(1) In this paper I address this gap through a political ecological
study of water supply in the Ceres valley, a major center for South Africas deciduous fruit
industry. I am specifically interested in examining the role of neoliberal water reforms in
shaping the local political economy of export fruit production. While the privatization and
commercialization of urban water services has been an important arena for critical scholarly
research on the neoliberal restructuring of South Africas water sector (eg,McDonald and
Ruiters, 2005), there is a need to understand how neoliberal water management practices have
altered ways in which farmers gain access to irrigation water. This is especially important
given that white agriculture has historically relied on state subsidies and investments in the
development of water supply infrastructure, which have kept irrigation costs artificially low,
and thereby stand to be considerably affected by neoliberal water reforms that have resulted
in the withdrawal of state support in irrigation.
The case of Ceres is particularly instructive. My main focus is on the Koekedouw Dam,
which was constructed in 1998 to supply water to the town of Ceres and irrigators in the
surrounding valley (see figure1). The Koekedouw Dam was entirely financed by the private
sector and was praised by government as a model for advancing the national agenda on water
resource management. It is of particular importance to understand how the Dam became a
catalyst for white farmers to initiate land-reform deals with aspiring black farmers, and, in
turn, how land reform became a key strategy through which the old rural elite was able to
expand its control over local water and land resources. My concerns in this paper, however,
have less to do with the specific details and outcomes of the land-reform projects than with
how they enabled the reproduction and expansion of white agrarian capital within the context


Some concerns have been raised around the ecological factors and consequences of agricultural
production (Bernstein, 2004; Bolwig etal, 2008), but they are viewed as separate from social processes.
I am arguing for something different, as I discuss below.

Dis/articulations and the hydrosocial cycle


Figure 1. [In color online.] Map of Ceres and surrounding area. The X indicates the proximate
location of the Koekedouw Dam.

of the racialized histories of dispossession that shape uneven geographies of export fruit
production in the Ceres Valley.
Engaging with the concept of disarticulations (Bair and Werner, 2011), this paper thus
explores relationships between the political ecology of water and uneven geographies of
capitalist agricultural development. Specifically, I look at how the deepening integration
ofthe Ceres economy into global commodity circuits becomes articulated with and is
contingent on the production and circulation of water. In doing so, I demonstrate ways in
which these articulations are constituted through processes of disjuncture and disruption
that selectively transform, or disarticulate, existing social relations and forms of production
(Bair and Werner, 2011, page989) and social reproduction. My goal in this paper is to develop
understandings of the simultaneous processes of articulation and disconnection throughwhich
uneven geographies of capitalist agriculture are reworked in the Ceres Valleythrough the
lens of the hydrosocial cycle.
Studies on the political ecology of water have conceptualized the hydrosocial cycle as
a way to analyze the interwoven socioecological processes and relations through which the
hydrological cycle becomes socially metabolized (Bakker, 2003; Budds, 2008; Gandy, 1997;
2004; Kaika, 2005; 2006; Swyngedouw, 1999; 2004; 2009). Perspectives on the hydrosocial
cycle consider that the hydraulic conditions that make irrigation agriculture (and other social
systems) possible are socio-physical constructions that are actively and historically produced,
both in terms of social content and physical-environmental qualities (Swyngedouw, 2009,
page56). As a material basis for social and economic life, the institutional and structural
arrangements through which the hydrosocial cycle becomes organized play a pivotal role
in the socioecological production and organization of space (Gandy, 2004). For this reason,


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examining ways in which material and institutional hydrosocial arrangements operate

through interrelated social processes not only addresses important questions about access to
and exclusion from water: it opens a window onto a wider set of sociospatial power relations
(Loftus, 2007).
The next section begins with a brief overview of critical scholarship of land and agrarian
reform in South Africa. This leads me to observe how inadequate attention has been paid
to the centrality of water in shaping processes of agrarian change. I then point to ways in
which the historical development of capitalist agriculture in South Africa has been premised
on a specific ordering of material and institutional hydrosocial arrangements, and how
hydrosocial configurations have changed in response and according to politicaleconomic
and socioecological dynamics. I argue that a hydrosocial perspective is crucial in order to
develop better understandings of postapartheid trajectories of agrarian change.
In the third section of the paper, my attention turns to the Ceres Valley and the Koekedouw
Dam. I begin by explaining the driving forces behind increasing water demand and document
the institutional and financial arrangements for the new water project. I then examine the
role of the Koekedouw Dam in shaping a capital crisis that hit Ceres in the late 1990s,
looking specifically at how the states land-reform program provided the means through
which the crisis was resolvedor rather, displacedby facilitating the reinvestment into
devalued capital. As I go on to explain, the limited and highly circumscribed spaces that land
reform opens up for social redistribution must be juxtaposed against the social and spatial
fragmentation of agricultural labor and the crisis of social reproduction that has emerged
as a result (Bernstein, 2013). This leads me to consider, finally, how Koekedouw water has
become a key arena around which new everyday struggles are fought, offering perhaps the
strongest examples of the stakes involved from focusing on dis/articulations of the hydrosocial
cycle. To conclude, I argue that questions of access to and control over the hydrosocial cycle
not only reveal how marginalized and racialized social actorsfarm workers, small-scale
farmers, township residentsbecome differentially articulated with and disarticulated from
existing and emerging circuits of capital accumulation. It opens promising analytical and
political avenues through which to illuminate and confront uneven geographies of capitalist
development in ways that highlight the linked sociospatial processes of production and social
2 Agrarian reform and the hydrosocial cycle in postapartheid South Africa
South Africas history of racialized dispossession and discrimination resulted in deep
inequalities in access to land: the white minority population ultimately gained control and
ownership of 87% of the total land area. In order to reverse racially skewed land relations,
the ANC adopted a market-based land-reform program in 1995 with the goal of redistributing
30% of agricultural land to black South Africans. This target was initially set to be achieved
by 1999, which was later revised to 2014, and then most recently to 2025 (Greenberg, 2010).
That the land-reform program has had a dismal track record has been hard to deny. By 2009,
only 5% of land had been transferred to black ownership (Hall, 2009). Not only have targets
not been reached, but actually existing land reform has been unable to generate alternative
viable livelihoods for most beneficiaries (Aliber and Cousins, 2013; Jacobs etal, 2003;
Moseley and McCusker, 2008).
While many critiques of the ANCs land-reform program have centered on policy issues
(eg,Lahiff, 2007), others have interrogated the logics of land reform in relation to broader
political-economic processes (eg,Walker, 2008). This last has generated debates about
different but interrelated aspects of land reform, including demands to reverse historical
injustices (Kepe, 2009); promote the formation of a black commercial farming class;
generate employment and alleviate rural and urban poverty; and address the conditions of

