The water point
The author returns to her home town, Cape Town, which may soon become the world’s first major city to run out of water. The crisis also exacerbates old divisions.
A row of cars, wheels half-hanging from the pavement, has become a fixture on this once-quiet, treed road. The chain of vehicles stretches up the hill, as bodies shuffle from the water point, loaded with however much water can be carried. The containers vary as much as their carriers: battered old bottles, handle-less buckets that have seen better days, and expensive jerry-cans ready-and-waiting for end-of-days scenarios. It certainly feels like it: eruptions of anger at the public water spring are increasingly common, water in 5 liter bottles are sold-out at most stores, while neighbors monitor one another to see whose grass remains stubbornly green, in this once-in-a-century drought.
Cape Town. The home town to which I returned late last year might soon become the world’s first major city to run out of water, or this is the language being employed to describe this potentially catastrophic event that is a probable consequence of global climate change. At some point, early in April (the city has now adjusted that date to mid-May), the dams will likely dip beneath usable levels of 13.5%, and so, piped water, glorious modern invention as well as a fundamental human right, will fall out of easy reach. Right now, all residents are restricted to 50 liters of water per day in an effort to thwart the moment when taps run dry entirely, and is the reason that a procession of people play their part in this sudden dystopia, all day and night, so they can build their rations of free available water while they can. (The water from the Newlands public spring streams down the mountain and would ordinarily flow towards the sea, were it not for the constant presence of bottles, buckets and jerry-cans these days).
More astounding than the sight of people queueing to collect water is the location of this frenzied water gathering: Newlands. In parts of the city — certain black and coloured neighborhoods with informal housing — this remains a norm, with one water point servicing multiple families that have neither piped water nor access to electricity.
But this is Newlands, a lush and prosperous suburb given its high rainfall and proximity to the mountain — the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, in walking distance. The grid of roads surrounding the spring is filled with contemporary conversions of old row or standalone houses. Ancient oaks abound. At the corner is the area’s hub of cosmopolitan eateries serving Parisian pastries, aged steaks, designer coffee concoctions and very fine wine. The restaurants are always packed. How noticeable that the patrons are not the people who come in their droves to the spring to collect water. The patrons are almost always white, while the water collectors largely come from afar and are mostly coloured, sometimes black (these apartheid classifications continue to largely reflect demographics of suburb and income). The jolt of their sudden presence is visible in the many disagreements about where they may or may not park or during tense negotiations as expensive German sedans or four by fours creep past rusty old Fords, hatchbacks and pickup trucks. Tempers rise. Tensions mount.
There is a crossing of worlds here — more — a disruption. I should know now that I am a resident of Newlands and part of this enclave. Up to a point, at least. Like the water collectors, perhaps I too might be considered an interloper — a blackish Capetonian who has some ability to choose where to live in the city of my birth.
And yet, the matter of who is and who is not interloping, peaked during a stand-off one morning outside the spring, before it had even turned 8am. A towering, white man leapt out of his expensive sports car to shout at a couple blocking traffic close to the water point. In turn a small coloured woman propelled herself out of their bakkie and heated words were exchanged:
“Go back to where you come from,” shouted the man.
“Go to hell, this is where I’m from … Newlands is exactly where I grew up.”
“You’re stupid, he shouted before climbing into his car and speeding away”.
Like so many other places, most notably District Six, Newlands — like many of the now predominantly white suburbs on this side of the mountain, from the city center to Simon’s Town — is rooted in the history of the city and country with its forced removals. Black and coloured families were expelled from Newlands after apartheid was legislated in 1948 (via the 1950 Group Areas Act) and draconian laws were enforced to evict families from their homes, dispersing them in townships, peripheral to the city’s economic and cultural activity.
While many parts of Cape Town remain greatly segregated today, Newlands strikes me as one of the worst offenders and is still stubbornly shut to the idea of post-apartheid restitution and any significant inclusion. Anthropologist Catherine Besteman claims in her book, Transforming Cape Town, that residents of Newlands repeatedly stymied efforts at such restitution by insisting that “…its [Newlands] history as a rural estate and the special character of the neighborhood must be respected.”
Today homes, places of business and schools in Newlands rarely reflect the city’s mixed race and black heritage or, that of the suburb. The St. Andrews’s church in the area erected a small wooden cross in 1994, commemorating the exodus of the majority of their congregation with the forced removals. But there is little else in Newlands to acknowledge or heal the past.
Last year my son was offered a place at a school close to the public spring. On the day that we were invited to visit the school, it became apparent that we were to be the only people of color amongst eight families or so. I felt dismayed. When the bell rang signaling interval, perhaps a hundred fair-headed children emerged out of the classes with only a sprinkling of children of color amongst these. The following week, I sent the principal an email asking how she planned to become more inclusive given the school’s obvious lack of diversity. Her reply was terse and she suggested that either I wanted the place or I did not. I did not, and chose instead to send my son to a school further away and less convenient, but one that is both diverse and egalitarian. I learned afterwards that my aunt had taught in that exact location (at the Newlands school several decades earlier, when it operated under a different name).
The matter of why so few area locals line-up for water says something else about the situation and what it means for the most vulnerable. Many of those who can afford to, had months ago planted pricey plastic water tanks in their back yards to collect rain water. Several have pools on stand-by, filled with chlorinated water — good enough for flushing at least, or they have had the financial wherewithal to stock pile 5 liter water bottles for some time. It is the majority of the city, its poor that will be left to the care of authorities who have proven themselves riven, and intransigent in allowing the situation to become quite so perilous. As always, the poor are inevitably people of color: black and coloured families who remain in the shadow of apartheid’s economic and spatial legacy. For us all, the city has promised some 200 water points where water will have to be collected and carried home should the dreaded day of zero water arrive. The logistics seem iffy.
I pass by the public water spring two or three times each day as I drop and collect my children from school, and, to see what if anything has changed. There are always people there. More these days, including wealthier residents and their black porters, or entrepreneurs plucked from the city’s homeless, who have made a business of appropriating retailer’s trollies and with these deliver several bottles of water to cars for a small fee. I hear the city authorities are planning to divert the water spring to someplace less likely to create such disruption and inconvenience, which is an unsurprising pity for the disturbance has been the most honest and defining moment the place has seen in decades. Historic amnesia defied.
For now, the spring is constantly patrolled. Cars and bakkies still arrive, its hapless owners ready to collect as much water as they can carry, before the city runs dry completely.