Greetings from Cape Town, city of drought and division

Published on 6 February 2018

Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

Cape Town is one of the tourist capitals of the world – think Table Mountain, stunning beaches, quaint fishing harbours, seafood restaurants, Robben Island, and the green vineyards of the winelands. But in three months’ time, it will become the first major city in the world to run out of water.

Unprecedented climate conditions

I grew up in Cape Town. We do not have droughts in Cape Town. This is the Cape of Storms, after all, with its fierce winds and driving winter rains. Unlike the rest of South Africa, Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate – cold and wet in winter, hot and dry in summer. The inland towns and cities of the Karoo and the Highveld, with their summer rains, are perennially brown. The coastal cities of Cape Town and Durban are lush and green. Droughts happen elsewhere in Africa – Ethiopia, Somalia, Niger – not in Cape Town.

Yet we have 90 days of water left in our dams, and the rains won’t come until May or June. Is this climate change? Probably. The weather certainly seems more erratic and extreme than when I was a child. Last June we had a major rainstorm that cut our electricity supply and flooded our streets. Six months later we stopped flushing our toilets and we are now taking 90-second showers. Much more crucially, thousands of seasonal farm workers found no work on the fruit and wine farms this season.

A divided city

Cape Town remains a hugely unequal and divided city. 23 years after the transition to democracy, the leafy Southern Suburbs remain predominantly English-speaking White. The less affluent Northern Suburbs remain mainly Afrikaans-speaking White. The townships of the Cape Flats remain Coloured. Further away, the townships of Khayelitsha, Nyanga and Guguletu remain African. Whites rarely visit the Coloured and African townships. But every day thousands of minibus taxis ferry Coloured and African commuters from the townships into the city centre and the White suburbs, where most perform low-skilled service sector jobs – men as gardeners, security guards and car guards, women as domestic workers, restaurant waiters and supermarket cashiers.

Affluent Whites are accused of not taking the water crisis seriously. In September 2017 the city imposed water restrictions of 87 litres per person per day. On 1 February 2018 this was cut further to 50 litres. But this ‘demand management’ is not monitored and compliance is low. Agitated White Capetonians call in to talk radio programmes to complain that their neighbours are watering their gardens at night, haven’t covered their swimming pools to reduce evaporation, and continue to take 10-minute showers at the gym, where their water consumption cannot be attributed to them. Sea Point swimming pool, with its stunning open-air views of the mountain and the ocean, re-opened in November after months of sitting empty, but only because it was pumped full of sea-water. (A small boy at the payment counter asked his mother with big eyes: “So are there sharks in the pool now?”)

The blame game

The Western Cape is the only province controlled not by the African National Congress (ANC) but by the Democratic Alliance (DA), a historically White party that is struggling to shed its ‘Whites only’ image and broaden its base. The ANC is accusing the DA of not preparing adequately for the water crisis. The DA is accusing the ANC of folding its arms and failing to support Cape Town, not even declaring a national emergency.

The DA has run Cape Town since 2006. Helen Zille won ‘World Mayor of the Year’ in 2008. Tourists will find a clean, well-run city. The DA administration has been accused of over-investing in the affluent White suburbs, where roads are constantly resurfaced and amenities are maintained at ‘First World’ standards, and underinvesting in the townships, where housing and sanitation conditions remain woefully inadequate. The DA is imploding in the face of its poor management of the water crisis. The DA leadership is now trying to remove its own Mayor, but she is refusing to step down.

Waiting for ‘Day Zero’

What will happen on 12 April – ‘Day Zero’ – when our taps are projected to run dry? Nobody knows. A headline in the Cape Times last week alleged that there is ‘Zero Plan for Day Zero’. My 80-year-old mother is growing increasingly anxious about having to queue with her bucket at a water tanker. Of course, elsewhere in the country millions of Black South Africans have never had piped water in their homes, and queuing at communal taps is still the norm. But queuing for water will soon become a reality for middle-class Whites – and this is unprecedented.


About this opinion

Related content


Climate uncertainty and the arts

Jo Walton, Research Fellow, University of Sussex

1 September 2023