Dis/articulations and the hydrosocial cycle


fragmentation of labor under current patterns of accumulation (Bernstein, 2004; OLaughlin

etal, 2013).
One thing that is largely missing from these debates is any serious consideration of
the role of water in shaping processes of agrarian change. This is particularly surprising
given how water scarcity has been a persistent concern in South Africa from the colonial era
onward. Of course, there have been questions raised about how issues of access to water have
contributed to the failure of land reform (eg,Cousins, 2013), as well as appeals for better
integration between water and land-reform policies (Greenberg, 2010; van Koppen etal,
2009)which the government itself has recognized (DWAF, 2006). The problem, though, is
that these accounts adopt an instrumentalist view of water, treating it as an objective factor
of production. Yet, this ignores how water resources are socially produced (Linton, 2008),
and embedded in multiscaled politicaleconomic and sociocultural processes of hydrosocial
transformation that shape and are shaped by highly uneven and unjust socioecological
configurations (Swyngedouw, 2004). Approaching water through the hydrosocial cycle
becomes vitally important within the specific context of South Africa.
Indeed, the historical development of capitalist agriculture fundamentally depended
on access to plentiful and reliable sources of water for irrigation. Under the riparian
system thatwas established during colonial rule (Hall, 1939), landowners had exclusive
rights to any water resources (both surface and underground) attached to their land. The
riparian system ultimately concentrated and consolidated ownership and control over the
countrys water resources within the hands of the white minority population. Only 9.5%
of national water resources were allocated to the ethnically divided native reserves (and
later bantustans(2)) (Schmitz, 2008), which granted limited landholding rights to the black
population and, as such, racial inequalities in land relations produced similar (and even
greater) inequalities in access to water (DWAF, 1997). Land and water dispossession were
inextricably intertwined (Cottle, 2004; Guelke and Shell, 1992; Ross, 1986).
Although riparian water rights ensured that the white minority could potentially benefit
from free access to water, the geographical and temporal variability of freshwater resources,
compounded by periodic episodes of drought, meant that water was, nevertheless, a limiting
factor for capitalist expansion. In order to overcome these limitations, the state drove forward
the transformation of the countrys hydraulic conditions which was, in turn, predicated on
greater state control over water (Lumby etal, 2005). The massive development of large-scale
hydraulic engineering projects, which gathered pace in the 1970s, served to fuel the expansion
and diversification of the national economy as accelerated processes of industrialization and
urbanization led to increasing competition and conflict over available water supplies.
White agrarian capital continued to benefit from the riparian system, and also from
privileged water allocations and pricing policies for water abstracted from multipurpose
state water schemes serving the urban, mining, and agricultural sectors. Furthermore,
thestate provided generous subsidies and low-interest loans, which were largely written off,
to encourage irrigation boards to undertake the construction of private irrigation schemes
(Backeberg and Groenwald, 1994; Bate and Tren, 2002).
As demands for water increased and the technological conquest of water was spatially
and ecologically extended, the socioecological transformation of the hydrological cycle
became more deeply embedded in the consolidation of the capitalist racial formation. This
becomes particularly clear when we consider how dam building that flooded valleys in
the bantustans resulted in the relocation of rural communities to dense and underserviced

The Land Acts of 1913 and 1936 formally limited landholding rights for the black majority,
representing two thirds of the population, to ethnically divided native reserves which under apartheid
were referred to as bantustans and became the basis for its plan for separate development. Ten
bantustans were establishedall across the country, except in the Western Cape province.


