Cape Town Drought: When the political system fails…

The Joint Association Member Meeting (JAMMS) held its biggest ever meeting when over 600 people from the tourism and hospitality industries came to interact with the City of Cape Town and Provincial government over plans for Day Zero – the day most taps are turned off and even stricter water rationing starts – now set for 4 June 2018.

JAMMS represents Cape Town Tourism, FEDHASA Cape, SAACI Western Cape and SATSA Western Cape, who have been trying to get answers for their members from the relevant authorities since a possible Day Zero was first mooted.  With no success.

The panel of speakers comprised:

  • Executive Deputy Mayor, City of Cape Town: Alderman Ian Nielson
  • City of Cape Town’s Director of Water & Sanitation: Peter Flower
  • MEC for Economic Opportunities, Western Cape: Minister Alan Winde
  • CEO of South African Tourism: Sisa Ntshona

Before the invitation was sent out, I asked Enver Duminy (Cape Town Tourism’s CEO) to include Peter Flower because I found that he talks more sense than all the politicians combined.  (Until recently, Council officials were not allowed to talk to the media.)  I also sent Enver the proposal for water committees, and was pleased to see both these suggestions were included.

I was sorry that there was no presentation from Wesgro.  Tim Harris, its CEO, did speak from the floor saying that they have prepared a “best practice” narrative for the industry to convey the message that Cape Town and the Western Cape are open for business.  Their dedicated water website will be launched soon.

What did the speakers have to say?

Peter Flower, City of Cape Town’s Director of Water & Sanitation: “It will rain again, but at this stage it cannot be predicted when the rain will come.. We cannot build our way out of the drought – driving down the demand and stretching what is left in the dams is the main component to getting through this.”

Peter is a 40-year veteran at the City of Cape Town.  Click here for a really interesting overview of Cape Town’s water undertaking.

But is driving demand down enough?  More recently, Fin24 reported: “It is unclear for how much longer the drought in Cape Town and surrounding areas is going to last, but history shows that dry spells in the city have persisted for as long as 15 years,” says Hannes Rautenbach, the chief scientist for climate change and variability at the SA Weather Service.

“The weather records, which stretch back to 1921, show that Cape Town and surrounds experienced a dry spell of below normal rainfall from 1924 to 1939,” he added.

“The last time Cape Town experienced three consecutive years of below normal rainfall was from 1971 to 1973.

“In 2015, 549 millimetres of rain was recorded, making it the second-driest year since 1921; in 2016, the region received 634mm of rain, making it the 14th-driest year since 1921; and there were 499mm last year – the driest year since 1921. This compares with average annual rainfall of 820mm since 1921.”

Climate change does mean that droughts will become more frequent.

Cape Town's rainfall since 1921

Deputy Mayor: Alderman Ian Neilson: “We have to cut down on our consumption if we are to get through this period and not get to Day Zero. We are determined that we should not allow this water crisis to also result in an economic crisis.”

For someone determined to avoid an economic crisis, he showed callous and unsympathetic disregard for statements from the floor about businesses about to close, about difficulties applying for additional water quotas, disdain for small businesses balking at having to apply for business zoning, and the mood of the audience.

He was wholly unimpressive and seemed to defend his position at any cost.  He is an uninspiring leader who seemed prepared to pit the City Council against the citizens.

This prompted me to challenge the City to release water usage statistics for all city councillors and members of the provincial cabinet for the last six months.  Are they walking the talk?  I’ve had Read Receipts from Xanthea Limberg and Priya Reddy, but no reply.  An open and transparent government, or one that needs the PAIA to get the information?

Alan Winde attends a cabinet meeting in jeans and t-shirt
Alan Winde attends a cabinet meeting in jeans and t-shirt

Western Cape Minister of Economic Opportunities, Alan Winde emphasized the contribution of the sector to the economy: “We must avoid Day Zero, because our businesses cannot afford to move into that next stage – this region cannot afford to lose those jobs. Jobs depend on keeping this sector going, but we need to do this in a sustainable way. We need to have a concise and clear message on being open for business to maintain the status quo of the economy.”

