As Day Zero nears, Cape Town should rise to the occasion

I GREW up on post-apocalyptic literature – The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Death of Grass, stories about major disasters crippling society and leaving small odds-and-sods bands of survivors struggling in a strange and hostile world.

‘Disaster’ films like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and the Towering Inferno followed a similar theme: a small group of people, often mostly strangers, battling huge odds to survive.

Would strangers help each other out? In an immediate, sudden disaster like a bombing or tornado, it seems the answer is Yes. Human nature under stress appears to default to altruism, more the caring bonobo model than the fighting chimp, as primatologist Frans de Waal might put it.

It’s a commonplace to assume disasters will lead to panic and brutal mayhem, but in fact in Katrina-hit New Orleans “there were many more reports of altruism, cooperativeness, and camaraderie […] The overall cooperative, prosocial, and altruistic individual and community response following Hurricane Katrina was similarly observed after the Asian tsunami of December 2004, and the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in London…” (Disaster Mythology and Fact: Hurricane Katrina and Social Attachment, Binu Jacob et al )

It’s a theme repeated in much research: “Selfish behaviour was rare; co-operation and helping were common. […] Some people displayed quite selfless behaviour by helping others even if doing so meant placing themselves at risk […] even people who they had not previously known before the emergency…” (The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations, Dr John Drury and Dr Chris Cocking)

And it can have lasting impact: Dr Krzysztof Kaniasty, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, writes that “In the aftermath of disaster it is a repeatedly observed phenomenon that community spirit is bolstered. People rally around each other and previous barriers that separated them such as race and class are temporarily overlooked […]”

But things can go the other way, too. When the Brazilian megacity, Sao Paulo, ran out of water for days in 2015, it provoked friction and massive protests. “I’d always imagined people would try and help each other out in a crisis situation,” an apartment complex manager said, speaking of the fury that erupted during a residents’ meeting around water. 

“But it’s not what happened at all.”

Could things go pear-shaped in Cape Town?

And it looks as if things could go pear-shaped in the Western Cape too, at least if you’re mired in the endless social media squabbling, and volley after volley of articles from experts and journalists quoting experts and bloggers suffering from Dunning-Kruger effect (there are some fantastically helpful bloggers, too – follow Helen Moffett for tons of water-saving ideas).

It is Important to Apportion Blame, it seems: it’s the DA, it’s the ANC, it’s the poor, it’s the stinking rich, it’s De Lille, it’s the farmers, it’s not us… One thing I’m sure of: Cape Town has not (yet) had the inspired and transparent leadership it needs to steer this crisis towards altruism and away from a vicious competition for resources.

So, then, what do you do when you KNOW what’s coming, and leadership fails you, and the whole shebang seems to be speeding down the road to Day Zero, bickering like a carful of children? Residents of Cape Town, you can, and must, take the lead here. You can take charge of your city’s destiny, and turn it into a showcase of the best of human nature rather than the worst.

Social networks, a sense of community and community competence have been identified as crucial to the resilience and survival of communities in a disaster, and you still have some time to create that community.

So, get in touch with your community policing forum or neighbourhood watch: are they doing a house-to-house to map the vulnerable in your suburb, and set up a water-roster to assist the arthritic elderly, the people with disabilities, mothers with small babies, who will struggle with water collection?

Are they mapping any well-points or boreholes, and asking people if they’re prepared to share water from them? (They should be – that’s a common resource they have access to there!)

Churches, mosques and other religious institutions can also be used to create conscious, working social networks; schools likewise, along with any NGOs that operate in your area (when you meet with them, ask them what their needs are; I know people in the rest of the country are already working to get water to animal welfare shelters, for example).

Meet with any local businesses and create relationships – they may have resources you could draw on during times of stress, such as trucks to transport water.

Reach beyond the borders of your suburbs, both to neighbouring areas and to less materially advantaged areas. A business owner, for example, might get involved with the communities he or she draws employees from – but don’t patronise, or tell people what to do; ask respectfully how you can help each other.

The community might be prepared to offer human resources, people to help with the water-roster and education; you could perhaps provide helpful material resources, like transport or Hippo rollers (retailing at about R1 000 for a 75 litre drum at present), or a voice in advocacy when needed.

Forget the squabbling and blame game; you desperately need each other to survive. Rise to this occasion with grace and kindness, with the best of your humanity. The world – and the rest of South Africa, also walking a water knife-edge – is watching.

  • Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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