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settlements and their absorbtion within the wage-labor economy (Scott and Diab, 1989). A
similar scenario took place as a result of the development of state irrigation schemes aimed
at improving agricultural production in the bantustans. These schemes were part of the
apartheid governments strategy to give credibility to the ideology of separate development
through betterment planning schemes in the bantustans. In practice, these schemes led
to the rearrangement of patterns of land use and access, benefited only a small minority
ofthe bantustan population, and further increased dependence on wage labor (de Wet, 1989;
Letsoalo and Rogerson, 1982).
The above exemplifies how socioecological processes through which water became
increasingly mobilized, appropriated, transformed, and incorporated within circuits of
capitalist production were premised on the simultaneous separation and expulsion of the
black population from land and water resources. Racialized processes of dispossession and
displacement, through which racialized capitalist relations became articulated in the South
African countryside, operated through specific sociotechnical interventions in the hydrological
cycle. These interventions created the socioecological conditions necessary to make
possible and sustain the production and expansion of white agrarian capital. Intellectual and
political engagements with agrarian questions must thus confront how any project for social
transformation in the countryside becomes inserted into existing hydrosocial configurations.
This is particularly relevant given how South Africas democratic transition paved the
way for the comprehensive legal review of the water sector. In 1998 the ANC passed new
water legislation with the goals of promoting productive and efficient water use while also
addressing issues of social equity and racial redistribution. One of the more politically
important changes brought about by the new water law has been the abolition of the riparian
system, as all water resources have been nationalized and placed within the public trust
(DWAF, 1998). However, this has been largely symbolic as provisions were made to protect
existing water rights which had been appropriated during the colonial and apartheid eras.
White farmers have thus been able to maintain the preferential arrangements through which
they have historically secured access to cheap and abundant water resources. Nevertheless,
the neoliberal market-based principles that have been adopted to regulate the allocation,
development, and use of new water resources have serious implications for farmers. Key
elements include full-cost water pricing, the reallocation of water to the highest value
use, and private sector financing. In other words, the full costs relating to the production,
distribution, and management of water resources have become the responsibility of water
users. Furthermore, the policy of providing state subsidies for the development of agricultural
water resources has been terminated. An important caveat is that the new law has allowed for
the state to grant water subsidies for the purposes of promoting racial redress in the allocation
of water resources. Questions about who gains access to these subsidies, by what means, for
what purposes, and to what effect are raised in this paper.
The remainder of the paper focuses on my political ecological study of water supply
in the Ceres valley. In putting the concept of the hydrosocial cycle to work, I examine
ways in which postapartheid shifts in the political and institutional organization of the water
supply have intersected with and operated through multiple and interconnected processes
of agrarian change.

Dis/articulations and the hydrosocial cycle


3 Reworking the hydrosocial cycle in the Ceres Valley(3)

The people who moved in here two hundred, two hundred and fifty years ago, they
werent foolsthey chose places with good soil and good waterif you cant irrigate
you may as well forget about it.
Carl van der Merwe (quoted in Smuts and Albert, 1988, page116)
Lying about 150km northeast of Cape Town, the town of Ceres was established in the mid19th century as a local market and distribution outlet for colonial farmers in the surrounding
valley, and continues to be a key node in the production and distribution of deciduous fruit.
Today, Ceres produces about 20% of the apples and 45% of the pears grown in South Africa;
over 60% of the Ceres fruit crop is geared for export markets. While the EU, especially the
UK, has traditionally been the main destination for Ceres exports, other important markets
include North America, the Middle East, and East Asia. Apart from producing fruit, Ceres
has also become a primary location for a well-established and expanding agroindustry inthe
packing and processing of fruit and vegetables. Indeed, Ceres is perhaps best known as
theheadquarters of the world famous Ceres Fruit Juices company.
Capitalist forms of agricultural production took root in the late 19th century when
farmers in the valley became increasingly specialized in horticulture, growing apples, pears,
peaches, and nectarines. While the area receives good rainfall during the winter months,(4)
the inverse relationship between hydrological cycles (winter rainfall patterns) and production
demands (summer growing season) meant that any sort of agriculture on a commercial scale
would have been impossible without irrigation (Smuts and Albert, 1988). In the early days of
irrigation agriculture, water from perennial streams and springs was channeled to fields and
orchards by furrows. As agriculture intensified and streams started to dry up, farmers built
dams on their farms to capture and store surface runoff that accumulated during the winter
rainfall season in order to irrigate their fields and orchards in the summer season.
It was not until the second half of the 20th century that Ceres farmers saw the need for larger
scale irrigation schemes, as the deciduous fruit industry was undergoing rapid expansion.
Between 1950 and 1980 the region experienced nearly five-fold growth in exports by volume
(Stander, 1983). Within this time frame, Ceres irrigation boards undertook the construction of
four irrigation schemes to meet increasing demands for water (DWA, 1973). These schemes
enabled farmers to gain access to water to which they did not have riparian rights. Because
the schemes were financed through state subsidies and low-interest loans, irrigation costs
accounted for only a small proportion (on average 5%) of total costs of production (Louw,
2004). As we shall see, the sociopolitical and financial arrangements through which farmers
gained access to water changed dramatically in the postapartheid period.
3.1 Liberalizing the countryside

While the period of agricultural restructuring that began in the 1980s opened new markets for
South African deciduous fruit growers, Ceres farmers became increasingly concerned about
strained water supplies. The growing demand for water was not simply to expand production:
it was also linked to meeting the strict quality standards of the European market.(5) In order
to remain competitive, farmers needed to replant orchards with new, high-value cultivars for
which more and cleaner water meant bigger and tastier fruit. Farmers had increasingly been

This section draws on key informant and ethnographic interviews conducted during fieldwork in
Ceres from November 2006 to April 2007.
The average annual precipitation is 2400mm, significantly higher than the country average of
500mm (DWAF, 2003).
The integration and concentration of power by European retail markets have subjected fruit farmers
to greater price competition and strict production standards.


