Of water buck-stopping, delays and legalities

Rhodes scholar, anti-apartheid activist, author and former Oxford don RW “Bill” Johnson
The Cape water crisis is a crisis of local governance. A city of nearly four million that just runs out of water? Where and when does that ever happen? Even Windhoek doesn’t do that and heaven knows, they have climatic difficulties far greater than the Cape’s.
At present we can see various excuses being rehearsed. There are accusations – by a serious outfit – that Cape Town has completely bungled the situation over desalination by dragging its feet for five years. The excuses here are about “legal issues” and “internal funding issues”.
Secondly, of course, we are told that really water is a national competence and that the buck is therefore passed to the Dept of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) in Pretoria.
What the city and Province need to wake up sharply to is the fact that if the water runs out, they – and nobody else but them – will get the blame, and that the huge damage this would do to the city would then also have a huge political fall-out. Councillors and MECs, the mayor and the premier, should realise that their jobs are on the line.
Everyone knows that DWAF is completely useless and anyway has no money. Its Minister is one of the ANC’s many very foolish women, indeed she is probably among the least competent, which is really saying something. So there is absolutely no help to be had in that direction, and that just has to be taken as fact and built into one’s plans. The Cape is on its own, whether we like it or not. It’s not even clear that the ANC government wouldn’t be very happy to see the DA-run Cape in a state of crisis. It would make such a nice change from always being told how much better the Cape runs everything.
But the Cape is also politically on its own: it has, at both city and provincial level, given its overwhelming confidence to the Democratic Alliance. Until now, it has felt quite proud about that and Capetonians have enjoyed having other South Africans come down here and make admiring remarks. But if any ANC-run town, let alone city, ran out of water there would be lots of comment about ANC incompetence, corruption, inability to govern and so on.
And this is nothing less than a survival issue. If the water runs out people and businesses will move away, tourists won’t come and the whole momentum of the city will be thrown into reverse. Just such a crisis occurred in parts of the KZN lower South Coast two Christmases ago, and within days the hotels, lodges and resorts all emptied as holiday-makers fled back to Jo’burg, Pretoria or wherever. The effect was ruinous. Residents sold up (at a great loss), the rating base almost collapsed, and so then did other parts of the infrastructure.
The truth is that is quite shocking that the city has been allowed to grow to this size with its water supply left to depend on the vagaries of the weather. Even in London, where there is no shortage of water, water is recycled at least six times. But not here. Knysna has a desalination plant. But not here. We have a gigantic aquifer with billions of gallons of water under the Cape Flats, but we have made no use of it at all until now. This is sheer improvidence. In effect, the authorities have just sat back and said “Oh, it’ll rain soon. It always does.”
Worse still, we are told that the City Council is now racked by intra-party disputes, by De Lille’s utterly authoritarian way of concentrating all power in her own hands, that there are racial tensions, racially biased appointments, the dissolution of the sort of unit needed to sniff out corruption and there are strong and continuous rumours – we’ve all heard them – that the unprecedented (and often unwelcome) building spree going on in sensitive parts of the Cape Peninsula has resulted in some highly enriched property developers and also backhanders to some councillors. It doesn’t help that De Lille has become a very rich woman and also travels abroad on city money and at great expense.
This is all very provocative stuff and it comes at a time when the electorate would like to see a single-minded and all-out effort to overcome these difficulties which, by the way, means that all appointments have to be strictly on merit.
Practically what this means is that the city and Province cannot afford to let anything stand in the way. If the lawyers tut-tut over compliance, let them. If the city or Province need to take steps that should have been taken by DWAF, just do it and see if the government really has the nerve to sue the Cape for saving itself. Maybe read about San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake that destroyed the city. Within three days, 300 plumbers were at work fixing up the water system (note that this was the top priority) and within weeks the streets had been cleared and the streetcars were running again. The city was rebuilt at such remarkable speed that nine years later it was able to hold a World’s Fair. The city authorities knew that this was a survival issue for the city and for themselves politically, and they worked like demons. Note, too, that this was a city in which, fifty years earlier, when the citizens judged that things were not properly run, they rose up and set up a Vigilance Committee to run the town. It was a Wild West town and if things had to be settled with a gun, they were. But all the citizens cared about was that things got done – and they did.
Finally, the local authorities should take heart. They are backed overwhelmingly by an electorate which has taken pride in their achievements and which has a high sense of morale. That is what really matters, and with that backing they can afford to be bold and determined. If they need to take special funding measures, take them. But they have to realise that this also means that, whatever anyone might say, the buck stops not with the central government.  But with them.
RW Johnson is an author, commentator and academic. He wrote How Long Will South Africa Survive?

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