Opinion Piece

Ebrahim Rasool: Of harlots and eunuchs … and Cape Town’s parched politicking

When will a grown-up start tackling the water crisis? And when will Mmusi Maimane stop tapping it for his own gain?

I watched Mmusi Maimane on television being both DA leader of the opposition in Parliament and a fusion of provincial premier and Cape Town mayor. He was piously giving advice on how we could beat Day Zero, studiously spouting statistics about millions of litres and pleadingly seeking help from Cyril Ramaphosa. His performance reminded me of the story of the harlot and the eunuch: the harlot has power without responsibility, while the eunuch has responsibility without power. In this story lies the fundamental flaw in the management of the Cape Town water crisis. When will the adult in the room stand up, I wondered.

In the absence of that adult – who takes responsibility and manages power – the citizens and businesses of Cape Town are subjected to all manner of childishness in the midst of one of the most severe crises in our post-apartheid history. Citizens face the prospect of taps running dry on Day Zero, long queues for water supervised by the military, safety fears amid water fights, anxiety about the health of the vulnerable and the conveniences of the wealthy, loss of jobs on farms and in the tourism industry, and the curtailment of normal life in Cape Town.

On the other hand, the economy is already facing the threat of new investments being put on hold and absenteeism as employees see to their water needs. Development projects face a changed and stricter regulatory environment to factor in water shortages and business scenarios are calculating the impact water riots could have on their investments. They too are looking for the adult in the room, but are only subjected to childish antics based on confusions and conflations.

The important, and deliberate, conflation is between government and opposition. The DA’s governance responsibilities in the Western Cape (provincial and municipal) are primarily at the service of its political ambitions nationally. While Jacob Zuma had a strong hold over the ANC and South Africa, these ambitions were on course. ANC voters were seemingly abandoning their party. Now the DA needs to work harder again as the ANC renews and support returns. The water crisis is too good an opportunity to waste: show up the national government and rally support for the DA by blaming the ANC government for the water crisis while showcasing the DA as the popular leader of grievance and, when the crisis abates, emerge as heroes. This is indeed a dangerous game.

The second conflation in this childishly dangerous game is the conflation of technical expertise – particularly in the science of water and weather – in the person of the politician. Helen Zille repudiates meteorologists, the Disaster Management Centre has no idea who decided on the concept of “Day Zero” and Maimane’s regular TV shows do not enlist experts to speak. The politician provides all the technical facts because facts have to be malleable to the purpose of the political game. Day Zero is adjusted back and forth without the evidence of weather patterns, increased water sources and discernible reduction in water usage. Citizens alternate between announcements that induce panic-buying of water and scuffles at water queues, relief when Day Zero is pushed back and, soon, disregard for any warnings and appeals.

Technical experts join the masses in sharing their opinions from the sidelines, often having to provide corrections or perspectives to the words of politicians. It is from the sidelines that we have to hear of canals of water running to the sea or the potability of water coming from springs or the viability of aquifers under our feet. Facts in the mouths of DA politicians have merely served as instruments to cry wolf and will undermine the long-term behaviour management required for demand management that must lead to a permanent consciousness that we are already in a water-scarce environment, worsened by the impact of climate change.

The third confusion is about whether the DA runs its province as a government or an administration. Governments have power and take responsibility. Administrations are powerless instruments of a higher authority, working at the behest of someone else. You cannot run for government in Cape Town or the Western Cape but act like an administration after you have won the election – especially when you run into trouble. This deliberate confusion allows the DA the alternating strategies of being a fair-weather government or administration: when the weather is rough (as with crime, housing and now water) you switch to blame mode – it’s not me; and when the weather is fair (as with tourism, tech investments and education) you then switch to claim mode – I did it!

The final conflation I want to highlight is the one that allows Maimane to be both leader of the opposition and pretend president at the same time. Until now his pretensions to the presidency were made easy by the venality of the elected president, and were only challenged by the populist commander of the EFF. Anticipating that he may now be competing with Ramaphosa, he has grasped at the water crisis in the Western Cape as the staging ground to animate his audacious claims on the presidency. He needs to show South Africans he can be the man of the moment, the man for a crisis, and possibly the hero of the day.

For this ambition, he is willing to sacrifice the very vehicle that could possibly, but actually improbably, take him to the presidency: the DA. As DA provincial premier Zille contemplated usurping the powers of the City of Cape Town to deal with the water crisis, the moves intensified to get rid of mayor Patricia de Lille, Maimane stepped in. The DA leader effectively cast a vote of no confidence in both the province and the city his party governs. The childishness lies in seeing your ambition down the road but not the danger around the corner.

A not-new crisis

This is the interplay between the eunuch and the harlot. The characters of this interplay had sufficient forewarning of the impending crisis. In the 2000s the country was alerted to the El Niño effect. Back then, we already witnessed desertification in the west of our province and flooding in the east. A spatial development plan was put in place to manage the water resources, among others, of the province. A moratorium was put on golf-course developments, since each one uses 2-million litres of water a day to remain green. Farmers were encouraged to water the roots of their crops and not the leaves. Alien vegetation was tackled aggressively because of its excessive consumption of water and construction of the Berg River Dam was under way and plans were made to lift the walls of other dams, such as the one in Clanwilliam. Back then, there were already discussions about aquifers, springs and water tunnels taking water to the ocean.