Alan is arguably the most respected provincial MEC, walking the talk far more than anyone else.  His streetfront, walk-in office is just one example.  His initiatives like GreenCape are very successful.

GreenCape has a business continuity plan to help ensure  businesses continue to function and provide visitors with a memorable experience, should Day Zero arrive. Visit GreenCape’s drought business support page to find out how their dedicated water desk can offer you specific support on drought business continuity planning.

Alan announced that he would be ditching his suit in favour of a t-shirt and jeans, which he would only change every three days – to save water washing clothes.  I’m not sure that this really will save water (because suits are usually dry cleaned) but it should be a challenge which others adopt widely.  Let’s see who else walks the talk.

Apart from that, Alan couldn’t offer any comfort to the questioners.  It really is an “Avoid Day Zero or Die” situation.

At the end of last year, I read a story in the The New Yorker about Estonia – a tiny country almost a third the size of Cape Town.  There was a sentence that reverberated for Cape Town: “We had to set a goal that resonates, large enough for the society to believe in.”  It reminded me of 1999 when a friend was trying to get municipalities to buy into WiFi-controlled prepaid water meters.  Like Johannesburg’s new electricity meters which can turn off items like hot water geysers to avoid widespread loadshedding, it would provide a far finer control of water use.

water wheelbarrow
Will this be the new status symbol at water collection points? Water is very heavy!

CEO of South Africa Tourism, Sisa Ntshona, spoke of the importance of fiercely guarding the Cape Town as a destination: “We need to protect our brand – it’s under attack. For the next three weeks, South African Tourism will be travelling around the world, spreading the message that Cape Town is open for business. We commit to equipping the tourism sector with knowledge and facts of running businesses within this context of a water crisis. We all need to build and protect the space, and we’re picking up this fight from different angles. The challenge is to remain clear and calm in what we’re doing to achieve productive results.”

Well… let’s see what SA Tourism delivers in real life.

The JAMMS meeting highlighted the fact that the City and Province don’t have answers.  On social media it was also portrayed as a damp squib, offering little of any substance.  Enver Duminy, CTT’s CEO said, “We need to do all we can as industry to take control of our plans to avoid Day Zero, but also to have continuity plans in place when it happens. I also believe that despite the promises to all citizens that the Points of Distribution and Protected Economic Zones, would have been communicated almost a month ago, we are no clearer or closer to understanding which businesses are inside or outside the “zones”. As tourism businesses (big and small) having facts allows us to plan better, and without PODs and PEZs we are no closer to business continuity than we were when the terms Day Zero was coined.”

The real challenge in the days and months ahead are the narratives that citizens, visitors and investors find credible, believe in and buy into.  It is an opportunity to grow a united city, where a vast number of citizens already fetch their water from communal taps every day.  It’s an opportunity for the world’s spotlight to shine on Cape Town’s innovation, social cohesion and resourcefulness.  And that narrative needs to have started yesterday!

That ain’t happening yet nor do I see any roleplayers yet who can make that happen.

It must happen, because access to water is the most racially polarising issue on the horizon.  The wealthy will buy their own desalination plants, water tanks or have their water trucked in.

“A well-managed city will never run out of water”
– Patricia De Lille, Mayor of Cape Town

Cape Town’s mayor has been sidelined by her political party, removed from all Day Zero management, and is probably on her way out.

In October 2012 I was asked to attend Cape Town Tourism’s AGM because the City was planning far-reaching changes to the organisation. After the AGM, I approached her and told her that she didn’t have all her facts right. She clammed up, thrust a fork of food into her mouth and refused to speak to me further.  She didn’t want to hear what I had to say.  Grant Pascoe (then Mayco member for tourism) sat nervously watching.

I don’t believe she has a corrupt bone in her body, but I also don’t think that she’s the brightest budgie in the birdcage.  I realised then that she is not open to opportunity.  She adopts her agenda and sticks to it to the exclusion of all else.

