Cape Town’s exceptionalism

Cape Town has always been like other African cities in how it treats its poorer, black, residents. The water crisis just amplifies these divides.

Hout Bay, Cape Town (Bertrand Duperrin, via Flickr CC).

If you are someone who likes to stand under the shower for more than two minutes, Cape Town, South Africa’s tourist hub, is not for you. With the city’s dams at record low levels, Capetonians are preparing for what has dramatically been called “Day Zero” (now postponed to mid-May) – the day when the taps run dry and army and police patrol designated water collection points. In the imaginations of many, desperate residents will battle in a post-apocalyptic scenario for access to their 25 liters of water per day. Capetonians are being told that desalinization plants will be ready by March. Although these will provide some measure of relief, Cape Town will continue to face water restrictions.

By all accounts the situation in the city is dire and South Africa’s politics make it even more difficult. With Cape Town being run by the opposition DA (Democratic Alliance), there is little doubt that the ruling ANC (African National Congress) must be enjoying watching its nemesis squirm. The DA is blaming the ANC for the crisis. The ANC, of course, blames the DA. The back and forth, however, is more than a “he said, she said,” it is an acrimonious struggle over the DA’s attempt to maintain its image as the party that represents “good governance.” Since the DA won Cape Town’s local elections in 2006, it has staked its political reputation on portraying itself as a less corrupt and more efficient city manager than the ANC. These claims have been continually dogged by accusations that its “efficiency” is reserved for the wealthy (predominantly white) areas of the city, while the Black poor continue to suffer discrimination. The DA is accused of creating a “First World” mirage for the (white) wealthy off the back of inadequate services for the poor and Black. It is the Cape Town of sparkling beaches, cable car rides and international chefs that is marketed to the rest of the world as the proof of the DA’s record, and it is this representation which is gradually imploding as the DA finds itself scrambling to hold the falling pieces together. Black Cape Town is emerging as the DA’s true representation.

The questions of identity and race run deeper, however, than the DA. The panic over “Day Zero” reveals South Africa’s ongoing refusal to look north of the border in imagining its position in the world. While the press is going wild over the day that the taps will run dry, it turns out that most of Africa’s urban residents do not have access to piped water in their homes. Day Zero, minus the army, would make Cape Town part of the norm, rather than the exception in urban Africa. In most African cities, the large majority queue for their water at public water points and carry it back to homes in buckets and jerry cans. People buy water tanks, install filtration systems, and pay tankers to come and provide this scarce commodity. While the problem in many of these places might be poor infrastructure and governance rather than the lack of water per se, the everyday experience is very similar. To describe Cape Town then as being the first city to “run out of water” is in some sense, incorrect. It will perhaps be one of the first cities where those accustomed to easy access face life-changing restrictions.

In a city which previously had flowing water and functional indoor plumbing, it is fair to panic at its demise. The panic, however, is arguably not only about the water shortage. Cape Town’s water crisis threatens to reveal Khayelitsha as more representative of the city than Camps Bay. It threatens to force South Africans to realize that their cities might in fact be more comparable to Luanda and Nairobi than to New York and London. In imploding the DA good governance myth it also signals to wealthy, especially white South Africans, that not even their favorite political party can place a separation between them and the conditions of the Black majority. For in fact, the Cape Town water crisis is not just about repositioning South African cities to the rest of the continent, but towards the conditions of the majority.

The water crisis forces not only Cape Town but all South Africa’s cities, to face one of their foundational facts: not everyone has always had (or even has) functional indoor plumbing. South Africa’s cities were never made for everyone. They have also never been the bastions of Global North modernity that wealthy residents like to imagine they are. Poorer, usually Black South Africans, have been dealing with water scarcity for decades. What is new is for the wealthy to have to realize that they are not living in the Global North; that their lush lifestyles cannot cushion them from the realities that they choose to ignore: that South African cities’ modernity is built on a myth that masks the everyday challenges that the majority face. Those cities in South Africa and across the world that have been ignoring the realities of global urban racialized inequality might have to accept that as many scholars are increasingly suggesting, African urbanism is the norm, not the exception.

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