/ 9 February 2018

I’m alright, Jack — I’ve got a borehole

People queue to collect water from a spring in Newlands as fears over Cape Town’s water crisis grow ahead of Day Zero.
Municipalities were placed under restrictions to cut water use by 45%. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

The approach of Day Zero has put Capetonians into panic mode and suburbia is getting distinctly nervous. Middle-class matrons battle each other for bottles of water in the supermarkets, the most humble of nature’s products competing with champagne and caviar in Clifton and Camps Bay.

Urban myths abound, about the size of household stocks of water, the purchase of swimming pool water from afar, about children having to take their own water to schools and schools locking loos, about old-age homes running short and about where the water delivery points will be when Armageddon comes.

The upside of the water crisis is that it is reminding us how distant our lives are from nature and how we need to re-connect with it.

In a recent conversation with a migrant worker from one of our neighbouring countries, the young man confessed that he had thought before the crisis that all our water came from the sea.

It was only after he arrived in Cape Town that he had realised he had been wrong.

Others are slightly better informed but, hey, water comes out of the tap, doesn’t it? Where does it come from before that? How many of us have any serious knowledge of the local dams, the catchment areas, what’s done to it before it gets into our bathtubs?

Alas, ignorance reigns, although a lot of people in South Africa are now rapidly catching up. Hopefully, too, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa will place water as a top priority in his new administration and spare us the appointment of an incompetent apparatchik.

Water has even knocked President Jacob Zuma off top spot in conversations, with everyone now claiming expertise on what’s gone wrong, who’s to blame, what can and should be done and what isn’t being done.

It’s not a good time to be a politician in Cape Town. The Democratic Alliance is taking a battering, as it should, with much chortling going on about Cape Town being marketed as a well-run city. But the ANC should be wary, too, for the popular mood is a plague on all your houses. Political parties of whatever stripe are viewed as much the same and all to blame.

Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille complains a great deal about the selfish Capetonians who are continuing to use more than their daily allowance. We have to trust that she knows more than I do about this — although opinions will differ on this.

Nonetheless, day-to-day observation of neighbours and friends suggests that the minutiae of behaviours are changing and changing fast. Buckets are de rigeur in all showers but I have capped that by standing in my grandson’s baby bath, which catches more, more effectively — never before in the field of human history has someone so small had such a big influence (at least, on me).

But social etiquette is still uncertain. The slogan goes: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” but people still baulk at leaving their yellow behind when peeing in other people’s houses. Soon we will have no choice — although doubtless many will opt to use the garden.

Meanwhile, there is a fair amount of inverted boasting about the reduction of water bills, about the shortness and infrequency of showers, about continuous re-use of the washing up water, about re-wearing clothes. We haven’t got to rationing the washing of body parts (armpits on Tuesdays, naughty bits on Fridays) but we’re getting close. Whatever, the trendy new motto is: “If we smell, we come from Cape Town.”

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille has taken to flaunting her greasy hair and her dirty car. I have only met her two or three times and conversation has always been about politics. Boring. Next time it will be about minimal showering techniques.

Scarcity is breeding innovation and waterpreneurship is booming. The supermarkets cannot keep up with demand and consumerist decorum collapses into undignified scrambles whenever deliveries of bottled water arrive. Plastic buckets have never sold in such large quantities.

Bakkies ferry multiple containers of waters filled at mountain springs to the Cape Flats. Stories circulate about access to springs being illegally blocked off by lorries and denied to local residents. Owners of portaloos are expecting to make a killing. Plumbers are having a field day, installing JoJo tanks and linking boreholes to houses.

Legally, water cannot be privately sold but who will enforce the law? Unscrupulous suppliers won’t hang back from holding thirsty households to ransom if the taps run dry. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think of water sellers patrolling the suburbs, middle-class inhabitants ready if not happy to pay if they can avoid hours of waiting in a queue.

People somewhere are going to go thirsty and dirty but we can guess that it won’t be those living in better-off suburbia.

As a rule, it’s not a good thing to be living in a place that is getting global attention for the wrong reason. Nonetheless, it’s going to be interesting in a Chinese sort of way.

How long will the queues get? How long will it take to reach the tap? Will the water supply points stay open overnight? Will they run out? At what point will initial good humour turn to anger and even violence? Above all, how long will it go on for?

It won’t be too bad a thing at all for suburbia to share the inconveniences of township life. Conceivably, it could bring diverse communities together, helping each other and demanding accountability from politicians. It won’t be a bad thing at all if politicians are forced to think ahead about the decades to come rather than just where the next vote is coming from.

But it’s one thing if the water runs dry for a month or two while we wait for the winter rains. It’s going to be quite another if the rains don’t come.

For the moment, I’m all right, Jack. By good fortune rather than foresight the missus and I bought a house with a borehole. We are now part of the borehole bourgeoisie, fêted by our less fortunate friends who will turn up at the door when the municipal process stalls — and everyone fears that it will.

But personal smugness is qualified by the realisation that one is raiding the commons and not paying for it. And one day the borehole too will run dry, and the borehole bourgeoisie will have to join the herd. All I can say with certainty is that, if there is no water to drink, I will just have to drink more beer.

Roger Southall is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand