Ivo Vegter: All I want for Xmas is a fire pool
The pleasures of journalism are often ephemeral and intangible. Entire media sectors thrive on nothing but jealousy about the lives of the rich and famous. Such was my experience when I decided to look into this "fire pool" we bought our president for Christmas. I also want one.
I have a pool. It's an ordinary old swimming pool, probably as old as I am, and it comes with the house I rent. Mostly, having that pool involves chemical warfare against black algae, in case the landlady's agent turns up for an inspection. Occasionally, it doubles as a lazy man's dog bath. Frankly, it's more trouble than it's worth, and I'd be glad to be rid of it.
I had no particular interest in pools when I chose to go looking for some information on the "fire pool and water reservoir" that was described in sections 11.14 and 11.15 of the task team report on security upgrades at president Jacob Zuma's private residence in Nkandla, as presented to the media by public works minister Thulas Nxesi.
The report is worth reading, but I don't intend to rehash the details here. It suffices to quote this: "One of the hazards raised by the assessment was the possible outbreak of fire as most of the structures have thatched roofs and are close to each other. In order to eliminate or minimize potential risks and due to water supply which was erratic, a fire pool was decided on as the most viable option for firefighting."
Charl du Plessis, writing in City Press, summarised nine explanations for the upgrades, including a quote from national police commissioner Riah Phiyega explaining that in rural areas, where fire brigades are sorely deficient, or even lacking altogether, "best we know is to take a bucket, dip it in water and throw it on the fire".
I'm just a journalist. What do I know about firefighting? The closest I ever got to a fire was when I tagged along with a fire crew in the forest near my home town. Their equipment is certainly deficient. I wrote about it for the Mail & Guardian.
So to learn more about "fire pools", I turned to that carefully-cultivated network of reliable sources upon which professional journalists rely to provide answers to their obscure questions: the internet.
I wanted to know what a "fire pool" was, and why it trumped, say, a few fire extinguishers, or a hosepipe connected to the 45,000 litre water tanks that the Nkandla report says were also built on-site.
Once I weeded out references to the bar-room game of pool, "sure-fire" pool maintenance firms, and dozens of stories on Nkandla, I found what I was looking for. A real "fire pool". And I love it. I want one for Christmas.
Here is what it looks like:
Here are a few more luxury fire pool designs to drool over.
As it turns out, the use of fire to augment poolscapes is rare, and reserved for the rich and famous. The use of pools as water reservoirs for fire fighting, however, appears to be entirely novel. I couldn't find a single actual example of a "fire pool" purpose-built for fire-fighting, though I do now know what a " pool fire" is.
I've been told some high-rise buildings rely on top-floor swimming pools for fire safety purposes, but several building codes I came across explicitly forbid this. Also, while fire safety standards appear to differ, it seems a facility that can drive automatic sprinklers and pump 400 litres per minute for half an hour is considered adequate for a standard high-rise hotel. Half of the 45,000 litres in Nkandla's plastic tanks should be more than adequate for even the worst thatch fire.
Given that it's a "fire pool", and budgets were evidently not a major consideration in this "prestige project", you'd think they'd have thought to add a fire safety pool pump, which can be had for R20,000 and change. This is a pittance compared with the R1 million the pool reportedly cost, and the more than R200 million the rest of the upgrades set the fiscus back.
We knew about labour-intensive public works projects, where neither cost nor timeliness is much of a concern, because citizens bear both the cost and the delays, but since when are labour-intensive emergency services a thing?
I can think of several greedy capitalists who'd gladly build Number One a real fire-fighting facility, consisting of durable plastic tanks, which do not suffer from evaporation and contamination of open water, complete with the required pumps and hoses, for a quarter of what the Nkandla "fire pool" cost. A few might even do it for less than R100,000.
In short, what Zuma built at Nkandla is a swimming pool, you lying shmucks.
Such transparent lies make one distrust all the other attempted spin about neighbours who posed "security risks", relocating tuck shops, building vast retaining walls, sprucing up a farmyard, and installing paving to save all the high-heeled women that flock about the person of our president.
This is not name-calling. It is a clever segue to the question that all this lying raises: is one entitled to insult the president?
Also, the president claims to enjoy respect, and was delighted on a recent visit to Venda to find a bevy of half-naked women prostrating themselves at his feet. By their servile self-abasement, they "show respect", Zuma said.
Yet despite the cowering womenfolk in his presence, it has become increasingly clear that the people of South Africa have no respect for president Jacob Zuma. Artists draw him with the spear of the nation exposed. Crowds boo him at the national memorial service for Nelson Mandela, in full view of the world's media and assembled heads of state. Editorials afterwards say that Zuma reaped what he sowed, writing: "It's our party and we'll boo if we want to."
Perhaps all this disrespect of him is because he shows no respect to the people. Besides for his offensively patriarchal view of women, whose votes he surely no longer deserves, he lies to everyone.
He'll say anything, no matter how ludicrously unbelievable, to avoid having to say he's sorry. The official opposition has had more than one recent occasion to state that the president insults the nation, over Nkandla, and insulted the rest of Africa over Gauteng's e-tolls. Even Cyril Ramaphosa thought it worth lightening the mood over the latter insult, at Nelson Mandela's funeral, after Joyce Banda, Malawi's president, gave a wonderful eulogy.
What a half-decent ANC spin doctor should have said is this: "It is not unusual for someone on a reasonable pension to have a swimming pool, and we won't deny president Jacob Zuma that."
That would have had the double benefit of being true, and of being immune to criticism by those uppity neo-imperalist columnists in the media, many of whom have swimming pools themselves.
Instead, what they said was, "You, the people, are gullible idiots, and have no right to question King Zuma, so we'll fob you off with insulting lies."
Let's hope the crowd at Mandela's memorial were serious about those football substitution signals. Boo, indeed.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.