Day Zero: Still waiting for those thunderbolts out of the blue

25 January 2018 - 14:34 By tom eaton
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@MmusiMaimane handing out buckets to residents, where many still need to reduce their consumption.
@MmusiMaimane handing out buckets to residents, where many still need to reduce their consumption.
Image: #DefeatDayZero ‏via Twitter

On Wednesday I attended Mmusi Maimane’s #DefeatDayZero briefing in Cape Town, and I am happy to report that it was an informative, inspiring and reassuring presentation — for somewhere in the first half of May 2017.

Speaking to a capacity audience, some of which was even there on purpose, Maimane started by explaining that “this is not a human disaster, it’s a natural disaster”. While this was cold comfort to all the humans in the audience worried about running out of water, it must have been a massive relief to the various humans in local government jobs who have been worrying about getting fingered for their role in this roiling omnishambles. After all, is anyone really to blame for a natural disaster?

Far from sidestepping responsibility, however, Maimane was about to step right in it. Expressing his displeasure at how the City had handled communications until now, he revealed that he had “taken the unprecedented step of taking political control of our respective government’s responses to the situation”.

As he outlined the team that would actually be handling the crisis (Ian Neilson and Xanthea Limberg will hold your hand and say “Please, dear?” up until Day Zero, after which Helen Zille will point at your tears and order you to stop wasting water out of your eyeballs), it become clear that “political control” is something that should not be confused with administrative control or remote control or mind control — in fact any kind of control over anything whatsoever. But this didn’t stop some people from getting quite upset.

That morning, a Cape Town newspaper had led with a story accusing Maimane of hijacking the crisis for political gain. That afternoon, pundits and recyclers of punditry worried that he was blurring the lines between party and state. (I’m glad we have legal minds keeping us safe from line-blurrers, but with all due respect to the Constitution, I think right about now Cape Town would give the keys of the city to any dictator, benevolent or not, who could guarantee flushing toilets on April 13.)

For some, however, the problem wasn’t political but practical.

Maimane’s TED-ish talk had promised new information, but it all seemed depressingly familiar. Still, at least it was nice and clear, arranged around the themes of “Where we are at”, “What we are doing” and “What we all need to do”.

In case you were still unsure, where we are at is 70-ish days from somewhere we don’t want to be. What we (the City) are doing is stuff that won’t avert Day Zero 2018 but which might help avoid the 2019 and 2020 editions. And finally, what we all need to do is limit our water usage to 50 litres per day. And that’s that.

It wasn’t exactly journalistic gold, and when Phumzile Van Damme opened the floor to journalists afterwards, some of the questions bordered on grumpy.

I understand why. Reporters thought they were interrogating a bureaucrat, when in fact they had been invited to watch a performance by a cheerleader. I wasn’t disappointed, though, because I was there for a ra-ra routine, and as ra-ra routines went, it was pretty solid. Maimane introduced the people who will actually be doing the work. He hammered the 50-litres-a-day message. He revved up the crowd. He spoke to the press. Job done. Anyone who thought that was a hijack or a takeover must get very alarmed indeed every time an MC steps onto a stage.

No, this was a political performance through and through, staged for the emotional benefit of a certain kind of DA voter, the kind who unblushingly refers to Maimane as “The Leader”, even in his presence (it’s comically weird), and who feels a strong personal attachment to Helen Zille (the ovation she received at the start contained actual shrieking of the kind you hear at boy band concerts).

Of course, not everyone was high on Mmushrooms. When Zille spoke briefly, explaining that she didn’t want to point fingers or engage in politicking, and then pointed fingers at national government’s shameful paralysis, the woman next to me rolled her eyes. “Fokkit Helen,” she hissed, “just tell us what you’re going to DO!” Zille was right about the culpability of the Department of Water Affairs, but in that moment I got the distinct impression of a village that is starting to get tired of hearing a little boy running out of the forest, shouting, “ANC! ANC!”

Most, however, were there simply to see “The Leader” drop truth bombs, whether or not they were particularly explosive or even particularly true. And about halfway through they got their wish.

It hadn’t been a good five minutes for Maimane. He’d been plodding through some facts about aquifers or some such, and the energy was seeping out of the room. Some of the rent-a-crowd kids behind me were slumped in their chairs: at least one was dozing off.

And then, out of Cape Town’s brutally clear and depressingly blue sky came a gift.

A heckler.

Just a few shouts at first, then an inarticulate volley of words, on the other side of the auditorium. Maimane stopped and stared. Then someone near me said, “It’s ANC!”, and, almost simultaneously, all hell broke loose. The crowd turned on the hapless protestor, yelling and booing and cursing, its voice filling the room like angry thunder. I don’t know if the heckler was an ANC supporter, but it didn’t matter. At that moment, all the frustration of showering in buckets, all the fear of April 12, all the years of bloody Zuma, all the outrage at having The Leader challenged so brazenly, all of it broke like a wave on the head of that lone unfortunate.

The yelling, however, was becoming tinged with ugliness and men in dark suits were sliding in through side entrances. A woman near me shook her head and told no-one in particular, “This is bad PR! He must say something!”