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supplementing their irrigation needs with brackish groundwater, which was far from ideal
and ran the risk of ruining crops. Farmers thus turned to the Koekedouw River.
The Koekedouw River had already supplied irrigation water to farmers on the western
edge of the Ceres valley since the 1970s (DWA, 1969). These farmers had established the
Koekedouw Irrigation Board (KIB) and developed an irrigation scheme which granted them
the right to pump water in the winter months from the upper reaches of the Koekedouw River.
The farmers wanted to build a dam on the Koekedouw River in order to fully exploit the rivers
waters throughout the year. Since a small municipal dam already existed on the Koekedouw
River, which supplied water to the town of Ceres, the KIB depended on the collaboration of
the Ceres Municipality to move forward with the Koekedouw water project. A constellation
of social, political, and economic forces combined to steer the municipality in favor of a
larger water-supply scheme. At least three deserve mention. First, the towns economic base
is directly dependent upon agroindustrial linkages such that fruit processing and packaging
plants experienced growing demand for water, as well as the farmers. In addition, many
farmers have managerial interests in these concerns, forging a unity of class interests between
urban and agricultural demands for water. Second, the representation of farmers on the local
council further consolidated this unity of class interests (duToit, 2004). Third, the towns
growing population created expectations that a greater demand for water would need to be
met, especially in the context of postapartheid political priorities focused on extending and
improving municipal water connections to black households.
In 1996 the Ceres Municipality and the KIB, with a membership of thirty farmers,
entered into a public-partnership agreement for the construction of the Koekedouw Dam
(Ceres Municipality, 1996). The stated objectives for the dam project included the expansion
of the water supply to irrigate an additional 1500 ha of land, the creation of 800 agricultural
jobs through increased productivity, and meeting projected growth in the towns demands
for water. In addition, a portion of water from the dam was to be released back into the river
(DWAF, 1995). On the basis that these objectives advanced the national governments agenda
on waterby promoting economic growth and job creation while simultaneously addressing
ecological concernsthe Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) issued a water
license for the abstraction and storage of water on the Koekedouw River.
The construction of the Koekedouw Dam was completed in 1998. It replaced the old
municipal dam with a much larger one that increased by more than forty times the average
annual water yield from the Koekedouw River. Originally estimated at R53 million,(6)
the construction of the dam ended up costing R94 million. The capital, operational, and
maintenance costs of the dam were divided between the municipality (41%) and the KIB
(59%), based on their respective allocation of water rights. No funding from the national
government was to be allocated to finance the project. Indeed, the Koekedouw Dam was
the first bulk water supply project that was to be entirely financed with loans from private
commercial banks without government guarantees. This meant that the income derived from
agricultural water resources was to be self-generating without the support of state subsidies.
The KIB was able to secure a loan at a fixed interest rate of 14.5% with a repayment plan that
was set to increase at 7.5% per annum over twenty years. Farmers believed that they could
carry the loan in view of the favorable market conditions in the fruit industry at the time
(Louw, 2004).
The financial and institutional arrangements for the Koekedouw Dam exemplify the
neoliberal thrust underpinning national water policy reforms. This is reflected in three
important ways: the withholding of government subsidies and state-backed loans for irrigation
projects; the expanded role given to the private sector in planning and building large-scale

In 1998 the South African Rand (ZAR) was trading in the vicinity of US$5.50.

Dis/articulations and the hydrosocial cycle


infrastructure projects; and the expanded role given to private commercial banks in financing
water infrastructure. This marked a significant departure from previous practices, where
the government heavily subsidized the costs of irrigation development. The result was that
irrigation costs soared and many farmers became increasingly vulnerable to sharp market
fluctuations, as occurred in the late 1990s.
3.2 Overaccumulation and devaluation: land reform comes to the Ceres valley

The booming export fruit economy of the 1990s that stimulated a new cycle of accumulation
in Ceres was abruptly interrupted at the end of the decade. A global market glut in applesand
pearsprimary export crops in Cerescaused world prices to crash in 1997, in 1999,
andagain in 2002 (see table1). Three major developments occurred that shaped the crisis
of South Africas deciduous fruit industry in general. First, the deregulation of agricultural
export markets in 1997 led to a rapid multiplication of private export agents, which created
intense competition for producers and exporters as they struggled to secure overseas markets
(Williams etal, 1998). This only intensified competitive pressures resulting from the
liberalization of trade in the 1980s, which placed South African farmers in direct competition
with other exporters from the Southern Hemisphere, especially Chile (Kritzinger etal, 2004).
Second, the integration and concentration of power within European and domestic retail
markets subjected fruit farmers to stringent production standards that resulted in higher
production costs (Barrientos and Kritizinger, 2004). Third, the devaluation of the Rand and
rising interest rates also increased production costs. International shipping costs paid in US$
and the importation of agricultural inputs downplayed the positive effects of export growth
that might have been generated from the falling Rand. The combination of plummeting world
fruit prices, the intensification of competitive forces, and the devaluation of the Rand(7)
severely destabilized the financial viability of many farmers throughout the deciduous fruit
producing regions of the Western Cape. In Ceres, the debt burden of the Koekedouw Dam
only made things worse, leading some farmers to restructure their operations and pull out
of the Koekedouw Irrigation Scheme in 1997, before the dam was even completed. This
threatened the ability of the remaining KIB farmers to move forward with the project at all.
The KIB consequently sought government support.
In keeping with national water reforms, the DWAF was prepared to fund part of the capital
costs of the Koekedouw Dam on the condition that a share of water rights would be allocated to
black farmers. There were, however, no land owning black farmers in the region, reflecting the
particular historical character of agrarian relations in the Western Cape (Ross, 1986). Hence,
KIB farmers agreed to drive forward the implementation of land-reform projects in order
to create a presence of black farmers who could benefit from Koekedouw water. Theland
Table 1. Price trends for apples and pears (R/ton) expressed in nominal terms (source: Cherry, 2004).







