Why are so many Capetonians not willing to ration their own water?
Over the last few weeks a drama has been playing out in Cape Town. That drama has been called Day Zero, a moment in history when 4 million citizens will be time warped from all the benefits of modernity, to a mediaeval existence where life was centered on drawing water from a well in the town square, economic productivity was based on subsistence, and “life was harsh, brutish and short” to quote Thomas Hobbs in his famous book Leviathan published in 1651.
As a professional intellectually invested in water as a national security risk, I have an obvious interest in understanding this unfolding drama. With the power of social media, I am now digitally connected to thousands of concerned citizens, many of whom ask questions of me daily. One of the common questions that has been sent to me over the last week is around the perplexing fact that more than 60% of the citizens of Cape Town seem to have made no effort to meet the quotas defined by the increasingly embattled city leadership. This was prompted by the unfortunate media release in which the Executive Mayor read the riot act, and seemed to be threatening citizens with even harsher punishment for not obeying her. It was the language of a frustrated schoolmarm chastising a class of delinquents. It was so off message that it caused enormous damage to the Mayor as an individual, but also to the very necessary need to conserve water.
The response by the public was instantaneous and angry. Many people said on Facebook that they were now going to take a long bath as an act of defiance. Universally the faithful minority, who had sacrificed basic personal hygiene to meet the harsh targets, felt betrayed. Their anger was poured out in a petition of over 60,000 signatures, all against the Drought Levy, deemed to be a collective punishment against the very people that had done all they can to meet the draconian targets set by the Mayor. In effect that petition was a vote of no confidence against the Mayor, but also a vote of no confidence in the political party that she represented. A significant number of people in my digital network did the calculations about the penalty and decided that their best interest was to buy storage capacity, hoard water in preparation for Day Zero, pay the once off fine, and be damned with the rest.
This has forced me to think deeply about this simple question – why are the majority of Cape Town citizens simply not concerned enough about Day Zero to do their little bit to meet targets?
While I don’t profess to have a definitive answer, I think I might be able to shed some light on the dynamics at work.
South Africa has become dysfunctional over the last decade. If we define the threshold of this dysfunction, it was probably linked to the start of the Zuma presidency. In reality it started before that, but the Zuma regime merely accelerated the demise of functional government. The heart of it all goes back to the writing of Thomas Hobbes in 1651. He wrote the first significant treatise on what became known as the Social Contract. In the time that he lived, life was “harsh, brutish and short”, with the only social order being enforced by a class of elites whose authority was considered to be divine. This small class inherited their legitimacy and claimed it to be from God, with no responsibility to the majority of peasants, whose role it was to simply serve.
This was called the “State of Nature” and the natural ordering logic was the Divine Right that gave legitimacy to the leadership. Hobbes proposed that each individual should surrender their right to “self-help” to a central authority – what he called the Leviathan – in return for the right of that authority to levy taxes that were reasonable. In short, a contract existed between the masses being governed, and those who governed on their behalf. This became the foundation for a wealth of philosophical theory that went on to inform both the French and American Revolution on which modern democracy is based.
Modern democracy is based on a separation of powers – known as the Trias Politicas – into three arms of government. The legislature that makes laws, the executive that implements laws and the judiciary that passes judgement on those that break the law.
Now back to the Cape Town story. Why do the majority simply not care enough to change their behavior?
I believe that when Zuma became President he systematically established a vast criminal enterprise of great sophistication. So sophisticated was it, that it involved extremely intelligent people, working in a structured way, to systematically establish mechanisms for the plunder of fiscal resources, the movement of these vast sums of money out of the country, and the protection of the networks needed to do just this. Today we are looking at around 50 billion Rand that was plundered, and it could be a lot more. The effect of this was the erosion of institutions of state, but also the delegitimization of the state. Political parties became vehicles for the distribution of patronage. State owned enterprises became the troughs from which the pigs could feed. Raw power was derived from gatekeepers granting access to trough feeders in return for the patronage needed to keep the feeding frenzy going. Parliamentary oversight was eroded to the point where the patronage granted to a sitting parliamentarian was such that it incentivized the individual to turn a blind eye. In short, Parliament became complicit in the plunder of the state, and political parties became impotent, hollowed out structures, serving the interests of elites and ignoring the needs of the electorate.
