t was in 1996 that a court challenge led to the first government provision of a cheap basic water supply to the destitute. The person behind the challenge was Durban African National Congress councillor Trevor Bonhomme.

The former United Democratic Front (UDF) leader's court challenge eventually compelled the Durban Metro Council to provide 6 000 litres of water to its poor residents in 1997, at a rate of R8,30 a month.

Since then, the idea of free or cheap basic water has spread across South Africa, and the state has accepted its responsibility in this regard. But Bonhomme's role has never been acknowledged by the government.

The Durban Metro Council became the first government structure to provide a “lifeline” supply of water to all its residents who were unable to pay their water accounts. Three years later the policy, now revised as the mandatory provision of 6 000 litres of free water to all destitute families, was pushed into the ANC's 2000 local government election manifesto by the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Since then, various structures and ANC leaders have claimed ownership of the policy.

But it all began in 1996, when a Newlands East resident, Maud Timber, the mother of an 11-year-old asthmatic, approached Bonhomme, then deputy mayor of the North Central substructure of the Durban Metro. Timber, her son and her husband ”” who was suffering from tuberculosis at the time ”” had been living without water for six months. Timber was supporting her family doing chores around her neighbourhood. She was buying five-litre buckets of water from a neighbour for R3.

The Durban Metro Council was then supplying people living in homes owned by the council with a limited amount of water. But Timber did not live in a council-owned home.

“Putting my job on the line,” as he puts it, Bonhomme took Timber to the Legal Resources Centre and urged her to appeal to the Durban Supreme Court to uphold her socio-economic rights as guaranteed in the Constitution.

“The policy was violating her right to life since the access to water is an essential element of that right,” recalls Bonhomme. He wasn't popular within Durban Metro for initiating court action against his own council, but he stuck to his guns. The council had a change of heart right on the doorstep of the court.

Bonhomme, now 61 and an ordinary councillor in the Durban Metro, says he would do it all over again. His life of defiance began at the age of seven, when a white bus driver threw him off a bus for asking why he could not sit in the “white” seats. “My arm was fractured,” he recalls.

Bonhomme's first protest as an adult was against the American singer Eartha Kitt's visit to South Africa in 1973. By that time, along with his brother Virgil, he was organising workers at a furniture store, where he was employed as an upholsterer. Appalled at the miserably low wages, the brothers led a Natal-wide furniture workers' strike ”” the first in the trade in the country.

This led to his blacklisting, and he could not find work in Durban any more. He taught himself brick-laying to fend for his family. “Even today, when I look back, the only thing I regret is the hardships my family had to undergo for my stand,” he says. “But my wife Lorraine has always stood by me.”

In 1980 Bonhomme and his brother helped launch the Durban Housing Action Committee, which soon acquired a reputation as a successful campaigner of tenants' rights across the racial divide. Bonhomme went on to become a founding member of the United Committee for Concern and the UDF. Days before 10 000 protesters were to gather at a Durban whites-only beach for a protest swim in 1989, he was arrested. This was despite Lorraine's attempts to hide him in a basket full of laundry when the police came knocking on his door.

He spent two months in prison and was released under restriction. When the ANC was unbanned, it asked him to join the organisation formally and become part of the local government.

As a ward councillor, Bonhomme is now busy with another campaign, helping residents grow food in their yards. “People like Mrs Timber now have water but they still do not have jobs or food,” he says.