Between 1998 and 2002, the exchange rate for the R: US$ had fallen from 5.50 to 10.52.


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and water rights targeted for land reform came from all or some of the undeveloped parcels
released by KIB members who had resigned from the irrigation scheme and the sector in
The Koekedouw land-reform projects unfolded in three different phases between 1996
and 2003 and were carried out through the governments market-based land-redistribution
program. Land grants were allocated to aspiring black farmers to acquire white-owned
commercial farmland for sale at market prices. Since the value of land grants were severely
inadequate to cover the market price of land, people necessarily formed groups to pool their
grants together, and often ended up acquiring marginal or undeveloped land (eg,Lahiff, 2007).
The land-reform farms established in the first two phases led to the transfer of 790ha
of land and 236ha of Koekedouw water rights to 382 beneficiaries for the establishment of
twelve individual farms wholly owned and run by land-reform beneficiaries. The farms have
generally been considered to be a failure (van Koppen etal, 2009): they did not become a
primary source of livelihood for the large majority of beneficiaries who were predominantly
engaged in waged agricultural labor on white farms, and at best offered a secondary source
of income.
The main beneficiaries of the land-reform projects were the white farmers of the KIB.
First, the land-reform projects created a politically palatable means through which the state
was able to partially subsidize the capital costs of the Koekedouw irrigation scheme. Second,
the land-reform projects lowered the unit costs of Koekedouw water charged to individual KIB
farmers by absorbing surplus water that had been released from outgoing farmers. Although
the land-reform projects alleviated some of the farmers financial woes, the situation for
many continued to deteriorate. At the same time that world prices for apples and pears were
on a downward trend at the end of the 1990s, as shown in table1, loan repayments for KIB
farmers escalated. Irrigation costs as a proportion overall production costs had risen from
5% to 30% (Louw, 2004). Whereas irrigation costs for fruit farmers in other areas ranged
between R1300 and R3600 per hectare, Ceres farmers were paying more than R12000 per
hectare for Koekedouw water (Cherry, 2004). Reportedly, the average farmer in Ceres was
R7million in debt and many farmers were forced into liquidation (Erasmus, 2006). One
farm had accumulated over R3 million just in water debt owed to the KIB, which received a
number of requests from farmers to write off debts and accumulating interest on these debts
(interview, DWAF regional manager, 20 December 2006).
By 2002 nine farms had been liquidated. This not only meant that the KIB was not receiving
payment for previously allocated water, but also that the operational and maintenance costs
of the dam were spread out among the remaining twenty-one farmers of the original thirty
who had belonged to the Koekedouw irrigation scheme. As bankruptcy loomed for the KIB,
members of the board decided that their only way out was to approach the DWAF for help. In
the wake of the economic crisis, farmers hoped that the government would be sympathetic to
their situation on the basis that its support would help to save jobs. Ironically, the justification
for the dam had focused on its job-creation potential.
The escalating financial troubles confronting the KIB paved the way for the third phase
of the Koekedouw land-reform projects. In contrast to the first two phases of land reform,
the third phase took the form of farm worker equity schemes (or joint ventures), whereby
commercial farmers formed equity partnerships with their farm workers to acquire shares
in a commercial farm. As table2 shows, the joint ventures involved over 900 farm worker
beneficiaries who were able to secure land grants from the government to finance their
portion of the acquisition of the liquidated farms, which were sold at rock-bottom prices. The
farms covered approximately 1000ha of land, with 500ha of Koekedouw water rights, and
were already cultivated with mature pear and apple orchards, though there remained potential
for expansion (Louw, 2004). It is important to note that while farm worker beneficiaries who

Dis/articulations and the hydrosocial cycle


Table 2. Koekedouw land-reform projects, 2004 (source: Cherry, 2004; Louw, 2004).

Beneficiary-owned farms
Farm-worker equity schemes

Number of

Land Area

water rights (ha)




