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Temporalities of Crisis: On Cape Town’s Day Zero

Temporalities of Crisis: On Cape Town’s Day Zero

By: Nate Millington and Suraya Scheba

Cape Town is currently facing a water crisis. While Day Zero, the day when the city’s water would have been cut off, is apparently no longer a possibility in 2018, scarcity remains a concern. Arguing that water will only get scarcer in the years to come, the Cape Town municipal government response to the water crisis has been to invest in considerable efforts to reduce water consumption, including charging for excess usage and the continued rollout of water management devices for residents deemed to be over users. Additionally, the city has called for the acceleration of augmentation schemes, including desalination and groundwater access. Drawing from climate science and longer term strategies of demand management, the City of Cape Town is attempting to situate reduced demand within a changing climate. 

Day Zero Cancelled. Photograph by Nate Millington. 

In response to the possibility of citywide water cuts, commentators and journalists engaged extensively with Cape Town’s ongoing water dynamics. Many suggested that the city is a harbinger of things to come in a future marked by climate change and climate uncertainty. Critical to these analyses was the oft-repeated phrase that Cape Town could become the first ‘major’ or ‘modern city’ to run out of water. While this possibility appears to have been canceled – or at least delayed – concerns about scarcity continue to mark Cape Town’s political and social life.  

The idea that Cape Town’s experience with scarcity could become a new normal is reflective of broader anxieties about climate change and changing local and planetary ecologies. Commentators regularly linked water crisis to the threat of global climate change and the overuse of water by urban residents, stressing the degree to which scarcity is constitutive of an unknowable present. While some commentators have situated these anxieties in a refusal of white South Africans to understand that water scarcity marks the lives of many black residents in the city, others have seen the crisis in more general terms. For the city, a focus on specific water targets has largely avoided a deeper conversation about unequal infrastructure and inequality more generally. While residents are asked to reduce to 50 litres per day, those with access to boreholes and well points are increasingly able to go off-grid, for example. While this water is not municipal water, it is water that could be used by residents if infrastructures were managed in different ways.

Infrastructures are obdurate and hard to change. Managing water is a technical and political process, one that ties together dynamics of land use at the regional level with national, provincial and local funding pressures. These broader dynamics then intersect with smaller-scale technologies like pipes, wells, and water metres. Infrastructures are also reflections of inequality; they determine who is entitled to the benefits of citizenship and, in some cases, modernity. Infrastructure in Cape Town have long been unequal, reflecting longer patterns of apartheid spatial planning and histories of what Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin call ‘splintering urbanism.’ While Cape Town has high levels of water access — nearly 100% – access looks different depending on what neighborhood you are in. As Lucy Rodina argues, a lived experience perspective of water access makes clear that many residents still struggle to access consistent water in ways that are safe and dignified in township communities.

Paying attention to the existing geographies of infrastructure makes clear that crises are not momentary events. They are, instead, reflections of longer-term dynamics. They have a temporality, a past and a future. It is important to pay attention to the temporality of crisis, to understand both how crises are produced but also what they make possible in the present and future. It is critical that we understand the relationship between crises and longer patterns of vulnerability: we are not affected equally by crises. Vulnerability intersects with a changing climate in intimate and violent ways. Cape Town’s experience of water scarcity makes this abundantly clear. In a future that may be marked by longer periods of drought, those with the means to withstand scarcity will do so through the purchasing of bulk water, the installation of private boreholes and water infrastructure, and mobility. The rest will suffer.

Installing a reservoir in Observatory, Cape Town. Photograph by Nate Millington. 

Crises have pasts but they also have futures. In response to the crisis, activists are currently voicing concern that the crisis may usher in new dynamics of water privatization, linked to the ongoing installation of water management devices and the adoption of desalination technology. In both cases, privatization occurs not necessarily at the level of the water itself, but rather through the technologies and processes that are necessary to access water. Both involve private technologies that make water available or, in the case of Water Management Devices, periodically unavailable in the form of what activists have termed ‘silent disconnections’. When a water management device has been installed, it is not just the city that can decide to cut off water. Instead, that responsibility is outsourced to a private company through a technological fix.

 Water Management Device. Photograph by Nate Millington. 

In the case of desalination, uncertainty marks the technology in myriad ways, including those related to ocean dynamics, the appropriate technological design for the surrounding environment, and funding access for bulk infrastructure. In addition, the adoption of desalination technology will have implications for future water governance within the city as contractors for the temporary desalination plants will be selling the produced water at an apparent cost of R30 to R40 per kilolitre to the city, as opposed to  a cost of approximately R5 per kilolitre for surface water. The capital costs of augmentation schemes, and rising cost of water access per kilolitre, are further intensified by the reduction of municipal revenue due to the crisis. Cumulatively these raise a number of questions about the future of water governance in the city, specifically the question of how and by whom these costs will be born.