The furious defenders of The Leader needed to withdraw to the higher ground, and Maimane gave it to them a moment later. Recovering both his composure and voice, he called out that he wasn’t there to play politics — and once again the room erupted. But this time it was a roar of approval, a great ragged, euphoric thing that buoyed him up and transformed the energy in the place. In an instant the rather dull head prefect was gone, replaced by a preacher booming salvation to a congregation on its feet. They had finally got what they came for: to swoon and be swept to safety on a torrent of rhetoric …

Half an hour later, I finally got what I came for: a chance to ask Maimane and the City a couple of question.

I had assumed I’d find myself in the third row behind a phalanx of grizzled journalists, all barking out informed and incisive questions, and I would mop up with one or two bigger-picture queries. But of said veterans there was no sign. Instead, I and three other slightly cautious interrogators (I’m not sure of any of us were actually journalists) were ushered into a room and towards a table around which sat the entire delegation that had shared the stage earlier, minus Zille: Maimane, Neilson, leader of the DA in the Western Cape Bonginkosi Madikizela, MEC for Local Government Anton Bredell, Limberg, Van Damme, and a hovering media liaison will-o-the-wisp. Six suits versus three concerned citizens and one columnist. It wasn’t good odds.

Still, Maimane was affable and open, and I did my best to be an actual reporter, despite opening with the softest of softball questions. Both he and Zille had outlined the reluctance of national government to get involved: as the official opposition, what were they planning to do to compel Water Affairs to get off its soggy backside?

Maimane’s reply was copybook stuff, full of shadow ministers and portfolio committees, and getting parliament to apply itself, and the intersection between local and national government. At one point he said that “Nomvula must come and account”, but I wasn’t clear on how, exactly, Nomvula was going to be made to come and account.

Which is why I found it odd that Maimane threw away his next line so casually.

“Today this problem is the Western Cape,” he said. “Be very assured: tomorrow it’s the Northern Cape, it’s elsewhere, simply because the national ministry has failed in its job.”

I don’t know why this hasn’t been the DA’s tentpole statement on Cape Town’s crisis and the government’s non-response to it. Perhaps it seems, superficially, like petty politics. And yet it isn’t. It is Climate Change 101: the whole country is drying out, and every South African, in every town and city, needs the minister to do her job or at some point we’ll all be looking at a national Day Zero.

So, I asked, given that Cape Town’s “new normal” is gradually decreasing rainfall, would the city and province reconsider its current policy of frantic development, not least on the Philippi Horticultural Area?

Maimane and Madikizela presented a pair of straight political bats — poverty alleviation needs economic development, it’s a tricky balance — but Neilson admitted that the drought had “shown us that our previous assumptions ... have been proved wrong”. So, I asked, would the city consider suspending the development of the PHA?

“This is only a personal opinion because we’ve not debated this in the city,” said Neilson, hedging all kinds of bets, “but I do believe, given the changed circumstances, that gives a different perspective on the PHA in the sense that water resource now becomes very important to us, I do think we have to review our approach to this …We need to take the step of protecting that resource.” So now you know: they’ll definitely maybe consider debating the topic.

Soon Van Damme was looking at her watch and the whole group was sweeping towards the television cameras waiting outside. All except one: Neilson was straggling, cut off from the herd.

I got down low and slipped out to the left flank. Dave from the Western Cape Water Shedding Facebook group slunk off to the right. And before Neilson could sniff the air or cry out, we had brought him down like two wolves that hunt by bowing nervously and saying, “Hi, sorry, um, just a couple more things.”

And this, for me, was when things got a bit worrying.

If pressure could be reduced (as Maimane had mentioned in his speech) why wasn’t it happening, I asked? It was happening already, replied Neilson. It was tricky — lowering pressure meant high-lying areas got less water than low-lying ones — but they had started installing pressure valves and squeezing off large areas to see how it all worked.

Wait. What? But Dave was now asking how sure the City was about the location and identity of the citizens guilty of the worst wastage. Did Neilson know exactly where those extra 150-million litres were going?

“I took over a few days ago,” said Neilson, “and I’ve asked for exactly that information.”

I confess I was too stunned to ask anything else. I mean, what else do you ask when it’s 76 days from a catastrophe and the person tasked with avoiding that catastrophe hasn’t yet been given the names and addresses of the people accelerating it? How do you phrase a polite question when all you want to do is shake the man by his lapels while screaming, “So just what the hell was Patricia de Lille doing all that time, and who in God’s name was doing oversight? If you’re only reducing pressure now, when do you plan to go after water cheats? Day Zero Plus Two? And are we sure that this team will take us through to Day Zero? I’m only asking because the last team was supposed to do that, and, it turns out, managed to do almost nothing except bring the day forward by a few weeks.”

To be fair, this team might be different, despite comprising mostly the same personnel, and working for the same people who oversaw the last one, and demonstrating the same unwillingness to reveal specifics about the logistics of Day Zero. Anything is possible.

Likewise, Maimane called national government’s non-response “criminal”, and he might be proved right. If a single Capetonian dies because of contaminated water, or because there’s no water to put out a fire, or in a fight over water at a depot, Nomvula Mokonyane will have blood on her hands.

But at some point the room isn’t going to contain three worried interrogators and a columnist. One day there will be rows and rows of proper journalists, and auditors, and millions of voters, all demanding to know what went wrong not just nationally but locally, right here, and who was responsible, and how we protect ourselves from those people in future. Because whoever hastened the arrival of this terrible day, whether they work for the ANC or the DA, must not be allowed near the running of a water-scarce city ever again.

The DA has no doubt learned a lot over the past few months. But the people of Cape Town are learning, too. And remembering.

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