The question that has been bothering me for the past few weeks is: When is a crisis a crisis? Certain issues have been bedevilling the City of Cape Town for many years, if not decades, but they have never been seen as a crisis. I can only think that something is not a crisis if it only affects poor people, or mainly poor people. It becomes a crisis when it starts affecting middle-class or rich people directly.
Many issues affect poor people daily, but not much is said about them because they do not affect those who have access to greater resources. One example is the despicable situation with Metrorail, where trains are always delayed, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers stranded. This can be fixed with political will and better management.
Another example is the crime and gangsterism on the Cape Flats - a problem for as long as I can remember. It was a problem when I was growing up and has only become worse. These two issues - and there are many others - seem to not affect rich people directly, so are not described as a crisis in the same way as the drought.
However, they do impact on everyone because they have the potential to derail the city’s economy in the same way as the water shortage.
For now, most attention appears to be focused on water, or the lack thereof. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it is an immediate problem that needs urgent action.
The fact that the Western Cape, and in particular Cape Town, could soon be without water, is a major crisis. Some people are saying ours will be the first city in the world where this happens.
This is unacceptable in the city that claims to be the best run in South Africa. It is possible that our city’s leaders have believed their own spin.
Access to water is a human right and our city leaders should have years ago put in place contingency plans to obviate the crisis that is happening now.
But it is not the time to point fingers because, in some way, everyone is to blame. Most of us have had a wasteful relationship with water. We assumed it would never run out and ignored those who warned us to be more prudent.
It is important to get through the next few weeks and months before there is any realistic hope of rain, but even then, the winter rains might not be enough to change the situation dramatically, at least not for the next few years.
It is likely that by April most of Cape Town’s estimated 4 million people will have to queue at the 200 water points set up by the municipality, where each of us will be entitled to receive 25 litres of water a day.
This is not something new for many people living in informal settlements. When I was a young boy, and we lived in an informal settlement, one of the duties assigned to my sister and me was to fetch water from a tap a few blocks away. We would carry the buckets of water using a broom stick as leverage. There are many people who still do this today.
As soon as we are able to get to some sort of normality, we need to seriously look at how this situation happened and what we need to do to avoid it in future.
One of the first lessons one learns in political strategy is that one should never waste a crisis.
The DA seems to have realised this (although belatedly), the ANC is beginning to realise it (but might also be too late), and some civil society organisations are looking at positioning themselves to benefit from the water crisis. Some business people are also looking at ways they can make money from this unfortunate situation.
Call me a sceptic but I struggle to trust politicians, irrespective of their political party.
Most politicians have one eye on the 2019 general elections and are looking at ways in which they can exploit the water crisis to win votes.
The best way to deal with the water shortage is to commit personally to use as little water as possible, to encourage others to do the same and to report those who abuse this valuable resource.
Let the politicians worry about politics. We have more serious business to worry about. Like whether it is safe to not flush the toilet and whether we can get by with only one shower a week.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 27 January 2018)