Opinionista Ian Von Memerty 5 March 2018

#CapeWhitewater versus #CapeWaterGate – how easily labels mislead

Anyone who watches the “free press” in our country has to give daily thanks for the extraordinary job that they have done in holding our government accountable. They hunt down the stories of abuse of power, corruption, and political cover-ups and bring these stories into the open, and often that leads to real changes in our policies and political situations. But it should also not stop us from reacting when they “over-reach” in the search for a “scandal”.

I have watched the coverage in Daily Maverick of the Cape Town Water Crisis with both dismay and delight. Dismay at the lack of objectivity in much of the reporting and opinions.

Rebecca Davis politically punted that Patricia de Lille was “possibly the scapegoat for the water crisis”. Ivo Vegter came out with an hysterical, in both senses of the word, rant about “Chinese Communist Shaming trials”, “draconian water quotas”, and a magnificently myopic “blaming the weather is a red herring”; this for a drought which has been objectively labelled as the worst in at least 80 years, possible 400. Richard Poplak “declared it was war on all fronts for the DA”.

In the six weeks since the “factionalised, war-ravaged, socialist, and incompetent DA” has taken control of the crisis away from Mayor De Lille, Day Zero has been pushed back by three months. A well co-ordinated public awareness campaign and fast-tracking an accumulation of smaller water provision projects has proven the headlines wrong. No rain has fallen, just daily consumption, and no water levels have risen, just the speed of solutions. And… not a peep out of the conspiracy theorists and “political doomsayers”.

And in a week when Julius Malema is racialising politics in South Africa at a dizzying speed, apartheid and anarchy combined, I am nervous to point this out. But ALL of the negative articles I could find about the crisis were written by comfortably off white liberal South Africans (aside from the obvious partisan attacks by the ANC – the obvious political pot shots). The only two articles that gave some fresh perspective were written by people of colour. Suné Payne put the 50litres a day “draconian quota” into a coffin and nailed it shut. Then there was a devastating blast of reality about the way huge numbers of rural South Africans still suffer, as they have always suffered, from appalling water shortages, supply and quality. And from my white liberal complaining compatriots, “not a word”.

Which is why I think that labelling Day Zero as #CapeWaterGate is the press at its least effective. In essence the Day Zero crisis is a natural disaster compounded by a lack of delivery at a national government level. Watergate was a man-made crisis involving theft, obstruction of justice, and political ambition that shattered the underpinning of democracy.

#WhiteWater would be far more apt. That was a manufactured “scandal” that made for great headlines, it proved to be based on empty conspiracy theories, but created newspaper sales and good viewing figures.

So I read with delight every new article by GroundUp with their fact-based, objective, conspiracy-theory-destroying coverage. By giving historical perspective, and laying out the actual scientific facts they have taken the politics, opportunistic reporting and self-interested whining out of the crisis and given us the best picture.

And the Western Cape’s Administrative Amazon, Helen Zille, in her series of articles has delivered more clarity than all the hyped hysteria. The series of questions she posed to potential problem solvers also gave a much-needed reality check to everyone who proudly claimed they had “the answer to the problem”. It is worth re-reading them.

  • How long will your method take to get drinking water (of acceptable quality) into the system?
  • At what cost per kilolitre?
  • At what volume?
  • Is it sustainable?
  • What are the possible environmental impacts?
  • What are the blockages to implementation?
  • Are the blockages in the province’s capacity to remove?
  • If not, could “disaster powers” be invoked to remove them?
  • What guarantees can you produce that you will deliver if we give you the go-ahead?
  • Are there any unintended consequences that we can identify now?

So let’s be clear: this is not WaterGate, this is WhiteWater.

To the hysterical voices of hype I say take off your self-righteous, self-pitying, spoilt specs and put on your South African context contact lenses.

A little self-denial and just making do for a while, like most (black) South Africans have had to do for the last 24 years, could mean a natural disaster with potentially devastating consequences might turn out to be a lesson in crisis management.

Let’s not make WhiteWater into WaterGate before we are absolutely certain of the facts. DM

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