became part of joint venture farms held the majority of shares, these shares represented
the holdings of up to two hundred workers. By contrast, the commercial farmers shares
were either wholly owned or at most split with one other farmer, thus concentrating effective
control and dividends in their hands despite holding a minority number of shares. While the
value of joint ventures to beneficiaries is largely represented in terms of an investment in the
future, two of the three joint ventures had distributed dividends to beneficiaries by 2011.(8)
This not only demonstrated that the farms were making substantial profits: it also asserted the
new and positive role played by white farmers in making land reform a success.
The farmers who initiated joint ventures with their farm workers operate profitable,
corporatized businesses run by families who have been farming in the Ceres Valley for
generations, including the Graaffs, the duToits, and the Goosens.(9) They form part of a trend in
the high-value export-oriented farming sectors that has been characterized by growing vertical
and horizontal integration and concentrated ownership (see Bernstein, 2013). While this would
seem to work against agrarian reform (Hall, 2009), these farmers have also been able to take
advantage of state incentives aimed at promoting black economic empowerment, thereby
positioning themselves as champions of social transformation in the countryside through jointventure projects that may be accurately referred to as the deracialization of capital, rather than
land reform. In the meantime, they gain access to land grants through which they are able to
increase their control over local land and water resources, refinance their operations, expand
production, and gain access to niche ethical markets (Mayson, 2003).
By creating more land-reform opportunities through joint ventures, the KIB hoped that
it would have the necessary leverage to obtain additional state subsidies for the Koekedouw
irrigation schemebut DWAF refused. Nevertheless, the KIB was able to negotiate more
favorable terms for its bank loan, the outcome of which was an extended repayment period
over fifty years, as opposed to twenty years as per the initial agreement; a decrease in the
interest rate from 14.5% to 8%; and a new annual repayment plan that was to increase by only
4%, as opposed to 7.5% (Cherry, 2004). As a result, the rates charged for the Koekedouw
irrigation scheme decreased substantially. By making irrigation costs more affordable
to farmers, the KIBs lending bank secured its assets and averted the further devaluation
of agrarian and financial capital. At the same time, the uneven geographies of capitalist
development became even more pronounced.
3.3 Respatializing uneven geographies of social reproduction

The government praised the Koekedouw land-reform projects as an example of how

South Africa will make a success of meaningful transformation in the countryside (Van
Schallwyk, 2002). The DWAF also reported that the Koekedouw Dam created land reform
opportunities, and now hundreds of rural households are farming for themselves (DWAF,
2002). Such statements downplay and obscure how the governments land-reform program


Each of these family businesses have glossy websites that provide information about their family
histories, their operations, and their commitments to black empowerment: http://www.graaff-fruit.


A-M Debban

has produced few tangible material benefits for beneficiaries (Cousins, 2007; Jacobs etal,
2003), and actually has done very little to change broader structural relations.
Furthermore, land reform narrowly targets a select segment of the rural population (duToit,
1993). This is clearly reflected in the farm worker equity schemes which for the most part
exclusively involve permanent farm workers, and potentially benefit only an increasingly
small segment (see below) of a deeply fragmented and racialized agricultural labor force.
It is important to note that coloured(10) workers have historically made up the majority of
permanently employed farm labor in the fruit and wine farming districts of theWestern Cape,
while a seasonal and migrant labor force has been largely made up ofblack African workers
recruited from the former bantustans, especially in the Eastern Cape, and also from other
African countries.
Of perhaps greater concern is how the land-reform projects in the Ceres valley, and more
generally, have operated through parallel and intersecting processes that have deepened
conditions of marginalization and impoverishment in the countryside. Since the 1990s the
permanently employed agricultural labor force has been drastically reduced as farmers seek
to adopt cost-cutting labor practices by relying more and more on cheaper temporary and
informal (contract) labor. While the fragmentation of agricultural labor in horticulture is not
a recent phenomenon (Mather and Greenberg, 2003), there has been a significant decrease in
the proportion of permanent workers that has been accompanied by an even sharper decline
in tied-housing arrangements (duToit and Ally, 2003).
It is not without irony that while negotiations for the Koekedouw Dam were underway,
hundreds of farm workers were losing their jobs and being evicted from the farms where they
worked. This was due to farm bankruptcies and liquidations, and also to the rationalization of
the permanent labor force. As one retrenched and evicted farm worker explained:
The farmer told us that because he will now have more water he needs the land from
farm worker housing to plant more trees. He didnt care what happened to us, we are just
workers. He loaded our things onto his bakkie [pickup truck] and dumped them on the
road in the middle of the night. We had no place to go (interview, 13 February 2007).
Some found themselves living on the banks of the river while others lived in shacks in the
backyard of relatives houses in the township of Prince Alfreds Hamlet. Prince Alfreds
Hamlet is about 9km from the town of Ceres and is surrounded by lucrative fruit farms run
by families who have been in farming for generations in various parts of the region. Like
many rural towns, the township in Prince Alfreds Hamlet literally became a dumping ground
for retrenched coloured workers who were formerly employed and lived on white-owned
commercial farms.(11)
The devaluation of labor in the Ceres valley was thus accomplished through two key
processes: the rationalization and fragmentation of the agricultural labor force, and the capital
disinvestment in social reproduction. The formerly employed farm workers who are now
shack dwellers have not only lost steady employment, but they have also lost their homes.
They have joined the swelling ranks of other urbanized farm workers who have experienced

I use the term coloured in a manner that is consistent with the South African context. People
with a coloured identity in South Africa have a particularly strong presence in the Western Cape,
reflecting the specific colonial histories of the region. They are classified as such to refer to black
people descended from Cape slaves and indentured servants and European settlers in the colonial
era. While the coloured identity has typically been assumed as representing a mixed racial heritage,
duToit (2004) makes a point of noting that all South Africans are mixed.
Between 1994 and 2004, 2.3 million farm dwellers were displaced from South African farms while
almost 1million were forcefully evicted (Wegerif etal, 2005). Significantly, Wegerif etal point out
that the total number of displaced farm dwellers is greater than the 1.2million people who have been
beneficiaries of land reform from 1994 onward.

