Perceptions of increasing water scarcity have caused many countries to reform their water legislation. South Africa, in the vanguard of reform efforts, passed the National Water Act in 1998. The Act was lauded as a progressive piece of policy as it posited the redress of past injustices as one of its overarching aims. But there has been little progress in terms of redistribution of water use rights. This paper argues that bringing water under the ambit of the state, in combination with the particular political conjunctures in post-apartheid South Africa, opened up space for the emergence of narratives around water use rights that framed the continued use of existing users as pivotal for sustainability and that redistribution is associated with a high degree of risk. Although water allocation reform is essentially a deeply political issue, the increasing technocratisation and bureaucratisation of the reform process served to mask contested understandings through, for example, the use of innocuous-sounding terms such as “existing lawful use”. This, in combination with a highly under-resourced water management sector tasked with the responsibility of shouldering a heavy and complex system of licensing, resulted in reform efforts ending in a temporary impasse.

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