Mamphela Ramphele: It's time citizens demand government starts defending our heritage

Global climate protests. (Screengrab via Euronews)
Global climate protests. (Screengrab via Euronews)

What is needed is citizen action to rouse our government from complacency at all levels: local, provincial and national. Our young people need to take courage from young people from other parts of the world who have taken up the struggle for social justice and protection of ecosystems, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

"Hu- !gais" is the name given to Cape Town by its original citizens, the Khoena people who had a profound understanding of the inextricable link between themselves as humans, and nature and Hunuma, who can give rain and drought. They had studied the patterns of cloud cover and rain on what we now call Table Mountain, and treated water as a sacred resource.

Each time they fetched water from a spring or stream, they left a gift to acknowledge the reciprocity between themselves and nature. They also harvested seafood and wildlife with the same attitude of gratitude for these as gifts to meet their basic needs for sufficiency, but not to be abused through excessive extraction.

Imagine the shock when they observed the extractive practices of the Dutch Settlers who simply had no limits: water by the ship loads. Fish harvested as if there is no tomorrow. Wildlife shot without care about regeneration and sustainability. And the greatest shock of all was engendered by the desecration and dispossession of the land of the very indigenous people whom had saved the settlers from sure death from scurvy and other ills.

Disrespect of nature's gifts

The disrespect of nature's gifts essential to human existence: water and fresh air, has brought us to the humanitarian crisis we are facing across our country today. This crisis is a silent killer in places as far apart as Qwa Qwa in the Free state, Giyane in Limpopo, and Mpumalanga. The common factor in all three areas is our government's failure to meet its obligations to the poorest people to ensure provision of clean water and air as a human right.

To add insight to injury, huge financial resources have been committed by the state, but squandered under the watch of successive governments since 1994. Take Giyane, a dam planned and built more than a decade ago at an inflated cost of R3bn from the original budget of R700m. This was to provide water to 55 villages, but has yet to provide one drop of water to all those thousands of poor people. And no one has yet been held accountable.

The same applies to Mpumalanga and pollution elsewhere in our country. About ten years ago we took out a World Bank loan of $3.75bn to build new power plants, of which $1.25bn was to install equipment to reduce emissions. No trace has been found of the work done for the $1.25bn, but the ANC investment arm, Chancellor House, scored big on being part of the deal to build Medupi and Kusile coal power stations, that are yet to be completed more than a decade later. An estimated 2 000 people die painful silent deaths annually in Mpumalanga from air pollution. 

The silent deaths extend to a growing number of farmers and villagers across the country who are dying from loss of hope for a better future. AgriSA reports the loss of no less than 31 000 farm jobs since January 2018. Food security and livelihoods are at risk.

Gift of the Givers, a South African NGO with a global reach, is the only reliable helping hand for millions of forgotten citizens across the country – urban and rural. The number of boreholes and other interventions they make have kept many a body and soul together in our country.

Government must embrace available expertise 

The good news is that we not only have the wisdom of the ancients to draw on, but we also have a sophisticated science and technology capability that remains untapped by public officials. Our Water Research Council has all the know-how we need to tackle our problems. But our government has yet to embrace evidence-based policy making and implementation.

We are losing R9bn worth of water through leaks despite the government's R3bn water leaks programme that was to train 15 000 young people to become maintenance workers. Only just over 1 000 completed the course. The government needs to bring expertise to tackle the serious challenges of climate emergencies.

What is needed is citizen action to rouse our government from complacency at all levels: local, provincial and national. Young people whose futures are being stolen by my generation, need to take courage from other young people from other parts of the world who have taken up the struggle for social justice and protection of ecosystems.

First, we need a fundamental mindshift from the sense of entitlement that characterises our relationships with natural resources as free goods to be used as we please without any sense of responsibility for future generations. We are part of nature and have responsibilities for past, presence and future generations to secure these resources.

Second, government is a servant of the people and should be serving the least among us with the utmost care. Our government has failed to meet its obligations under our human rights constitutional dispensation to provide them with basic needs of which water is the most fundamental. There is no excuse for this failure.

Third, we need to relieve our river systems from the burden of dysfunctional waste removal and sanitation systems. The mining industry and other heavy polluters have to be held accountable for discharging pollutants that are killing our major rivers, especially the Vaal River system. Their licenses to operate must be revoked until they have cleaned up their mess.

Fourth, Cape Town that boasts about being the best governed city in the best governed province of the Western Cape, needs to stop the disgraceful colonial practice of discharging sewage into our oceans. This practice has so polluted the sea water that some ocean species are at risk of extinction. We have failed to desalinate our sea water for human consumption due to the high level of contamination.

The former mayor and premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, has the opportunity to use her new powerful position as chair of the DA federal council, to get its government to clean up this mess.

Decolonise the Newlands spring

Finally, there is another colonial legacy in Cape Town that urgently needs to be tackled. Why is the City of Cape Town allowing a multinational company, SAB, now amalgamated with Coca-Cola Shanduka Beverages, to colonise the Newlands spring?

How can it be that the Newlands spring, as a major part of the rich heritage of the Table Mountain fresh water system, be ceded to a private company in the face of national water shortages? The City has also shown a curious inconsistency in recently disallowing a Constantia resident from selling water from his private property! Why is SAB getting special treatment? 

Extractive practices are inappropriate in our highly stressed biosphere. We need to develop reciprocal relationships to sustain our biosphere. Our governments at local, provincial and national levels should be held to account for failing to be a good stewards of our natural resources. We, the people need to stand up and insist on defending our heritage for future generations.

As we finalise preparations to welcome the Club of Rome to its 2019 Annual Conference and Youth Summit next week to explore the theme, "Our Joint Future – Lessons from Africa", we draw strength from the wisdom of the Latin American indigenous Kogui people who say:

"...the world does not have to end, it could continue, but unless you stop violating the earth and nature, unless you cease to deplete the energy of the Great Mother, her organs, her vitality, unless people stop working against the Great Mother, the world will not last."

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA and co-president of the Club of Rome.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.