However, if one’s primary goal and demeanour is that of opposition, the best actions alternate between claim and blame and the long-term interests of the people are sacrificed for short-term objectives. You can then jettison the Provincial Spatial Development Framework despite the fact it guided the province through the energy crises from 2007 with a combination of new sources of energy and demand-side management. You can then take the pressure off farmers (who privatise their water and then “gift” it to the people) and golf estate managers, appoint political buddies to run an ineffectual demand management media campaign while waiting for Day Zero.

In this interplay, the Zuma government had power and responsibility, and chose to use the former for corrupt gains and was distracted from taking responsibility. In reverse parody, Maimane has neither power nor responsibility, but covets both, even if he has to steal it from the ones he deployed to use them. The premier of the province has oversight and development planning power and indirect responsibility, but focused on trying to usurp municipal power and took responsibility by washing her feet in public. The city mayor has the power of distribution and major responsibility for regulating the use of water, but found herself in a power play with those who coveted these when the publicity value became apparent. Moreover, they wanted the responsibility to procure the next generation of water sources, especially the lucrative desalination ones. No wonder the water crisis has produced more conspiracy theories than water sources.

Where will the solutions come from?

Ramaphosa has indicated that the national government will be willing to use its power to meet its responsibility, while the DA continues to dig itself further into the hole of internal disciplinary procedures, court cases and water side shows. But the citizens cannot afford anything except total focus on the task at hand. Let’s speculate on the size of the problem: assuming that the maximum yield of all the dams now stands at 200-million litres of water per day (at Level 6b restrictions), then clearly this is well below what Capetonians became used to a few years ago, of about 1-billion litres per day, which is completely unsustainable. It is also below what was possible – about 800-million litres per day – after months of media campaigning – and still below the figure of 600-million litres per day after heavy restrictions on citizens, business and agriculture. What will be our new normal and how do we get to it?

Demand-side management is crucial for sustainable living, with or without climate change. But credible media campaigns need to articulate this, free of the political panic induced by parties that are the beneficiaries of external crises to mask the internal ones they are facing. People need to know that the media campaign is not procured by a functionary or faction of the party charged with managing the water crisis. People can endure only one episode of “crying wolf” before they switch back to old behaviour. We must make permanent the two-minute shower, the water-wise garden, the harvesting of rain, the use of grey water and the prudent timetable for laundry. But the adult in the room must induce confidence!

We should again put the science and technology experts at centre-stage. Their role cannot be usurped by politicians who muddy the water – excuse the pun – with induced panic, deadline and red-line notions that shift inexplicably and internal political battles. If we had listened, our desalination technology would have been used here and not in Saudi Arabia, the canals could have been cleared and the aquifers harvested, the dam walls could have been lifted, golf courses put to terms and farm irrigation methods reformed.

What should have been medium- to long-term planning and implementation has now become emergency planning. But emergency planning is not panic-stricken planning, such as reducing water pressure to consumers without considering the impact on aged pipes. It is also not a licence to foist policies and solutions on citizens, like Zuma attempted to foist a nuclear tender on us following the energy crisis, by introducing compromised tenders for water supply that effectively lead to the privatisation of water. If anything, the crisis tells us that water is a public good, whether on private lands or not or whether in private hands or not, and should be handled as such.

Emergency planning may now mean pooling resources to bring new resources to the surface in the shortest possible time. It means a proliferation of desalination plants and concomitant purification, storage and transmission methods. It means fast-tracking the raising of the dam walls that have been on hold. It means reusing recycled sewage water for industrial purposes and grey water at home. It means compelling new dwellings to be forward-fitted with water-saving mechanisms and incentivising the retrofitting of existing ones. Words such as “emergency”, “proliferation”, “fast-tracking” and “compelling” are mandates for speed and efficiency, not the subversion of regulations and integrity.

Finding a new normal

What would all of these mean for Capetonians? If 800-million litres of water per day is what we have learnt to be comfortable with, then we should immediately learn to save, say 200-million litres per day and make 600-million litres per day our new normal. And if our dams for the immediate future can yield about 200-million litres per day (based on 50 litres per person per day), then where is the remaining 400-million litres? Assuming that 150-million litres per day can be found through aquifers and a further 100-million through current desalination projects, then we are in need of a further 150-million litres per day. This could be found through more desalination projects, maybe some good winter rains, the kind of technology used in the Californian drought to distill water from air, the nationalisation of all water in the province and the importation of water from other provinces.

However, until this “perfect storm” is realised, we must first learn to live with less before wishing for more. But more is not what it used to be. Let’s be adult about it and use our power to take responsibility. DM

Ebrahim Rasool is former premier of the Western Cape and ambassador to the US. He is now president of the World for All Foundation and senior fellow at Georgetown University.

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