As the spectre of Cape Town approaching the dreaded Day Zero looms increasingly large, it is also emerging that at stake is more than the availability of water. Day Zero is asking tough questions about our social pact. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya says this is the time for the Church to step up.
It is a disturbing reality that there are so many South Africans who say that Cape Town's water problems are exaggerated because what now affects whites and the emerging middle class (so-called “clever blacks”) has been – and continues to be – a reality for millions of black South Africans in the villages and peri-urban centres.
It has to be pointed out here that the logic itself is wrong. A crisis does not stop being a crisis just because another crisis elsewhere is not being handled as an emergency. Furthermore, Cape Town is South Africa's second most populated city and a home to nearly four million people and it running out of water has economic, health, migratory and other social implications that are difficult to exaggerate.
That said, South Africa is a country of deep wounds and long memories of privileging some groups over others. Urban whites and rural blacks have existed in parallel universes since colonial days. Post-apartheid South Africa has added a few black people to the small group of those who enjoy the privileges South Africa dishes out.
Incorrect and irresponsible as it is to disregard the crisis in Cape Town as “a problem for the rich”, as some say, it is important to see why they would think this. This understanding is essential to us getting to the bottom of what holds South Africa back from fulfilling its potential.
A history of water crises
Water issues have been with many different communities for a long time without there being similar calls for the country to unite.
In 2014, four people died in the North West community of Mothutlong, Brits after violent protests over water. To this day, residents of Jozini in northern KwaZulu-Natal struggle to get water despite the Jozini Dam being full and a stone's throw away. Residents of several villagers around Limpopo's biggest dam, Flag Boshielo, never know whether they will have water on any given day.
The communal tap continues to be the centre of life in the slums that dot our big cities. The question of how much time one should take in a shower does not even arise and millions of South Africans cannot smile with confidence because they live with stained teeth acquired from the many years of drinking water that was never properly processed. How many stories must we read of people who tell us that they share their river water with their animals because there is simply no other option?
Living without water does not just impact on how long you might be thirsty, it impacts on the very quality of the life and dignity. It determines the length of life and how children die, as it did with 5-year old Michael Komape who fell into a dilapidated pit toilet and drowned at a primary school in Chebeng village north-west of Polokwane in 2014.
It also speaks to the dignity of adults who must by necessity have to answer the call of nature in open spaces.
These are few examples of the water crisis in South Africa without government and the media – mainstream and social -being asked to show the same concern and solidarity for those communities as it is asked with regards to Cape Town. It is unlikely that there are media campaigns, mobilisation to bring bottles of water or even political action to address these ever-present crises in those communities.
To those living in urban areas and have literally always had water on tap, it is difficult to appreciate just how these amenities are still distant dreams to the many South Africans. To those living the everyday reality of water scarcity, the Cape Town crisis is just another day in their lives.
The duty of the Church
From the Catholic point of view, Cape Town's Day Zero is an opportunity. It offers the Church in South Africa an opportunity to introduce the themes of Catholic Social Teaching or to remind those who know but have forgotten about them, of their centrality in the social life of the Church.
The water situation in Cape Town and the reaction thus far suggests that the Church and the laity have not taken the teachings seriously enough. As a collective, the Church has been found wanting on how it has implemented Catholic Social Teachings into the lived and preached experience. By extension, it has also not paid enough attention to ensuring that Pope Francis encyclical, Laudato si' becomes a daily reality in families, small Christian communities and sodalities.
The call to be one family with those less fortunate than ourselves has been the most difficult to achieve given our historic divisions along racial and now class grounds. It is probably at the heart of the reluctance, if not total hostility, by some people to show Cape Town “love” at this difficult time.
As stated earlier, there are many who argue that the reason Cape Town is receiving the attention it is confirms what they have always known – that problems only get attention when they affect the affluent.
That is why if the call for social solidarity is to be audible, it must first be seen to tie in with another pillar of the Social Teachings, “Options for the Poor and the Vulnerable” and not only raised when it affects communities that have a voice and access to media.
Ultimately, the water crisis in Cape Town and elsewhere in the country requires that we critically ask ourselves if and how well we have carried out the duty as prescribed in the social teachings to “Care for God's Creation”. Management of water resources is not just about waiting for rain.
Indifference to the science that enables us to predict and therefore plan for the not-so rainy day is a dereliction of duty and as close to a crime against humanity as it can get.
As pointed out earlier, it is not to say there are no good reasons to be concerned about Cape Town. But by being concerned only with Cape Town and neglecting other communities in similar dire straits, it is as if to have given ourselves the right to decide which community should have enjoy the fundamental right to life and dignity giving water.
The criticism above should not be viewed as a chronic situation. It can be corrected by raising awareness and activism within the Church's most basic structures – the parishes, organisations and small Christian communities. And through these structures to impact on greater societies where we live, learn, play and work. The water crisis gives the Church – meaning the bishops, priests, religious and laity – the opportunity to live the Pastoral Plan of “Serving God, Humanity and His creation”.
Cape Town’s water crisis calls on us to return charity and justice – the two feet of the Church’s social teaching. The faithful must do what they can to help those in Cape Town in this hour of their need. But for lasting impact, they must pay attention, and love their immediate neighbour, again as called on us by the principle of “community and participation”.
The mission of our times, to reconcile a broken South African society and achieve lasting peace, demands that we always notice our neighbour’s call for a glass of water. Becoming all hyped up and excited over Cape Town's water crisis alone is self-deception or worse, hypocrisy.
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