Here’s a piece I wrote about the Springs Rd Spring, in Newlands, a few months ago:
Over the last few months I’ve had numerous questions from people outside South Africa about the spectacularly badly managed drought in the Western Cape, and Cape Town (the media’s current favourite tourist destination) in particular.
My response is always more or less the same. Yes, there’s a drought and there’s no doubt that it is devastating, but there are so many political agendas at play in the laying of blame and the Enron-style attempts to make a financial killing out of the current crisis that it’s hard to know what the truth is and what can realistically be done about it.
The Day Zero media hype was always going to turn out to be nonsense, but there may still be a real Day Zero, and certainly, for some people no water, or too expensive water, is already a reality.
But, I’m not in the news business or the politics business. I’m interested in something else, something more sublte . . .
There are a couple of natural springs around Cape Town where people have collected their drinking water for years. The place I’ve been collecting water for about the last 10 years (just because it’s delicious mountain spring water) suddenly had a massive increase in visitors as the water scare started.
So, in true corporate-political style, the City tried to a) shut it down, the b) put the water into the main system, but that meant pure spring water being used for flushing toilets and washing dishes, c) when people fought them on it, they tried aggressively policing the area and violence erupted.
But the beautiful story of this particular spring is that the community stepped in and got the City to back down. Private individuals extended the number of taps available and began monitoring the area to prevent abuse.
But the beautiful story of this particular spring is that the community stepped in and got the City to back down. Private individuals extended the number of taps available and began monitoring the area to prevent abuse. The city then closed the road and now simply maintains the peace and traffic flow. It was as if the forces of good had clawed back a small stronghold a few hundred metres long from the powers that be. The feeling of walking into that street is palpably different as you walk past the Metro Police caravan and into the ‘free space’.
Here a beautiful community of young, old, rich poor, white and black people work democratically and gently to share this resource that belongs to all of us.
To me this spring always evokes the same feeling I had when I walked down the street to vote in our first democratic election in 1994. It represents the absolute best of who South Africans can be, when we work together and actually SEE one another (which we often don’t, as we struggle to survive the seemingly endless trials of this country). So, I set up a little studio and shot portraits of some of the water collectors.
What I found were people, just like you and me, with hundreds of different reasons for being there to collect water.
Suraya came a year ago and ended up getting paid a tip for helping an old lady carry her heavy containers, so, having no work, she just kept coming back, helping people and making a bit of money in tips.
A woman with 10 people living in her house and burst pipe got a massive R12 000 bill from the City, so while she’s paying in off, she need to spend no money on municipal water at all. All the water she collects get used multiple times; cooking, washing and finally flushing toilets.
One woman I met runs a hostel for students and makes sure they all have clean drinking water every day, because the water isn’t 100% clean in her area.
The circumstances are all different, but the stories are all essentially the same. Humans need water and we inherently understand that others need water too. So here, where nothing is monetized, the law of the Commons prevails. Mutual respect, patience and understanding seem to be the order of the day.
But, as I so vividly remember thinking on Voting Day back in 1994, these moments seem to exist only as small windows. Everything changes and greed, like nature abhors a vacuum. I’m reminded of the story about the Zen teacher, who’s student commented,’Roshi, you teach non-attachment, but you always drink your tea from the same cup. Isn’t that attachment?’
He replied,’You are right, it’s my favourite cup, because it was given to me by a beloved student, and I love drinking from it, but every day I drink from it as if it is already broken’. So, I go back to the Spring, appreciate the natural abundance, the kind and diverse faces of my fellow Capetonians, but understand that this may simply be a momentary state of grace before the greater currents of climate change, consumption, politics and greed close in again. But the water is sweet and clear and the people are friendly. Long may it last.
The City of Cape Town recently closed public access to the natural spring in Newlands. They diverted the water and have moved the collection point. I don't know if it will be the same, but the water still flows sweet and pure. I hope the spirit remains the same.