Opinion Piece

Marianne Merten: How the DA conducts itself in this water crisis will determine its future course in South Africa’s body politic

The DA is learning that it is easier to shout “Nkandla”, or “State Capture”, from the rooftops, than “Save Water”. Amid national and global headlines that Cape Town could become the first major city in the world to run out of water, South Africa’s second largest political party is fumbling at the test of its much-proclaimed good governance where it governs.

With some two or so months before Cape Town’s taps run dry – and just a little short of a year since the city and province were declared disaster areas in March and May 2017 respectively – the DA now has launched a “fightback” campaign at a carefully stage-managed publicity event resplendent with a banner, motto and hashtag, which was also featured on T-shirts.

Perhaps that’s where some of the R650,000 paid to former party leader and ambassador Tony Leon’s PR agency went. Perhaps that money is part of the R10-million water crisis communication budget the city in May 2017 said it had available. There are many questions.

But acute questions must be asked about how the DA, which runs both the Western Cape and Cape Town, has responded to a water crisis that was well known some 18 months ago. The focus here is action in the face of a pending crisis that hangs over the city’s just more than four million residents.

And it will affect all residents in the city that, according to official statistics, provides 10% of South Africa’s gross domestic product and constitutes 72% of the provincial economy. Those given to schadenfreude that finally the chattering, mainly white, Cape Town middle classes would have to queue at water collection points – long part of the daily routine of any informal settlement resident and for many of those who live in back yard shacks – are missing a key point. The poor and those struggling daily to put food on the table face a double whammy: water scarcity affects economic activity and looming are lay-offs of the most vulnerable, like casual workers in the leisure industry, and short-time work in factories.

Since at least December 2015 the DA’s refrain has been to point fingers at the national Water and Sanitation Department and its minister, Nomvula “Mama Action” Mokonyane. The argument, basically, is that because water is a national responsibility, the national government should have made sure it provided bulk water and related infrastructure, which it has not done.

This is a technicist, tunnel vision approach similar to the one taken by, for example, officials and board members testifying before the parliamentary Eskom State Capture inquiry about how they were not really responsible for the governance and financial mess at the power utility. Or at the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings into the deaths of 143 mentally ill patients.

Given the drought in an already water scarce South Africa, there is no extra bulk water to supply. Not just not for Cape Town, but elsewhere across South Africa where each of the eight metros has faced water restrictions of varying hardship over the past three years. And despite the irony in the Cabinet minister’s name – imvula means “rain” in isiZulu and isiXhosa – there is no magic wand to be waved to bring about replenishing cloudbursts.

It’s always been about water saving compliance enforcement – and here Cape Town has a role to play in terms of its by-laws alongside the national department’s officials in the Cape agricultural hinterland – and getting all Capetonians to reduce consumption across the board, an area where the city and province have crucial responsibilities.

The city by its own by-laws can impose, and enforce, water restrictions and levy punitive tariffs, among other measures, while the province has the power to declare disaster areas, as Western Cape Premier Helen Zille did in early 2017, and to release funds to ameliorate crises. Those instruments are available outside anything national government may, or not, do.

The DA cannot have it both ways.

But the party and its Western Cape and Cape Town governments are sticking to their guns. Launching #DefeatDayZero this week DA national leader Mmusi Maimane first said how “now is not the time for politicking and finger-pointing. We do not have the luxury of time. We need to unite behind this common mission to defeat Day Zero…”, but then went on to do exactly that: “It is the constitutional mandate of national government to deliver water to all municipalities. The City purchases bulk water, in much the same way that it purchases bulk electricity from Eskom.”

Yes, the 1998 National Water Act recognises that “water is a scarce and unevenly distributed national resource”, and puts the national minister in charge as the custodian of a public resource for use in the public interest.

And there are deep worries over how the Water and Sanitation Department is failing – from financial mismanagement that led to a qualified audit in the 2016/17 financial year, a ham-fisted approach to a national water shortage of 17% across the country by 2030 without action plans in its draft National Water Master Plan to lack of urgency in monitoring and enforcing compliance of water use licence criteria.

But the water law is rooted in a body of legislation also imposing governance and accountability duties on local and provincial governments amid the constitutional duty to work together.

According to Section 41 of the Constitution, all spheres of government, and organs of state, are bound together to foster “friendly relations” and “co-ordinate their actions” as all spheres of government must “secure the well-being of the people” and “preserve the peace national unity and indivisibility” of South Africa. This responsibility applies jointly and severally as the Constitution is the supreme law of South Africa.

The 2002 Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act empowers spheres of government to lodge an intergovernmental dispute under Chapter 4. This the DA has not done despite its mantra that the reason for the water crisis is that national government has turned a deaf ear to its pleas for help and support for 18 months. Nor has it gone to court, as it does frequently on other issues.

When Western Cape Premier Helen Zille used her executive powers in May 2017 to declare the province a disaster area under the 2005 Disaster Management Act, she did so with the nod of the national disaster management structures. But eight months were allowed to pass, largely without visible action in the province and city as Mokonyane also remained invisible.

During this time the DA factional battle in Cape Town escalated in a complex dynamic that meanders between City and provincial party caucuses and, according to a party inquiry report, created paralysis, loss of skills and a fearful environment. After Cape Town Mayor Patrice de Lille was removed by council from any role in fighting the water crisis following the marching orders of the DA’s highest decision making body, the Federal Executive, Zille stepped into the public limelight – four statements were issued in her name over two days regarding a series of Day Zero planning meetings also with national officials, before Maimane stepped in, in line with another Federal Executive decision.

Governance-wise, it’s not clear how a political office holder, who as national DA leader clearly has party-political responsibilities but who holds no role in the City or provincial governments, now leads and speaks on a matter directly related to these spheres of day-to-day governance.

But the social media campaign featuring Maimane in a #DefeatDayZero T-shirt was quick off the ground. It’s what the DA is good, very good, at. If the ANC had sharp political nous, it would by now have organised a rolling convoy of water tankers all along the N1 highway. It hasn’t.

Maimane hitting the fightback against Day Zero campaign trail to mobilise Capetonians into saving water – it’s widely agreed that only 50% of residents do so – has come amid increasing tensions at the city’s unpoliced and unguarded water points as 5-litre water bottles are flying off the shelves in shops across the metro.

Meanwhile, the Western Cape administration this week decided to take “whatever steps necessary” to recover costs of water crisis intervention even as it acknowledges “it is a provincial competence to manage provincial disasters”.

The provision of bulk water supply is a national government mandate. Where water supply has to be increased in emergency circumstances by the province or the City, it amounts to an unfunded emergency mandate, for which the costs have to be recovered,” said a statement issued after Zille and her MEC’s met in their regular Wednesday meeting.

No doubt it will be argued that this is a demonstration of good governance. But in a complex governance system, such an approach is tone deaf. For the DA the consequences of how it conducts itself in this water crisis will determine its future course in South Africa’s body politic. DM

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