Writ in Water

by Wamuwi Mbao

The drought at Theewaterskloof Dam, Cape Town's principal water source. 2017. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks.

The disaster did not arrive today. It will not arrive until next year. In the absence of the great biblical calamity, we seem unsure of what to do with ourselves. The cars become shiny again. The sound of a tap, once cautious, reverberates through the walls as my neighbor takes an unhurried shower. No longer is there hysteria for hand sanitizer or ecstasy for plastic containers to catch every spare drop of the rain which falls once a fortnight.

When the Dutch landed in Cape Town in April 1652, their demarcation of a city in a garden (at the expense of those who were on the shore, watching them arrive) instituted a strange engagement with space, premised on regulating the unknown. Cape Town is in thrall to the predictable. You can spend your weekends eating out of food trucks and sipping artisanal gin and never once touch the blurry edge of the mirage. Now, as a natural disaster unfolds in slow motion, Cape Town’s unpreparedness and social dysfunction appear as symptoms of its original concept. This city is, of course, one of the capitals of South Africa, but it is also a city hungry to be part of the world conversation. It is a cluster of ideas about life and humanity, as all cities are. A great number of those ideas have to do with acquisitiveness, with appropriating more from the underprivileged in order to allow the comfortable more time to procrastinate. But the current water crisis has seen us confront our relentless desire to ignore that the city is founded on bad conscience.

This part of South Africa draws people who imagine that they will prosper in authentic ways. I was one of them; I got off a Greyhound from the north with a sense that I was arriving in a city where the only excitements would be of my own choosing. Cape Town is where people move to slow down, to experience the certainty that nothing bad will happen; South Africans who live upcountry make their holiday pilgrimages, fill the malls, drive to the beaches in forlorn rental cars, and swear that they will relocate here, next year. Yet when the first pictures of the drought started to circulate, it was as if a strange dystopia had settled upon us. Here was a world that looked very much like our own (black people working in high-visibility jackets, interminable queues), but whose familiar meaning was being subverted. Its narrative was driven home by the phrase “Day Zero,” which bored its way into our lexicon like a corporate slogan. We were being taught to rebrand ourselves as survivors, even before the disaster day struck. A few of the images evoked the snaking lines of voters in South Africa’s 1994 elections, but Cape Town’s middle class hates nothing so much as a long queue.

This was not the sort of calamity that announces itself spectacularly, and it lacked the reassuring clarity of a runaway fire. We were told, quite suddenly, that there was very little water, and that there would be no water at all in the near future. Everything was told to us in an uninflectedly strident way, and just as important as the fixed point of Day Zero — it was initially scheduled for April 12, then pushed back to June 4, then July 9 — was the knowledge that we would be the first city in the modern world to run dry. We were going to beat São Paulo, and we were going to beat Barcelona. I detected a palpable excitement at the language, which depicted the drought as an adversary to be defeated in battle, as if the crisis were another opportunity to prove ourselves to the world.

We look around for someone to blame. Whose garden is too green? Whose grass is too lush? Signs spring up on walls in my neighborhood, defensively announcing that the verdant garden is not gained through abusing public resources. (“Borehole water” becomes a new way of saying “I will not be determined by any limits except my own.”) We are told scientists had predicted the drought months before, or years before, and we shake our heads and accept that ignored forewarning is an inevitable part of disaster.

The Newlands Swimming Pool, beneath Table Mountain in Cape Town. 2017. Photo: Waldo Swiegers.

Still, though, after the initial shock, it’s easy to fall back into routine. In Cape Town we have developed a way of talking about what is happening, words that condition us to live with the crisis as one learns to live with a spider sitting in the corner of one’s room: with a certain nervousness, but with growing calm. Disasters are predictably indiscriminate, and yet ever so specific in their effects. What would it mean for me, I wonder, if the taps were to run dry at the university where I teach? Would the students cease to arrive for class? Would my job be suspended until things improved? My selfishness is echoed in the concerns I hear most in classes and in bars: what will this do to tourism? What will this mean for development? And what dismays us most is that a city so wound around our well-being and comfort should suddenly disappoint our romantic notions. Reports come in that show that we aren’t saving nearly enough water. The paranoia increases. More images of empty dams circulate, as though seeing the muddy bottom will jolt us into acting correctly.

And what of those who are dismissed, the economically devalued who are scourged from the city and discarded to the flatlands of the Western Cape? Where I live out in the Stellenbosch winelands, I am spatially closer to people for whom scarcity is no abstraction. “Water crisis” has different meanings depending on who you are in the Cape. While I perform some approximation of what a state of emergency looks like, I wonder if those for whom water scarcity has always been a fact of life have noticed any change at all. I don’t know what to do with my wondering.

Filling up at the tap in the township of Imizamo Yethu, south of Cape Town. 2017. Photo: Waldo Swiegers.

I hear bizarre things on my commute: someone on a talk-back radio show proudly declares that they no longer hold their frozen food under the hot tap to defrost it. A government representative comforts by saying that we can, of course, send our domestic workers to queue for water in our stead. The owner of a by-appointment-only pop-up restaurant appears on a lifestyle TV show to promote its new drought-friendly menu. The overproduction of what we are watching unfold is expressed in the frozen smiles and the cudgeling adverts telling us to report our neighbors and not to flush.

Again and again, the city makes clear that this is a serious matter. But something of the old complacence is seeping back into life. Like the last few minutes of a film you turn off because the plot has been resolved, nobody here in Cape Town is now interested in Day Zero. We have had sporadic rain showers, and Day Zero has been pushed back, like a Doomsday clock, to 2019. We start to believe it wasn’t so serious after all — which is, of course, a dangerous folly. Perhaps we waited so long for the catastrophe that we became an unwilling audience. Anyway, there’s always something else to do here, while we wait.

Wamuwi Mbao is lecturer in English at Stellenbosch University and serves on the editorial board of the Johannesburg Review of Books.