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#CapeWaterGate: Leadership in moments of crises – how pivot issues get neglected


Saliem Fakir is Executive Director of the African Climate Change Foundation

The crisis, irrespective of how it will unfold, is likely to make Cape Town more drought-resilient in the medium and long term. This is the good news.

The philosopher William James once wrote that habit is an “enormous fly-wheel of society”, by which he meant that routine gives certainty and predictability without which normal society cannot function.

Crises often force us to break from these habits and create opportunity for unconventional approaches to solving new challenges.

It is with this in mind that there is truth in the oft repeated cliché that a good crisis is not to be missed but used in moments of pathos. But a crisis if mishandled can show up poor leadership, fractures in authority and institutions that take away our illusions of certainty.

Take for example the water crisis in Cape Town. It may be the first city in the world to have ignored all the warnings of climate change (some of these warnings were sounded out loud by scientists in 1990). If not ignored then left for too late.

Cape Town now faces Day Zero. You may ask why such a belated response.

Climate change is often perceived as a long distance problem that it is not real enough for people to act, and real things like failing metro systems, joblessness and crime tend to consume decision-making as these are seen as “real”; what is not real is left for last and for too late.

Even where leadership is now forthcoming at the eleventh hour, forcing it to resort to the methods of panic and punitive tariffs, as a way of mobilising collective response, it is not enough to instil confidence in the capacity of the City to get us out of the crisis.

For citizens, Cape Town has become a scene of political scapegoating, incomprehension and theatre when all they want is answers and a solution. Since faith is hard to come by in moments of panic, many citizens are choosing to take matters into their own hands and become more self-reliant as Day Zero gets closer.

Cape Town has now become a large-scale laboratory in collective adaptation to a crisis in the context of socio-economic and racially separated communities. It will be interesting to see how humanity performs under such stress. The world is watching.

Panic also has its consequences – both positive and negative.

Cape Town’s water crisis has two dimensions: failure by the State to act on time may lead to the worst of humanity to come forth (and there are already tell-tale signs of it at queues at springs) or the best of humanity may surface through increased neighbourhood co-operation and sharing; in some neighbourhoods it is already happening.

The water crisis and panic have elicited a great deal of inventiveness and creativity among citizens when it comes to water saving strategies. One day all of these should be documented as they will serve others around the world well.

Cape Town’s paradigm of water security will have shifted when Day Zero is long gone and its dark reality is over. Cape Town will not be solely reliant on nature nor hard infrastructure. Its future water resilience will depend on new sources, changes in user behaviour and promotion of more autonomous off- grid solutions.

Cape Town will have to change some crazy things: it dumps all its waste water into the sea and never really considered the use of some its aquifers as a supplementary source. It has wholly relied on the idea of wet seasons and dams as a source of its water.

The back of this bad habit will be broken for the long future.

The crisis, irrespective of how it will unfold, is likely to make Cape Town more drought-resilient in the medium and long term. This is the good news. The City will have better planning, augmentation schemes and many of its residents will have more efficient water use measures including water harvesting technologies.

In the short term, the crisis can lead to Cape Town’s economic collapse, social unrest and even endanger the prospects of the leading political party in the City in the next election.

Cape Town serves as a good case study of leadership in a world of uncertainty and multiple challenges. Cape Town’s water crisis is only one of its many crises. And, given that it is faced with the failure to act on time to a pivot crisis, on which everything hangs now, can lead to the dismantling of the entire edifice.

Climate change represents one of those pivot issues where world leadership is consumed by so many things, such as the financial crisis, increased great power conflicts, the wars in the Middle East, the rise in protectionism, immigration and many others. It is an issue that is seen as something that can be resolved at a later time. Often such neglect leads to too little, too late.

The Paris Agreement is hailed as a success but observers will admit it may be a false comfort given how our responsiveness to climate change needs to be far more transformative and deeper than what climate negotiations are eliciting.

In the sphere of global politics, multiple crises can throw up some interesting leadership outcomes and not always the right kind to deal with today’s complex challenges.

Uncertainty, alienation – and where traditional models of organising society have not worked the idea of the “strong and tough” leader is receiving a chorus of support from those with populist tendencies.

The preferred solution of these archetypes of leaders is not more openness and embrace of diversity but the enclosure mentality. Such leadership relies on a strange kind of hope, a hope that is created out of the rejection of everything and the dismantling of the old. It is more likely to produce more troubled waters and escalate current crises if not tear society apart.

Their rise also comes at a time when democratic leadership has been either poor, indecisive, or where democrats are now part of a plutocracy.

In many of the lighthouse democracies, in emerging economies, we do not have scenes of hope and promise but corruption and more misery for the poor if you consider the Car Wash scandal in Brazil, GuptaGate in South Africa and the revelations from the Panama Files to the Paradise papers which show the widening gap between the doings of established elites and the needs of broader society.

Cape Town is a microcosm of how leadership is being stretched in the midst of the multiple challenges and crises. When a history of the water crisis is written it will be an example of how multiple crises can sap leadership bandwidth and an example of how pivot issues are neglected or left for too late, with dire consequences for everything that has been built so far and come before. DM


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