Cape Town residents are rallying behind a man who helped make a spring in the Newlands suburb more accessible to thousands of citizens. While the city has ordered that the spring be closed to the public, residents continue to collect water there as an act of defiance to claim what they believe belongs to the public and not the government.
Riyaz Rawoot does not live in Newlands. His home is in the nearby suburb of Claremont, but over the years, his parents would tell him of a spring in Newlands where Capetonians could drink what is said to be the cleanest water that flows straight from Table Mountain.
When the drought raised alarm in Cape Town in 2017, Rawoot, a physiotherapist by profession, saw a dire need to improve the area where the spring flows. A single pipe protruded just above the ground at the end of the small cul de sac in Springs Way road. The earth beneath the pipe was muddy and slippery, making it difficult for the one hundred residents who came to stockpile on water in preparation for the drought.
After seeing that chaos in the area may be imminent as more people came to collect water, Rawoot came up with an idea in early 2017.
“It crystallised over time when I was coming and listening and seeing how awkward it was to get to the water. Eventually I said, ‘OK, if I can just get in two pipes for myself, then it will go a bit quicker’. It was quite selfish,” he laughs, watching as people collect water from the spring on a sunny afternoon.
“After that, I thought I may as well leave it for everyone to have benefit from it.”
Eventually, Rawoot’s idea grew. A few more pipes were added, a structure was put in place to make it rise further above the ground, and 26 holes were drilled into the pipes so that 26 people could collect water at the same time.
Last year, 100 people collected water at the spring in one month. Statistics from traffic officials show that in April 2018 the number of people collecting water at the spring had grown to 7 000.
But, Newlands residents are fed up with the traffic and noise in the small cul de sac.
In February, mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith released a statement saying law enforcement and traffic officials would be posted at the site daily to manage congestion. His statement came after a scuffle broke out between people who came to collect water.
“The congestion and noise from cars and persons visiting the site at all hours of the day and night is causing many complaints from the surrounding community, and often Kildare Road and Springs Way, which are simply not wide enough to handle the volume of vehicles trying to access the springs, are blocked,” he said.
On May 11, Rawoot received an email from City officials ordering him to dismantle his structure or the City would take it apart and “costs incurred for this removal” would be imposed on him.
The city said that the national water department had granted it a water license that would give it authority over 13 springs around the Cape, including the Springs Way spring. The City told Rawoot it was therefore shutting down access to the spring so that residents could instead collect water at a new collection point near the Newlands public swimming pools.
The City of Cape Town did not respond to questions from the Mail & Guardian, but last week it told the Cape Argus the spring is not licensed to operate as a collection point.
“The Kildare spring licensing conditions does not enable it to be a collection point — it will either be utilised as a recharge to Liesbeek River or to enter the potable water supply. There is no proper drainage from the collection points into the system at Kildare, meaning there is water wastage,” said City of Cape Town spokesperson Priya Reddy.
At the swimming pool, concerned residents have said they would have to walk a further distance to reach their cars while carrying 25-litre containers of water. No trolleys to push containers are allowed, making accessibility difficult.
Rawoot was given until May 13 to remove his pipes.
Civil disobedience in a time of drought
On a rainy Monday morning, 8 days after Rawoot was ordered to dismantle his structure, a few people still stream in to the small cul de sac to collect water.
Law enforcement in the road has encouraged residents to go to the spring nearby the swimming pool for water, but many are determinedly fetching water from Rawoot’s piped structure, which is held together by rope, zip-ties and a few nails.
“I’ve been coming to here for ages and I wouldn’t have had a good time during this drought if it wasn’t for this kind man’s intervention by producing a piece of engineering second to none,” says Derek Smith, a retired professor from the University of Cape Town.
For Rawoot, the pipe has come to be more than just a practical solution to access water — it is also a symbol of a community spirit that is rare in Cape Town.
“Everyone comes here. All backgrounds. There you’ve got a suit, there you got a shorts, there you got a painter’s trousers. Teenager. Schoolboy,” Rawoot says, pointing to the people collecting water. “All in this little cul de sac.”
Rawoot has printed the email the city sent him on May 11. He pasted an enlarged and laminated version of it up on the law enforcement container next to the spring. The printed out email has the names and email addresses of those officials who ordered that the pipes be dismantled. Some residents have now vowed to let the city know just how much they disagree with this order.
One man approaches Rawoot and fondly shakes his hand.
“They’ll regret it,” the man says of the city, “because now everyone has got their email address too, so watch what happens. I’ll be spamming somebody.”
Rawoot, with residents’ support, is determined to keep his pipes in operation. The structure, he says, remains incomplete because he had plans to improve on it.
“It’s not finished yet,” he says.