The Water Crisis Diaries: Fear and loathing in Cape Town

I’m not allowed to be afraid.

It’s against my culture as a South African to show fear. We are a nation of fighters. We fought the settlers, fought the English, fought the Apartheid government. Now we fight corruption, when we’re not fighting each other.

And when we can’t fight, when the enemy is something as unyielding as the sky, then we make a plan.

We figure out a system that works and we smile while we do it. And if we struggle a little to get the smile to reach the eyes, we make a joke about it.

I’m not allowed to be afraid of running out of water. Not only because I am South African, but because I am a privileged South African. People in other provinces have a lot to say on this matter. Privileged (white) Cape Townians should have made a plan about this months ago. It was us who had the money, why didn’t we do something? Why weren’t we harvesting rainwater? Why weren’t we… I’m not even sure what else we were supposed to do. But the other provinces think it’s our fault.

I’m not a rich Cape Townian. I live in a small second-storey apartment with no balcony. I get by well enough to buy a couple of art supplies every month, not well enough to have a wedding. I’m not quite sure what I was supposed to do other than saving water like everyone else.

I’m not a rich Cape Townian, but I am still a privileged Cape Townian. The main reason why I’m not allowed to be afraid of the water running out is because the less-privileged Cape Townians never had water to begin with. They carry water from central pumps and use bucket toilets. And they survive.

Therefore it is selfish and whiny of me to be frightened of Day Zero. How dare I consider running?

I don’t think the flight of those who can should even be contemplated, because it’s just so elitist, so exclusive.
It’s inevitable, it’s also abandonment, abdication and so colonial.

Says one Joburg blogger who I will not name.

You should not run, because most of Cape Town can not run. You must stay and you must fight. Being afraid is a privilege. How dare we fear losing what we should never have had? What many don’t have? What our ancestors didn’t have? What it’s irresponsible in this day and age to have?

This attitude is by no means limited to people outside of the province. It’s everywhere. It’s the pervading sentiment.

I admire my friends and neighbours who are not afraid. I am. And I’m sorry that I am. I feel guilty that I am. I know the kinds of comments I’ll get on this post already, so you don’t have to lecture me.

I promised to be honest in this blog – because otherwise what use will it be to future me? So, these are the things that I’m afraid of. Losing sanitation. In a flat it’s not a case of burying your poop in the garden and making it into compost. It’s a case of keeping it with you in the small space where you live and making sure it doesn’t explode. Yea, explode. And hoping that your neighbours are also handling theirs in an efficient and safe manner. I’m afraid of the sickness and disease that comes with poor hygiene. Yes, there are methods to stay clean. We’re fools for thinking every single person will do these. Maybe the government will step up and help with this. At the moment they’re handing out flyers and posting pictures of their feet in a basin on Twitter. I’m worried about the queues. I work until 6pm every day, and with the current plans I will not be able to get water from the government. I will have to buy water from the supermarket. It will probably run out. I am afraid for my mom. She is frail. She lives in a house with other people, but none of them are strong. She is the only one with a car. She does not have money to buy water. I’m afraid of fire. I’m afraid of us turning on each other. It’s already happening in the form of self righteousness (every list of tips posted online has a longer list of comments arguing about the tips), and as we slide closer to Day Zero, as water becomes scarcer and emotions run higher, that can lead nowhere good.

But let me not talk about fear anymore, because that’s very un-South African of me. I’d like to talk about finding odd humor in dire situations. Which is hopefully less annoying to read.

It occurred to me that I would probably be fine if I reverted to being a toddler.

  • Don’t flush the loo
  • Don’t wash your hands
  • Don’t wash your crockery when you’re done with it
  • Don’t shower before getting into bed
  • Bathtime is yucky
  • Have a softdrink instead of water
  • Let’s tell everyone about your poo poo and wee wee
  • Let’s start wearing nappies

Okay, not the last one. Although that might be a better option for blocks of flats…

Humour aside, it’s interesting how, once you really start looking at it, our relationship with water is largely defined by the way we’re socialised. Water is not seen as a resource in and of itself, but as a means to an end. There are alternatives for so many of our water uses – like washing hands with hand sanitiser for instance. It’s just a case of unlearning.

 For me, the process of unlearning started with a facecloth and a kettle. As I poured the water into a bucket, I remembered a day when I was about seven. I’d just arrived at my dad’s from across the country. I was tired, it was late, and the last thing I wanted to do was have a baaaath. After a good few minutes of arguing, he eventually agreed that I could do a “top and tail” wash off in the sink and go straight to bed.

It’s funny to remember that I used to hate bathing, that it used to feel like a waste of time that could be spent playing. Now the Cape Town weather systems have granted me the excuse I always wanted as a child to just wash off with a cloth in the basin.

And it’s actually quite pleasant. Far more pleasant than a 90 second cold shower, which is the other option. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to bath again without guilt, or if washing in the basin will become the norm again – perhaps globally – once we pass the age of excess.

Personally, I’m hoping that this leads to new fabrics that don’t have to be washed. I could definitely live without having to do laundry.

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