NEWS & ANALYSIS

Day Zero is the first day of a national disaster

William Saunderson-Meyer says there is a streak of schadenfreude in the non-Capetonian response to crisis

Day Zero is the first day of a national disaster

It is a refrain that runs through South African history. This is the jewel in the crown: Cape Town, the Mother City, the Gateway to Africa.

A diamond, set between embracing oceans and protective mountains, its beauty and its bounty have for centuries lured visitor, settler and investor. And, if its often smug inhabitants are to be believed, the city is also the natural repository of most of the nation’s culture, charm, wit and intelligence. 

You might earn your fortune sweating in Gauteng’s money mills, but it is in refined Cape Town is where you spend it, runs their thinking. Well, maybe also elsewhere in the Cape, but certainly not in infra dig KwaZulu-Natal — Ugh! The biannual invasion of the hinterland’s déclassé whities and, all year round, so many darkies and charros about — nor in the economically flatlining Eastern Cape. 

Sure, many of us yokels who subsist elsewhere might claim to be content where we are. We might say that we live by choice in KZN’s verdant valleys; or the leafy suburbs of the Highveld, lashed by daily summer thunderstorms; or on the eastern coastline, with its rugged beauty and warm ocean. 

But, Capetonians know that in our hearts we’d all really much rather be living there. Much like Premier Helen Zille’s “educational refugees” swamping Western Cape schools, we're all secretly looking for asylum in the well-run, corruption-free Cape of Good Hope.

Capetonians should understand that the drip-torture of their sense of superiority has left their fellow citizens with inferiority complexes and a deep-seated envy. Inevitably, along with envy comes resentment. 

So, it is with mixed feelings that we have watched them muddle towards Day Zero — the unhappy distinction of being the first major city in the world where all the taps actually run dry. Sure, upcountry leaders and talking heads mouth platitudes about this being not a local but a national disaster, but behind the comforting words runs a wide streak of schadenfreude.

It’s just a little heartwarming for us outsiders to see that the city and provincial leadership of the Cape has feet of clay. To watch them bickering, blame-shifting and calling one another names.

However, in reality, it’s a sad and deplorable state of affairs. For once, the talking heads are right. This is a national disaster. 

And like every national disaster, while misjudgements and blunders at various levels have contributed to it, ultimate responsibility lies at the top. It lies with the inept, corrupt and paralysed government of President Jacob Zuma and, specifically, with the dysfunctional Water and Sanitation ministry.

By virtually any credible measure, Cape Town and the Western Cape have been better off under Democratic Alliance governance than they were under that of the African National Congress. Ask the people — the DA vote has increased steadily, every election.

The ANC, steeped in anti-democratic Marxist-Leninist notions of being the sole authentic voice of the people, finds this difficult to stomach. It would love to see the DA tarnished by a disastrous failure, opening the way to an ANC resurgence. 

To this end it has been willing to damage the wellbeing of millions, as well as sacrifice the second-biggest economic hub’s input, by not throwing at the crisis every available national resource. It is only now, with the intervention of Deputy-President Cyril Ramaphosa, parlaying directly with Zille, that things are belatedly changing.

Water and Sanitation's failure to act timeously and competently is not a surprise. Kadar Asmal in 1994 took a department with high levels of expertise, applied mostly to benefit white farmers, and shaped it into one that worked to deliver clean water to the masses, while putting the environment at the centre of its strategy.

It has been downhill since Asmal’s departure in 1999 and the department is now a text-book example of institutional paralysis. It couldn’t run a bath, never mind a critical national resource. 

This week, Water and Sanitation tabled SA's draft water management master plan through to 2030. Although scientifically sound, it is entirely lacking in an implementable programme of action.

Laughably titled “Ready for the Future and Ahead of the Curve”, it paints an apocalyptic picture of virtually irretrievable structural collapse and water contamination. 

More than a third of households don’t have access to safe water and supply reliability is worse than in the apartheid era; 41% of municipal water earns no revenue, with 35% of the water lost through leakage; 56% of municipal waste water treatment works and 44% of water treatment works are in a poor or critical condition.

It is also an ecological disaster. Half of SA’s wetlands have been lost. Of those that remain, 48% are in a critical shape.

Cape Town’s Day Zero is just the opening act. For much of SA, disaster is imminent and will strike in hundreds of dorps, towns and cities throughout the land, without the fanfare that has accompanied Cape Town’s high-profile pain.

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