#watercrisis and Day Zero in New South African politics

Cape Town is running out of water. The region of the Western Cape is experiencing the worst drought since 1933. Since I left Cape Town in June last year human and natural disaster has been looming on the all too bright and sunny horizon. They call it Day Zero. The day the dam levels in the city’s water reserves will be too low to provide safe water for the more than 5 million residents in the city.

Currently the city is at a Level 6 B water restriction scheme. This means that each resident can use 50 liters of water per day. A five minute shower uses just around 40 liters. Flushing the toilet somewhere between 6 and 12 liters. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown flush it down,” are the new guidelines. In some areas of Cape Town the water has been intermittently shut off, for hours or days, without prior notification to residents, apart from the publication of the Level 6 B water restrictions. Commercial and agricultural properties must reduce water use with 45 percent and 60 percent respectively, compared with pre-drought usage.

The calls to defeat Day Zero is printed on posters, broadcasted on the radio and in television ads. Airb’n’b offers free cancellation to tourists who decide to stay at home rather than burden Cape Town with more water users. I like to listen to the Fine Music Radio, and here the messages to use less water seemed tailor made for a middle-class classical music loving audience: “A green lawn was a symbol of pride, now a sign of squander.” The ward councilor in my area posts on Facebook and twitter about sustainable solutions like collecting “grey” water (rain water, water from showers etc.) for recycling under the hashtag #ourresilience. On day Zero, the city government claims, 200 water collection points will be set up across the city, where residents can collect 25 liters per person. Observers argue that this scenario is completely unrealistic and will lead to war-like conditions around the taps. In the informal settlement where I do fieldwork, it doesn’t make much of a difference, though, says the community activist Mary. Most residents are picking up their water at communal taps anyway.


Political Day Zero

This kind of natural disaster by climate change is one that has been creeping in over many years. Rainfall has decreased in the region. Maybe in another time and place the prospect of a city of five million people running dry would warrant some sort of state of emergency, and international intervention. But in Cape Town life just seems to be going on as usual. Meanwhile, some of the decision makers that could have intervened with the #watercrisis have their own crises to worry about. In the City of Cape town the ruling party Democratic Alliance is trying to dethrone their own mayor Patricia De Lille with criminal charges of forgery and corruption. Word on the street is that the DA (typically attracting White and Coloured voters) want to replace her with a Black African front figure to broaden their base in a city receiving hundreds of mainly black south African migrant settlers every day. On a national level the country is facing a bizarre gridlock. The president Jacob Zuma (and other top ranking officials) are accused of state capture. Their party, ANC, Nelson Mandela’s party, a few weeks ago overthrew Zuma as president of the party, and elected his vice president Cyril Ramaphosa to lead the party. The obvious result would be for the president of the country to step down, as he officially lost his political legitimacy. This, however, did not happen. Last week the president of the country’s ruling party was set to deliver “the state of the union” but it was cancelled. Who should deliver the speech?  The president of the party or the president of the country who was elected as ANC’s leader? Negotiations have been going on within ANC to organize Zuma’s exit, but they seem gridlocked, At the charity shop yesterday me and the ladies complained that there are no credible parties left to vote for in this country. We hold our breath, waiting for the next disaster. Is South African politics headed towards a Day Zero as well?



Yesterday was eerie like that, everything seemed to hold its breath. Early in the evening the thunder started rumbling over the mountains, with white flashes dancing across the skies. Dennis and I had clothes hanging on the line outside. For them not to get wet, we rushed out to collect them in woven baskets. Then the downpour came. Heavy drops soon became a blanket of warm water. We made tea. Listened to the sound of the downpour on the roof of the old house. A sudden realization made us jump up and grab all buckets, containers and bowls: The water from the roof would be gathering in the drainpipes, flowing into the ground in the yard. The drain under the kitchen window had its last part amputated to make space for a large storage box underneath it. Laboring with great urgency our buckets and basins found new places under pipes and leaks. Drenched and happy we sat back at the kitchen table with our tea, and Dennis asked me to turn on the 6 o’clock news. “I think they recalled Zuma,” he said. ANC recalled Zuma’ appointment as president of South Africa. The grounds for the recall remain murky, and many other questions are left unanswered within and without the party. This morning Dennis says that Facebook says that the Guptas, the rich family involved in Zuma’s state capture case, were raided this morning and that several arrests have been made.

Among Capetonians the rain and the recall were linked specks of hope. On Facebook a photo of a man praying in the rain, surrounded by cars, circulated. Apparently, he had stopped his car in the middle of the hectic Cape Town evening traffic to pray and thank God for the rain.