To what extent these changes in the water governance configuration are linked to a broader project of privatization remains to be seen, but these worries deserve attention. As climate change increasingly animates new infrastructural development, it is critical that we push for new equitable infrastructures that do not ask the poor to bear the brunt of a changing climate. More research is needed to understand who is being outfitted with water management devices, and why. These technologies have implications for the equitable distribution of water, and need to be understood in the context of longer term trends of inequality in Cape Town.

Banner produced by the Cape Town Water Crisis Coalition. Photograph by Nate Millington.

Scarcity is not a pre-existing condition but rather a produced reality; managing scarcity in egalitarian ways will require a real engagement with uneven water usage and the politics of rationing. That these decisions are currently a reflection of top-down governance is cause for concern. Cape Town’s water crisis has shown the ways that crises can both heighten discord while also allowing for new opportunities for solidarities and linkages of seemingly divergent political ambitions. Crises are opportunities to reflect on the infrastructures of the present moment. To the extent that Cape Town’s water crisis can create opportunities for reducing water consumption at the city level while increasing consumption for the poor will depend on civil society’s capacity to link the water crisis with the development of political alternatives that prioritize equitable access.

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Waste management in Cape Town: understanding responsibility and labour

Kathleen Stokes reflects on waste management and political ecology in Cape Town. Kathleen is a PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Manchester with a research focus on community responsibility and labour in waste management. She is part of the Turning Livelihoods to Rubbish Project, which is run in collaboration between the University of Cape Town, the University of Manchester and Florida State University.

TLR project in Cape Town SAWhile attending the ACC’s winter school on democratic practices, I was fortunate enough to meet with a range of people involved in Cape Town’s waste management system. Through these discussions, and my own encounters with the city’s sites of disposal and decomposition, I was struck by the variety of imperatives driving waste management, and the relations between people whose livelihoods depend on the sector.

Managing rubbish is a complex affair in any city. In Cape Town, the municipal government is responsible for waste management services, and informed by legislation and policy imperatives from national and provincial government. Within the context of rapid urbanization, enduring inequalities, and state promises of universal service provision, municipal strategies have tended towards neoliberal strategies of contracting out, public-private partnerships, and cost recovery. In addition to contracting service responsibilities out to businesses, Cape Town’s municipal waste management service also looked towards residents to play their part.
As part of its strategy, Cape Town has launched public education and engagement campaigns like Waste Wise, which seeks to raise public awareness of waste reduction and encourage residents to start and help with community schemes – such as local compost to school recycling schemes. In recent years, this programme has focused on supporting Green Zones, designated neighbourhoods that receive support to pilot a holistic approach to community waste education and engagement. While the project has been on hiatus since 2014, some follow-on activities appear to be underway in Green Zones and other parts of the city.

Such initiatives profess a positive impact amongst residents, and align themselves to discourses of empowerment, job creation, and sustainable communities. However, they do not exist in a vacuum. If we understand waste management to be a sort of lively infrastructural assemblage (for instance, see Amin, 2014 and Graham & McFarlane, 2015), we can appreciate that community responsibility is undoubtedly related to formal provision of services, and the practices of informal waste collection. What happens to waste, who is contributing their effort, and how is their labour valued?

Over 2017, I will look more closely at Waste Wise and other initiatives promoting community responsibility for waste management in South Africa’s cities. By investigating changes to waste management in areas involved in such schemes, I hope to understand what transformations have occurred to the everyday functioning of waste management, and to the livelihoods of whose who those labour is keeps the frontlines going.

As this project unfurls, I am left with more questions than answers. Still, focusing on the relationship between community responsibility and worker livelihoods can provide us with a better understanding of how value and labour are manifested within the processes and dynamics of urban waste management. Drawling upon a SUPE lens, I will frame my research by integrating urban political ecology with neo-Marxian, post-colonial and South African understandings of labour, infrastructure and livelihoods. Most of my research will take place over 2017. Fortunately, I am supported by my supervisors and colleagues in the TLR project. As this time draws nearer, we are making final preparations and continuing to review the discourses, policies, and practices shaping waste management in different urban contexts across South Africa.

As ever, my colleagues and I hope this process will be of interest to others. If you would like to hear more, or have any comments or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch (kathleen.stokes(at)postgrad.manchester.ac.uk).


Thank you to Dr Henrik Ernstson, staff and colleagues at the African Centre for Cities and KTH Stockholm for supporting my participation in the democratic practices winter school. Likewise, thank you to the University of Manchester and the ESRC-DFID Poverty Alleviation Fund for their support of my PhD.

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Marnie Graham defended her thesis on Postcolonial Nature Conservation

Marnie Graham successfully defended her PhD thesis at Stockholm University on “Postcolonial Nature Conservation and Collaboration” on the 27th of February 2015. Her study is part of our “Ways Of Knowing Urban Ecologies” project in Cape Town where she has studied nature conservation and collaborative arrangements at the Macassar Dunes.