Dis/articulations and the hydrosocial cycle


a stark deterioration in material living conditions (Bernstein, 2004; duToit, 2004). The
disciplinary norms of a monetized and commodified urban life also signal a marked contrast
to farm life, where the farmer dictated every aspect of workers lives. At the same time,
wages for off-farm labor have not compensated for the higher cost of living in townships
(duToit and Ally, 2003). Displaced farm workers now face new kinds of worker struggles
that reflect those of the devalued agricultural labor force more generally, and are defined by
the dictates of market forces that constitute new uneven geographies of social reproduction.
In sum, the sociospatial reorganization of farm labor has been driven by the capital
imperative to implement cost-cutting labor strategies and to absolve capital from the costs
of social reproduction. Neoliberal imperatives have in turn also absolved the state from its
social welfare function.
3.4 Urban water and the crisis of local government

Between 1991 and 2006 the urban and rural populations in the district of Ceres increased
by 114% and 29%, respectively (Witzenberg Municipality, 2006). The urbanization of farm
labor has certainly been an important factor contributing to the growing urban population.
In addition, the abolition of apartheid-era population influx controls has increased migratory
movements from other provinces to the Western Cape where there is greater employment
potential. The bucolic landscape of Ceres has also made it an attractive destination for white
The growing urban population led to increasing demands for water, which worked in
favor of the KIB in gaining local government support for the Koekedouw Dam project.
Inasmuch as KIB farmers were detrimentally impacted by the financial burden of the
Koekedouw Dam, so too was the municipality. In order to cover its proportional capital
costs for the dam, the municipality obtained a loan that was to be repaid over twenty years;
only interest payments were to be made for the first few years of the repayment period, and
thereafter payments would be made both on the interest and on the capital. It was expected
that after the initial period water sales and tariffs would increase, and thereby ensure that the
municipality would remain financially viable.
The tariffs charged for the provision of urban water services were restructured to reflect
the full costs of the Koekedouw Dam. Inevitably, this led to a steep hike in water tariffs.
As water bills soared, many residents from the mainly white affluent parts of town drilled
boreholes to water their gardens and fill their swimming pools, allowing them to bypass the
municipal water supply system and thereby gain access to free, unmetered water. Whereas
commercial businesses complained to the local chamber of commerce, industryspecifically
the Ceres Fruit Juices Companythreatened to relocate its operations. High water bills only
exacerbated the strain from the towns economic downturn spiraling out of the crisis in the
farming sector (Louw, 2004).
Low-income township residents were the least able to deal with the new water tariffs
and began to accumulate arrears on their municipal service bills. The municipality then
began disconnecting water and electricity services to households who were in arrears. Such
practices derived from national policies that strongly urged local governments to implement
strict credit-control measures to achieve full cost recovery on the provision of municipal
services to maintain balanced budgets (McDonald and Pape, 2002).
Despite the municipalitys attempts to enforce the payment of municipal bills, collection
rates remained low, at 40%, which created cash-flow problems. It did not help that the towns
water consumption was lower than projected, which meant that the municipality was left with
a large water surplus that was not generating any revenue. By 2002 water demand had been
projected to reach above 4 million m3 but the actual volume of water sold had not yet even
reached 3millionm3 (Witzenberg Municipality, 2006).


A-M Debban

In 2000 the municipalitys financial position deteriorated even further following a

national process of municipal amalgamation. Ceres was amalgamated with four other smaller
and highly indebted municipalities, including Prince Alfred Hamlet, to form the Witzenberg
Municipality. Added to this, debt-service payments for the Koekedouw Dam were set to
double in 2002. Municipal amalgamation did offer at least one silver lining: the possibility of
expanding the hydrosocial circulation of Koekedouw water. Specifically, Ceres water tariffs
were applied to other municipalities that fell under Witzenbergs jurisdiction, even though
they had independent and much cheaper municipal water supply systems. The number of
households charged with Ceres water tariffs, and paying for the Koekedouw Dam, increased
by 70% from 6772 to 11491 households.(12) Not only did the municipality universalize
Ceres water tariffs, it increased them by another 20%. As a result, collection rates fell and
outstanding-debtor accounts increased by almost 400%. The debt burden on low-income
and poor households spiraled out of control, reaching upward of R8000 in some instances.
Instead of writing off debts, the municipality broadened its credit-control measures to include
propoor policies such as indigent and debt-management policies, while also continuing to
resort to water and electricity cutoffs.
In the shack settlement of Prince Alfreds Hamlet, the municipality did not need to worry
about cutting peoples water off as that activity had been shifted to the people themselves. This
was because individual household water connections had come in the form of prepaid water
meters, which offered a politically neutral technological device through which to enforce
the payment of water services (see Loftus, 2006).(13) For shack dwellers in Prince Alfreds
Hamlet, this has meant depending on various income sources to scratch out the means to pay
for water units. This has included relying on government support grants (child, pensions,
disability), going back to farm work as contract labor, working as labor brokers, and hawking
discarded fruit and vegetables from neighboring farms. Many have also borrowed money,
or water, from their neighbors, while some have also resorted to taking out predatory cash
loans at exorbitant interest rates. For others, survival has also meant involvement in illegal
activities such as the trade in drugs and alcohol, and theft, as well as finding odd jobs here
and there (duToit, 2003).
The multiple livelihood strategies outlined above characterize new everyday struggles
faced by a devalued and urban agricultural labor force more generally. In particular, the
market-based mechanisms that regulate access to and exclusion from water services have
kept low-income households in a perpetual cycle of water debt and disconnection. This is
not simply an outcome of the neoliberalization of water services as expressed by the local
governments rigid cost-recovery practices. Rather, it reflects the more general and amplified
unevenness of the socioecological and sociospatial relations embedded in capitalist processes
of dispossession, devaluation, and disinvestment that have crystallized through shifting
hydrosocial configurations.


