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9 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:25pm

Cape Town is running out of water and Day Zero is looming

“You can’t avoid it. If Day Zero happens, Cape Town becomes a dysfunctional space.” But isn’t it already?

By Sigrid Rausing

Cape Town may be the first global city to run out of water. “Day Zero”, when the city will transition from the current preservation measures (50 litres/day) to disaster restrictions, will begin when dam levels hit 13.5 per cent of capacity (latest forecast: 15 July). The business district and “informal settlements” –  shacks with no running water or sanitation – are exempt; people in other areas will collect their daily water allocation of 25 litres in plastic containers from taps at specified locations.

In this still profoundly segregated city, the newspapers give lifestyle guidance. “Drop water from your cooking,” reads one headline, recommending frying or grilling, rather than poaching. Another piece suggests frozen stones instead of ice cubes for “waterless gin cocktails”. People store drinking water in their garages and collect grey water for lavatories and irrigation. But they still have water.

In parts of Khayelitsha, by contrast, people have collected water in buckets and containers for years. Rows of lavatories, cement cubicles stacked against the motorway, are shared by up to 14 families. I once counted 67 children in a shack nursery, in two small rooms. The road to hell is paved by good intentions: these nurseries are unable to register for municipal funding because they do not meet the required space and equipment standards.

In January, in the dying days of President Zuma’s kleptocracy, the African National Congress was scathing about the water management of the Mother City. Patricia de Lille, the Democratic Alliance mayor of Cape Town, has been discredited in the year and a half since the last municipal elections, in which the party made significant gains and the ANC hegemony appeared to weaken.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has a heavy ship to turn, or rather several: he and his allies within the ANC have to purge and unify the party, the state-owned enterprises, the prosecution authorities and the police. He has to attract foreign funding while keeping Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters and the communists happy – hence the contested commitment to the expropriation of (white-owned) land without compensation in Ramaphosa’s ambitious State of the Nation address on 16 February. But poor black people are still moved off the land with no compensation when mining or other corporate interests are at stake.

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“#CapeWaterGate: Day Zero is a political attack on the people,” according to the Water Crisis Coalition. A few hundred people are protesting. “Water for all not for profit,” the placards read. “No to privatisation of our water”, and “Water is free”. Shaheed Mahomed, a committee member, said: “This is a feeding opportunity for profiteering by the big capitalists that is being opened up by the city and by various levels of government.”

Water in fact is not free, and the city’s income from water bills has declined dramatically. The authorities have fitted “water management devices” on some high-consumption households. The coalition has termed them “weapons of mass destruction” – another disconnected meme – despite its anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Protest in South Africa is ritualised, and the reporting of protest is part of the political culture. The last crisis in this city was over electricity, when the city practised load-shedding, intermittently cutting off the supply. Affluent people bought generators, then. Now they employ water diviners to find the right spot to drill for boreholes; old men holding sticks or half-filled water bottles that tremble and shake at the right point. City governance is dying; magical thinking is growing.

NGO Gift of the Givers is collecting five-litre bottles of water to be distributed to needy institutions when the time comes. The city’s health department has launched a campaign for the prevention of disease during water restrictions, issuing guidelines on sanitation. Irritated members of the public offer solutions in letters to the newspapers; the government is criticised for action and inaction. “There will be cholera, for sure,” said Branko Brkic, editor of online publication the Daily Maverick, when we discussed the situation. “You can’t avoid it. If Day Zero happens, Cape Town becomes a dysfunctional space.”

But isn’t it already a dysfunctional space? The town is still dramatically demarcated by apartheid. Pinelands, white, is separated from Langa, a black township, by two fences, a busy road and a train line. The Langa fence, I notice, is topped by three strands of barbed wire, angled into the township: it’s a fence for keeping people in, not out. In Johannesburg, bridges have been built between some of the formerly separated areas, but not in Cape Town. 

We are into March now. Hotel bookings, they say, have fallen dramatically. Camps Bay in January was still a sea of pink and red faces, a world of Windhoek lager and pizzas, of sashimi and carpaccio and troops of township child-performers forming human pyramids, jumping, dancing, collecting paltry tips in a red plastic bowl. Now, two months later, it’s quiet. Occasionally, chilly mists drift in from the sea; predicted rains come to nothing. Damp sea air clings to my throat, that pungent and poignant Cape Town mix of sewage, kelp and salt.

At the Sea Point promenade a small black child throws a frisbee to his mother and runs towards a flock of pigeons picking at the dry brown earth. His mother throws up her hands pretending to catch the pigeons; the frisbee flies backwards, caught in the strong wind. A helicopter crosses the bay carrying a turquoise banner: “Defeat Day Zero.”

But they say Day Zero probably won’t come, at least not this year: the rains should start in June. The drought, in the context of this city, is so many things at once – a political football; an arena for public
and individual virtue; a dystopian spectre of climate change; and a lived reality for hundreds of thousands of Cape Town’s people.

Everything is changing; nothing is changing. 

Sigrid Rausing is the editor and publisher of Granta magazine

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This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war