By framing the site and nature conservation practices as embedded in colonial and apartheid legacies Dr. Marnie Graham uncovers how such legacies both continue into the present, but also when they are negotiated and transformed when people from different backgrounds meet. Her study includes analysis of how nature conservators are elaborating new identities and methods in becoming nature conservators in a post-apartheid and post-colonial urban setting like Cape Town. Based on empirical work in Cape Town, her thesis develops a more general approach on how to handle and understand the intersection between conservation and urbanization, in particular in cities of the Global South.

The Swedish research council Formas is acknowledged for providing funding for this thesis research through the research grant “Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies” (Dnr: 250-2010-1372; WOK-UE) lead by Dr. Henrik Ernstson. Her supervisors have been political ecologist Dr. Henrik Ernstson at KTH and human geographer Sandie Suchet-Pearson at Macquarie University in Sydney.

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Summary of the thesis:

Post-colonial Nature Conservation and Collaboration in Urban Protected Areas 

By Marnie Graham, Stockholm University and Macquarie University

Nature conservation has a lengthy, contested history throughout much of the colonial/settler world. In South Africa during the colonial and (defacto colonial) apartheid eras, conservation was marked by exclusion and dispossession of colonised peoples, and state and elite control of land, resources and knowledge. These inequitable processes were underlined by normalised and racialised ideas and relations to nature, conservation, knowledge and protected areas. In the post-colonial, post-apartheid era, theories and practices of inclusive, devolved, and people-centred approaches have emerged around protected area management, referred to collectively as co-management.

Seeking in theory to redress historical relations between conservation authorities and colonised lands and peoples (Dressler et al. 2010), co- management arises as an endeavour of post-colonial nature conservation. The post-colonial refers to the era after the (highly contested) end of colonial rule, but also to the prospect of embracing de-colonising approaches to nature conservation (Adams and Mulligan 2003). Post-colonial nature conservation thus attends to both “the contestation of colonial domination and the legacies of colonialism” (Loomba 2005: 16). In South Africa and other colonial/settler nations, colonial conservation practices and ideas continue to find expression in post-colonial nature conservation, including in co-management.

This study brings novel insights on post-colonial nature conservation through attention to co-management processes in urban protected areas. In particular I consider co-management processes in cities of the Global South, which face rapid urbanisation and informality, intense spatial and social inequalities, and

increasing socio-cultural diversity. My literature review demonstrates how this intersection of nature protection, increased urbanization and collaboration is vastly understudied in the Global South within human geography and natural resource management disciplines. Particularly lacking are in-depth empirical analyses of actually existing collaborative nature conservation arrangements, which situate such attempts within colonial, apartheid and post-colonial relations.

The empirical focus is on Macassar Dunes/Wolfgat nature reserves in Cape Town, South Africa, where municipal conservation authorities collaborate on conservation initiatives with community representatives who come from expansive adjacent informal settlements and racially-segregated apartheid-era townships. Through semi-structured interviews and participant observation, I draw on the perspectives from diverse participants in these collaborations to interrogate the (post)colonial condition of collaborative urban nature conservation at Macassar Dunes/Wolfgat, while striving to expand my analysis more generally to be speak into the growing literature on Southern cities (Robinson 2011; Parnell and Pieterse 2014).

Through this analysis emerges complex, ambiguous and contested relations to urban nature, urban space, conservation, knowledges, participation, stakeholder identities, and collaboration. On one hand, neo-colonial practices of exclusion and control are embedded in policy and management regimes, in spite efforts of collaboration and participation. This manifests in conservation science, knowledge production, environmental education, tourism initiatives, and in ‘stakeholder’ identity constructions. On the other hand, my research also demonstrates how those involved in collaborations, from civic representatives to conservation managers, challenge colonial conservation notions and practices, and that these spaces of collaboration can re-work and contest neo- colonial notions and practices.

In my analysis of how nature conservation is re-worked and challenged at Macassar Dunes, I pay attention to the institutional and contextual constraints of the collaborations. The focus is however also on interpersonal relations amongst people and between people and nature that occur in-place at the conservation area, and in the adjoining spaces of the townships and informal settlements. Attention is paid to the often ad hoc, informal and deeply inter-personal relations that develop through the collaborations, and which are challenging conservation practice in profound ways. The relations formed in and through collaboration are informing from the ‘bottom-up’ what post-colonial nature conservation practice could be, but also how colonial legacies and tendencies ‘slip’ into these interpersonal relations.

By necessity, this analysis requires engaging difficult questions of race, identity, informality, poverty, insecurity and diverse ways of knowing urban nature through the collaborations. It is these themes that permeate the analysis and bring novel insights into the practice of urban protected area co-management as an endeavour of post-colonial nature conservation. The thesis is composed of an Introduction, Literature Review, Methodologies and Conclusion chapters, together with four manuscripts prepared for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Supervisors: Henrik Ernstson, KTH-Royal Institute of Technology, and Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Macquarie University.

Co-supervisors: Thomas Elmqvist, Stockholm University, and Richard Howitt, Macquarie University.

The Swedish research council Formas is acknowledged for providing funding for this thesis research through the research grant “Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies” (Dnr: 250-2010-1372; WOK-UE).