It seems safe to say the Cape Town water problem is neither a superficial one nor a technical one, at root. Rather, it goes to something far deeper. It highlights the deep dysfunctionality of our society. We suffer from a deeply ingrained individualism, which has been driving us to disaster.
Recently Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the opposition, called the Water Crisis “A very frightening reality. It fuels one with anxiety, makes you think to yourself, what do I now need to do? It makes you worry about what does it, in fact, look like? And what will it mean?”
His words reminded me of the proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
We have placed the blame for this on secondary problems: on city officials and government, because they were warned as early as 1990 of the looming crisis. Paradoxically, city officials shift the blame to government, and vice versa. Some blame nature. Some blame the 60% of our population who fail to comply with the law: car washes, farmers, poor planning, and the list goes on.
But I have yet to come across a post or official media statement which addresses moral action and Ubuntu.
How do we lift ourselves up above such disaster instead of playing our seemingly endless ad hoc games of avoidance? I particularly find it strange how Day Zero is now pushed back by four days, like the latest score in the game. When will we reach a point where we abandon our games and simply do what is right?
We pride ourselves, as South Africans, in our philosophy of ‘Ubuntu’. Yet it is clearly not having the effect that it should. Ubuntu, it is said, is a quality that includes the essential human virtues: compassion and humanity. Yet instead, we break the foundations of the law and order to feed our individualism. This is far from Ubuntu.
Ubuntu – a quality we are clearly not practising – can make change happen. It offers our society more accountability, moral people, and law-abiding citizens. Ubuntu gives us the freedom to make progress.
As demanding as the truth may be, it will lead us into a prosperous society. While we could write a book about the possible causes of the Water Crisis, it all comes down to this: in the words of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, “The ends you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself; but the ends you serve that are for all, will take you to eternity”.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu like this: “When you do well, it spreads out.” This is true – yet here, too, lies a problem. My own doing well in a water crisis has not spread out to save the city. We have not yet lifted up Ubuntu to the level where ‘doing well’ is not just about you and me, but about a society which can be so organised that it really works for all.