[OPINION] Lessons we must learn ahead of day zero

Cape Town, why not us? There seems to be a simmering angry layer of “how did this happen?” and “why us?” It is almost unbelievable that WE, in Cape Town, commonly ignored as part of Africa, could possibly have to deal with this type of natural disaster! Our city works for us, not so? “If the rest of the country could just follow our cosmopolitan example, they would all be world class too!” I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek because many a true word spoken in jest.

It has been so far-fetched that most Capetonians in my space have only woken up to its reality in the last few months. This elicits hope that now more and more people will mount this horse and rein it in.

Ordinarily, when things don’t work in Cape Town many jump on a tired soapbox, beating their chests, with no inkling that maybe they are part of the problem and not doing enough to be part of the solution. “‘Who is responsible for this? It is unacceptable. Who do we blame? Who is going to pay for this disaster? Surely you are not expecting those who pay rates and taxes to cover these costs as well?”

The reality is that Mother Nature has no favourites. But she does share lessons. We get signs, symbols, people, messages along the way, but we only hear and see what we want to until we have no choice but to look it in the eye and act.

People have been talking about the water shortages in the Mother City for years. I now remember an advertisement which professed that the next world war would be about water. Drinking water, the source of life. There is a 10-year old TED talk about the imminent water crisis in Cape Town. I heard from a lady who was taught in the 1950s that “one day Cape Town would become a desert”. This is not new news, it is only becoming headline news as it impacts each of us closer to home.

I see this as the perfect leveller. A struggle that affects everyone and their families. We are all exposed and vulnerable. It is new for us to struggle together. How we all show up will be the difference between day zero and day hero.

A lot of human beings appear to work best and most creatively under direct pressure. I completely relate. We have had people warning us for very long that this was a possibility. To date, we have pretty much lived as untouchables. We have the mountain, the sea and friendly people.

Welcome to day reality check, for you and I. It feels as if things will get bad enough for us to have to form partnerships with each other and through our common water shortage, relate at points of connection not possible without something practical to guide and bind us. We are in this together. I find that a pretty remarkable opportunity for Cape Town to shed the shackles of exclusivity, arrogance, superiority and ‘can’t touch’ this mentality! We now have to embrace our roles as responsible active citizens in order to survive, whether it suits us or not.

I know we are all going to be surprised to meet one another and learn about how others live or don’t live. This will raise our awareness not only of saving water but of saving our country from the evil aftermath of apartheid and separateness. No more space for alone together and much more space for how do WE get through this with each other’s back and a bucket.

How we talk to our children and ourselves about an imminent drought will be the sum total of our entire existence. Are you practical, in denial, is this about you or do you see how it is about US, can you for this one event drop the drama and over-exaggeration and look towards solutions and a collective outcome that will become part of our history? Are you willing to make the necessary sacrifices to ensure the minimum outfall of a possible drought?

What are your survival strategies and instincts? Is this just about you and how you will collect water in your car after work? How you can buck the system by going to collect your 25 litres more than the allocated once a day? Are you thinking about or contributing donations of water at drop-off points for the elderly and disabled? When you speak, is it from a place of information or sensation? How do we remain helpful, sustained and useful during this, first-for-most-of-us process?

I feel like Cape Town has been specifically chosen for this natural disaster. I find us to be friendly yes, inclusive no, diverse yes, celebrating diversity not so much. This is possibly the most natural leveller we will all live to tell the tale of. As a city we are now being enrolled into talking with people we don’t know to work on doing this collectively, hearing other people’s water life hacks and reciprocating with some tips and practicalities of our own.
Our children will be learning lessons about what a privilege water is. We can teach them again that privilege comes with responsibility and privilege is often not about money or access. We can count our privileges everywhere. In future, we are going to be water wise and contributing to the prevention of World War 3! We will be in this one together and always.

That most of South Africa lives in day zero conditions every day should explain why the panic is mainly in suburbia. I have heard too many people with issues and complaints about what other people should and shouldn’t be doing. I am suggesting the most powerful thing we can do in this situation is to be 100% sure we and our families are part of the solution. The problem is glaring and escalating. Raising awareness best practice would come from talking in the first person as opposed to naming, shaming and causing division. I feel stereotyping water wasters in car washes in townships and garden irrigation systems in leafy suburbs is set to divide people further and we will find ourselves in the unresolved maze of the past.

This state of emergency transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, social status and economies. It is another opportunity for us to work together on a solution. Each one teach one, lead by your own example, social media is a definite and effective medium to communicate with large groups of people.

We must be aware of ourselves and how we speak about day zero in the presence of all children. Schools are reporting high levels of anxiety, stress and panic among scholars.

Without water we can die. What you choose to tell your children and yourself about the imminent day zero is the sum total of how you show up in life. Is the glass half-full or half-empty is ironic, but really, choose the half-full and make efforts to fill the glass of everyday options, practical plans for your family and people you are in a position to help with day zero options when it arrives.

Let us use this as a life drill. Let us be conscious of those around us, let us be helpful and creative and let us support initiatives that are suggested or implemented for the greater good with that view replacing the ‘what about me’ one.

This will start to revise the tale of two cities! We are one city in the midst of an opportunity.

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Native American proverb

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn