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The Good, the Bad and the Dirty

- Schalk Mouton

Column: Lessons unlearnt from a week in dry Cape Town.

The Good, the Bad and the Dirty

He bent down. He grinned. Of the two teeth in his mouth, one was rotten. The other broken in half. “Welcome to my humble little abode,” he breathed in a strong Afrikaans accent. I couldn’t exactly place the smell, but it was definitely not of something recently alive. 

It must be a dream … I thought. No, A nightmare! 

“Just don’t drink the water … because there isn’t any!” 

He threw back his head and cackled at what I hoped was a joke. The laughter reverberated through the dry Cape Town air, crackling into oblivion … the sound mixed in a strange melodramatic way with the beat of a Pink Floyd song that played on a cheap set of speakers somewhere in the distance. 

The sound wafted off. The reek lingered. Pink Floyd wailed. I knew this was real.I had landed in Cape Town several hours earlier. I was tired, hot and sticky, and just wanted a shower – especially after emerging from the cubicle in the restroom at the airport and reading a sign on the mirror saying that the taps were switched off due to the drought. 

“It is MY water,” the owner of the Bed ’n Breakfast that I was checking into said, at pains to explain that he had just installed a R200 000 borehole on his property. “Especially the hot water. Don’t use it,” he said, a crooked smile on his face failing to disguise the seriousness of the underlying threat. 

I was born and grew up in Springs and so, by birth right, I can instinctively distinguish between an empty threat and a promise of extreme violence. I instantly decided not to shower for the rest of the week. Unlike a threat from the 150kg mass of meat that I came to call “The Landlord”, a little bit of grit would not get me down. 

Earlier, on the plane to Cape Town, I'd felt uneasy, uncertain, and even a bit scared, even though I didn’t dare to show it. The last time I felt like that was when I was being smuggled into a war zone. We were travelling, at first, on the back of an old, rusty trailer pulled by an antique Turkish farm tractor. Then, dumped into a large cut-open diesel tank that served as a makeshift ferry that smuggled our group of journalists across the river that serves as the border between Turkey and Syria. This all while watching incoming artillery shells hitting the cliffs of the mountain that towered over the village we were headed to. 

But I was not heading to a war zone, or even a different country. This was the Republic of Zille. The idyllic resort of the rich and famous. The playground of the fantastic. The destination of choice for all those Gautengers who are dying to emigrate, but can’t afford it. A world of absolute abundance … but without any water … 

Amidst all the talk and hype about the now infamous Day Zero, I was now deep in the belly of the beast. 

Everything in Cape Town is about the current water shortage. Politicians implore “Team Cape Town” in radio advertisements to work together to avoid “Day Zero”. Radio talk show hosts share water saving tips – and, more importantly, like traffic updates, provide information on which stores in which areas still have water in stock. At the time, News24 reported that searches for “compost toilets” and “Day Zero” dominated Google searches in Cape Town. 

It was on my third day in town that I spotted the “No Shower Sunday” poster for the first time. By then, I had not showered since I had arrived and was desperately anticipating the coming Sunday, when I would return to Joburg and be able to shower. As the week progressed, I noticed fresh-looking Capetonians wearing designer sunglasses turning up their noses and suspiciously sniffing the air as I crossed their path. 

It was on the same day that I had decided to go for a run on the beach. It was a beautiful, yet slightly windy evening, and after a number of days stuck in a conference room, perfect to get some exercise. This, as I see it, was my first big mistake – I got thirsty. And sweaty. And even smellier, which led directly to my second big mistake: As Capetonians must do, I thought, I went for a “shower” in the sea. 

The water was beautifully temperate, the scenery unbeatable. The sun was setting in the distance in a perfectly blue sky and the Mountain squatted comfortably on the horizon. A herd of kids enjoyed the waves and their surfing lessons while their moms lined the beach, chatting. 

I expertly ducked the first wave. I gulped a mouthful of salt water as the second one slightly dunked me, but the third – a massive wall of water of over 2 feet high, I kid you not – rolled me out onto the beach and dumped me at the feet of surfing moms who didn’t even bother to hide their little sniggers. 

Back at the B&B, I snuck in through the back yard-gate, trying to avoid The Landlord, who was lazily watering his lawn in the setting sun, while quietly whistling the tune from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly past his half-smoked cigarette. (Can’t he at least try to avoid the clichés, I thought). 

“They [the City of Cape Town] just announced regulations for borehole usage,” he spat at me, after trapping me in a corner. “It is MY water. I’ll be damned if I let my business go down because of someone else’s incompetence [to manage water]!” 

On the plane back to Joburg, I had a pencil stuck deep in my ear, trying to reach a stubborn clump of sea sand that I have had an ongoing wrestling match with for the previous couple of days. At first, I did not hear the woman’s voice, but I caught it in the echo.“The drought is just terrible, don’t you think?” she said, sipping on her bottle of Valpré. I tuned out her monologue after about 15 minutes, more interested in listening to the sound of the ocean stuck inside my ear. 

Yes, I thought, the drought in Cape Town is terrible. But it is also ironically beautiful. It gets politicians talking, scientists thinking, the media writing and the consumer at least thinking of saving. Throughout my stay, I saw a number of trucks carrying rainwater containers and delivering them to houses. 

There have been serious droughts in provinces like Limpopo and the North West for the past 10 years, but, because they aren’t global tourism destinations, there has never been a “Day Zero” for them. 

Also, nobody really owns water. People believe water is their personal property but no-one wants to take responsibility for it. No one takes ownership of taking care of water while we’ve got enough of it, but everyone will guard to the death what they believe is their share, if there is a shortage. 

Cape Town demonstrates the new normal that we are going to have to get used to. Water has been a serious issue for South Africa for a long time, and it is going to get worse. We need to think much more carefully about how we treat water and deal with water issues – including sanitation. 

Water – and the situation in Cape Town – is not a joke. But it is the start of a hopefully enduring conversation. 

As a sustainability researcher once told me: “Everybody likes a good drought!” 

Read more about the research conducted across faculties, disciplines and entities to help secure humanity’s most important resource for survival: water, in the fourth issue of Wits' new research magazine, Curiosity.