Her narrative of the “New Normal” caused more confusion than anything else.  For a city that bragged about its climate change credentials and programmes for nearly twenty years, the cupboard was empty.

If her narrative becomes fact, Cape Town’s tourism, agriculture, property investment and jobs will all be decimated.

Cape Town needs a narrative that will see it through the next two to three years, and it needs to be a narrative that survives way past the drought.  It needs to be far broader that just the drought, showing that Cape Town is a smart and responsive city.

On Facebook, Andrew Boraine, CEO of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership and a former City Manager, wrote about the “dry run” that their office building would be having.  Although their building is likely to be in one of the CBD exclusion zones (which means they will continue to have tapped water after Day Zero) they found that their building was using 80 litres of water per person per day.  Which means office workers use 80 litres a day at work and, hopefully, under 50 litres a day at home.  If ever there was a case for working at home, this is it!  A reduction in the city’s traffic congestion too!

Also on Facebook, Michael Spicer, deputy chair at Wesgro, expressed his belief that “The city is going to make the transition to a sustainable water future, albeit with stumbles along the way.”  It’s the cost of those stumbles that worries me and the need for a cohesive vision, which is still lacking.

Helen Zille, Western Cape premier, “taking control of the water crisis” has been trumpeted boldly. Now this is what she’s really good at!  She was an excellent Cape Town mayor for that time, when the municipality was close to imploding after Nomaindia Mfeketo’s disastrous reign.  She approached the task with gusto and an open mind.  She admitted in my interview with her two months after she became mayor that she knew little about tourism and economic development but her energy and ticking all the boxes dragged the municipality out of the swamp.

She’s no visionary and her grand plans are probably limited to political plans, although she too has been sidelined by her party.  I’ve always seen her as a Super-PA, capable of running the company but not quite having the vision to re-invent the company which is what the Western Cape really needs.   (I do, by the way, rate PAs as the most important people in most businesses.)

Helen Zille judgement sometimes lets her down and she is not without many blind spots.  She retweeted the following image on Twitter, where the DA claimed credit for the Steenbras dam hydro-electric station.

DA's fake news
This is DA dishonesty at its worst. The Steenbras Pumped Storage Scheme was built over 40 years ago – long before the DA existed and party politics played any role in municipal government! It was built when the City of Cape Town’s officials were renowned for their innovation. At the time, the project was scoffed at by Eskom. Years later, Eskom ate humble pie when they built the Palmiet Pumped Storage Scheme nearby. Steenbras Pumped Storage Scheme is unlikely to have ever been built under any party-controlled city council.

Now that mayor Patricia de Lille has been sidelined, JP Smith has been re-instated as Mayco member for Safety & Security. Disaster management falls under his control – and that includes the final plans for Day Zero.  He and Brett Heron (Transport) are arguably the two most competent members of Mayco.

Municipal government is not working for its citizens.  The introduction of party politics at municipal level, and the introduction of executive mayors and Mayco’s, has been a disaster.  Most politicians are not capable of long term planning – their view is from election to election and what will buy them more voters.  Their allegiance is to their party rather than the citizens they are supposed to serve.

Most politicians are also incompetent at marketing or brand building and, when they are, we end up with a Trump or Italy’s Berlusconi.  Politicians are not trusted by most people.

We can’t change municipal government systems now, but citizens can make their displeasure known very clearly.  What we do need now is “a goal that resonates, large enough for the society to believe in.”  So who is going to provide that?

If you still believe Day Zero will not happen, spare a thought for the farmers for whom Day Zero has already arrived.  For some, their irrigation water has already been turned off so that the city has more.  For others, their Day Zero is the end of February.


What is CapeInfo doing?  We’ve started promoting businesses that are Day Zero Ready throughout the Western Cape, that will be offering guests all the usual conveniences up to and after Day Zero.  Yes, Cape Town and the Western Cape are open for business.


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