South Africa started to become Mediaeval once again. The peasants had no power and could not determine who would represent them in Parliament or in municipal government. All the individual could do was vote for a party, and that party would then decide who to send to Parliament, the Council of Provinces or the Municipality. People felt increasingly helpless as the funds needed to build infrastructure was siphoned off by a vast criminal enterprise, the magnitude and sophistication of which is only now starting the become manifest.
A condition known as anomie took root. This is defined as a “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals”. It manifests as the breakdown of social bonds between individuals and the community of which they are an integral part. Values are eroded to the point where they become meaningless. Political parties degenerate into structures that are no longer value-driven, becoming vehicles for the self-interest of the elite, at the expense of the masses. An outcome of this, according to French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his influential book “Suicide” published in 1897, is self-destruction.
This is what is happening in Cape Town I believe. This explains why so many people feel so alienated from the society that South Africa has become, that they simply no longer care, beyond their own narrow self-interest. If the political system only serves the narrow self-interest of the elites manipulating that system, then the same holds true for the frustrated masses.
This sense of profound alienation was exacerbated by the blatant obstruction of justice meted out by the President, in the face of damning reports by the Public Protector and judgements by the Constitutional Court. As the various political parties were confronted with this harsh reality, they had to decide on an appropriate response. Given that most parties, other than the two main ones (ANC and DA), are centered on personalities rather than values or policy positions, they (the minority parties) started to act as watchdogs. The emergence of the EFF, driven by a charismatic individual capable of harnessing grass roots frustration, quickly dominated. The DA, hobbled by a sophisticated covert operation set up to create a diversion away from the plunder taking place (Bell Pottinger), were branded as the home for White Monopoly Capital (WMC). This delegitimized them in the eyes of the majority and reduced their role to one of defense only. The ANC, now under the ruthless control of a sophisticated criminal syndicate with international tentacles, squandered its century of vibrant history, as it became the cover structure for plunder by a cunning elite.
Both main parties, the ANC and DA, became embroiled in leadership scandals. Neither dealt with them well. Both degenerated into a long drawn out legal process in which procedural issues were used to protect their increasingly isolated leaders. In both cases the leadership battle became a bloody quagmire in which the “rights” of the “employee” were protected, invisible to the fact that the “employee” – the embattled President Zuma and increasing belligerent Mayor De Lille – was an elected official with “duties and obligations” as well. Both were ex-freedom fighters with blood on the hands of their respective movements – Zuma with Quatro and De Lille with the St James Church Massacre – so neither was ever trusted by certain segments of broader society, whose families had been touched by those specific brutalities.
When blood flows the scars are deeply etched in the hearts and minds of those directly affected.
In this overall process, the public has simply lost faith in the party-political system, just as peasants in Mediaeval times tolerated their leadership, but were never loyal to them and would do anything to serve their own self-interest.
Day Zero will take the citizens back to Mediaeval times, when 4 million people will be forced to spend long hours just trying to survive. Productivity will crash, companies will fail, schools will be forced to shut down and investor confidence will be lost, not only in the Western Cape, but in the whole country. Disease will return, and here we learn another valuable lesson. It was the ravage of the Black Death that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, as peasants suddenly discovered they had financial worth and could sell their labour to the highest bidder. The nobility crashed, and democracy took root. A vibrant new world order emerged from the collapse of the tyranny of Mediaeval fiefdoms, as the Renaissance liberated society from the rigidity of an intolerable social order. Free thought emerged amid an explosion of art, literature, science and invention.
Today I see, in my digital network, the rapid emergence of a savvy citizenry, learning fast and networking into local-level institutions of self-help.
In conclusion, I believe that citizens simply believe that the existing political order does not work for them, so they are rejecting it without making a fuss about it. They are simply resorting to self-help. Nothing will be the same after Day Zero. The ANC will not go unscathed, because areas that they “rule” like Mediaeval fiefdoms – Eastern Cape, KZN, Mpumalanga, Free State and Limpopo – are also facing their own Day Zero. The DA will undergo a fundamental transformation as the “divine right of Kings” is challenged by the disenchanted electorate, and vibrant civic structures emerge to better articulate the interest of the angry masses.
Day Zero will reset the body politic in South Africa exactly as the Black Death triggered the birth of the Renaissance. The social contract will be renegotiated, not by delegates at a national convention, but by angry citizens remembering the way things used to be, and vowing to never go back there again.
© Dr Anthony Richard Turton 21 January 2018