These numbers are derived from Witzenberg population statistics, 2006 (Witzenberg Municipality,
Prepaid water meters have encroached on the landscape of South African townships in recent years
as a counter measure to explosive tensions around water disconnections. Standing above ground with
a tap below, the rectangular metal boxes of prepaid water meters are easily identifiable. The flowof
water is released from the tap by inserting a prepaid digitized card in the meter box; the volume
ofwater flow is determined by the value of water units put on the card, and stops when the units run
out. In other words, households self-disconnect from the water service when they no longer have
money to pay.

Dis/articulations and the hydrosocial cycle


4 Conclusions
This paper has explored the hydrosocial transformations of the Ceres Valley as a means to
develop a disarticulations perspective on the changing geographies of capitalist agriculture
in postapartheid South Africa. In so doing, I have drawn attention to ways in which the
deepening integration of fruit production into global commodity circuits embodies interrelated
processes of connection and separation that become articulated and constituted through the
hydrosocial cycle. I have emphasized how the production and circulation of water supply
that make capitalist agriculture possible in the Ceres Valley have become intertwined
with and reinforces a particular set of racialized capitalist relations. What is particularly
instructive about the postapartheid period is how white agrarian capital has maintained and
even strengthened its dominance over the regional economy despite the drastic shuffling of
political and economic priorities.
As I have shown, the Koekedouw Dam became the main arena in and through which
contradictory capitalist dynamics of postapartheid agrarian change were played out in the
Ceres Valley. In the first instance the neoliberalization of agriculture offered a spatial fix
(Harvey, 2006) to the agricultural crisis of the 1980s through the geographical expansion
of export market opportunities. While attempts to displace the crisis through a spatial fix
had devalued some sectors, others had profitedincluding the high-value export-oriented
deciduous fruit industries (Greenberg, 2003). The expansionary conditions for the deciduous
fruit industry led to new investments in fixed capital, including new plantings and, most
significantly, the Koekedouw Dam. Yet, the liberalization of agriculture also exposed fruit
farmers to global market fluctuations. At the same time, the financial arrangements for the
dam were premised on the incorporation of water into expanded circuits of accumulation,
which implied that farmers were not only to absorb the full costs of the Koekedouw irrigation
scheme, but also to realize a profit for finance capital.
The fatal combination of liberalized finance capital and fluctuating commodity prices
engulfed Ceres farmers in a crisis of overaccumulation, clearly illustrating the temporality
and fragility of the spatiotemporal fix. As such, the Koekedouw Dam can be viewed as both
cause and effect of periodic disruptions occurring through circuits of accumulation. Again,
though, the key moments of disruption were expressed unevenly as the differential turnover
times for realizing profit between agricultural and financial capital created a debt load for
individual farm capitals that could not be sustained in crisis conditions. Because a spatial
fix through geographical market expansion or the relocation of capital (as a result of the
substantial investment in geographically fixed capital) was not a viable option, other means
needed to be found to resolve the crisis. These included the devaluation of individual farm
capitals through bankruptcies, the devaluation of labor through the spatial and structural
reorganization of the labor market, and state intervention through land reform. On the one
hand, land reform provided a means through which to channel subsidies indirectly toward
thecosts of the Koekedouw Dam, and on the other, to absorb devalued land and watercapital.
The joint ventures, in particular, provided white farmers with access to very cheap
capitalthrough the land grants allocated to land reform beneficiaries, enabling them to extend
their dominance over local land and water resources while also gaining political legitimacy
(Mayson, 2003, page37). By anchoring the states investment within the framework of water
and land redistribution, regional class interests became articulated with a national program for
racial and historical redress. Analysis of the relationship between water and land reform thus
enables better understandings of why it is that structural socioecological inequalities persist in
the South African countryside. It is not simply a matter of explaining the failure of land reform
but, rather, of recognizing what land reform actually accomplishes in terms of maintaining
and reproducing conditions and relations of capitalist agricultural production. It is even more


A-M Debban

a matter of how land reform exists alongside of and operates through simultaneous processes
of dispossession and displacement.
The financialization and commercialization of water supply in Ceres also contributed
to a crisis of local government, which was ultimately displaced onto the devalued labor
force. Indeed, capital and state disinvestments in social reproduction operated as key tactics
of accumulation by dispossession (Katz, 2011) and accentuated conditions of uneven
development. In various ways, then, a focus on the shifting configurations of the hydrosocial
cycle brings into full view how uneven geographies of capitalist development in the Ceres
valley become articulated through interconnected sociospatial processes of dispossession,
devaluation, and disinvestment.
Acknowledgements. This research was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship. I am indebted to the late Soyiso Mtemekwana for his
invaluable assistance in conducting fieldwork for this project. I would like to thank Marion Werner
and three anonymous reviewers for their very detailed and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this
paper, and Trevor Barnes for his advice and guidance. All remaining errors are my own.
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