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Where I live

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I live in a suburb called Observatory. Suburbs are less about Nancys with lemonade and lawnmowers and more about the distinct sections of living situations that surround the city. Cape Town and all its suburbs are built in a circle around the big and beautiful Table Mountain, and inside the curve of the mountain lies the city bowl. Further on the outskirts are townships, designated black areas to which people were forced to relocate during apartheid, which ended less than 30 years ago. Apartheid is “over” but the economic and social disparities are very much alive and kicking, largely because of the city’s purposeful spatial planning that keeps white real estate climbing and black communities hidden. Langa, for example, is a square mile surrounded by road and rail. Population is between 50,000 and 80,000, which qualifies as a town in the U.S. As the population continues to grow, the area gets more dense with nowhere to go.

The areas bordering the ocean are all inhabited by wealthy white people. Sea Point is where the rich Jews live, Green Point is for the gays, Observatory is for the Muslims and the pot smokers, a quirky Venn diagram with no middle pocket. What I love most about Obz is that it feels like a cozy town. I know Paul and Ross that run their vegan cafe, Cliff who makes tarts, and Johno who explained 5 different kids of fabric blend to me on a slow afternoon. In the mornings, I walk past the homeless couple whose dogs remember me. The liquor store owner has a parrot name Jody that likes to bite people.

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this would be me, but I don’t get close enough

I started off sharing a home with a roommate, then halfway through decided it was time for me to experience living alone. I asked Paul if he knew any places available in the area, and he reached into his pocket, handed me some house keys, and told me to let myself into a house his friend was renting. It was such a gesture of trust and care that I have never experienced from someone at my local Starbucks. I also feel I’m surrounded by real people making an honest attempt at starting their own businesses, their own art galleries, their own recipes for their restaurants. It’s an engaging and interactive place to live.

I live far from the gym, and unfortunately close to the world’s best Ferrero Rocher milkshakes. I and 7 minutes from Langa and 10 from town. There’s beer pong on Thursdays, pressed juices for two dollars, and a cafe that has bout a million books for sale crammed into the walls top to bottom.

The issue of homelessness is very jarring and heartbreaking in Cape Town, and largely in Observatory. The city issues PSAs to not give to homeless people, since there is guaranteed food, water, and showers for any and all that are in need.

On a daily basis, it can be desensitizing as it isn’t uncommon to be approached half a dozen times in a day. But in the bigger picture, living in Cape Town will never ever let a person forget about their privilege. The history of ZA segregation is bare faced in the present, with evidence in every street, restaurant, or house you point to. Minibuses can take you anywhere, and my friends who’ve spent their entire lives in Langa will say they’ve been to the beach once. Older white South Africans I met at the Waterfront will have spent 60 years in the city without having been in a township once.

I will be honest in my struggle between the balance of being empathetic and maintaining my own level of comfort and sanity. My home got broken into while I was gone. They stole $600 worth of Isaac’s music equipment, which he was using to help teach youth in Langa songwriting and music engineering (more on that later). More heinously, they stole a jigsaw puzzle I didn’t get to start yet. While feeling shaken at the lack of security and the huge financial loss (to Ikes), I also couldn’t help but understand the desperation that poorer people feel here. I attended with my Langa friends a lecture on intergenerational trauma, where the lecturer spoke about how an incident like apartheid or even domestic abuse continues to pass down trauma from parent (or lack/neglect of) to child, creating a vicious cycle of violence, need, and crime. It is impossible to distinguish the criminal actions of a person from the South African context from which it comes from. The political system spent decades disenfranchising the majority of the South African population, and its replacement has done little to help in reconciliation or access to wealth and health. People aren’t stealing puzzles to ruin my day; I live in a community where someone needs to take a puzzle to survive. It doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t cheer me up, but I believe the understanding of the “why’s” behind crime, at least in this environment, is something that I will take home with me.

On a separate and lighter note, living alone is awesome. Two days ago I baked 30 biscuits inspired by the Red Lobster appetizers at midnight and ate 10 of them. I spend my afternoons painting or reading. My smaller living space makes much harder for me to decide not to cross the room and get a glass of water. I’m more hydrated than I’ve been in years. I listen to Kelly Clarkson (2004) without headphones. And I get to use the whole entire table for the new puzzle I bought. Sometimes I dream about living here for ten more years. I try to ignore that I have three and a half months left.

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Fish out of water, except the fish is Cape Town

“The government cautions that the Day Zero threat will surpass anything a major city has faced since World War II or the Sept. 11 attacks. Talks are underway with South Africa’s police because “normal policing will be entirely inadequate.” Residents, their nerves increasingly frayed, speak in whispers of impending chaos.

A family negotiates their way through caked mud around a dried up section of the Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town

I’ve been putting off writing about this to give me time to organize my thoughts and research about how this managed to happen and what’s largely to blame… but, considering that today we have advanced (or devolved) to level 6b water restrictions, it’s a good a time as any. This means that residents are required to use less than 50L of water a day (yesterday it was 87L). For us imperial system Americanos, consider the fact a toilet flush is 6 liters, a 2 minutes shower is 20 liters, and washing your face and hands in the morning is 3L. It can add up for people that aren’t paying attention. And despite the public service announcements, interactive graphics, persistent urgent warnings, and now international news coverage, many Cape Tonians are still not listening. It’s been revealed that under the 87 L restriction, 67% of residents were still overusing their daily quota.

The rest of them have it down pat. To flush the toilet is to commit the deepest sin. The bucket in the shower is a household staple. To emit a slight funk is a badge of honor. Some are literally diagnosed with “bucket back” due to their commitment of saving grey water.

But I will say despite statistics, I have been very proud of the way I have seen residents in my neighborhood and Langa come together to do what’s necessary. Many people believe that low income neighborhoods have bigger problems to worry about than the environment, but I have found the exact opposite to be true. Each Langa homestay has finished a SMART living training program that had them put signs in their bathrooms and make moves towards solar and energy cutting appliances. But go to Constantia, Hout Bay, Camps Bay, the 1% garden cities of Cape Town, and I don’t doubt you will find green manicured lawns and pools still full of water. And yet, last week, the DA leader Mmusi Maimaine sparked outrage by posting a picture handing out 25 L buckets to Constantia (think Bel Air) residents to encourage them to save water.

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When you consider the context — a very economically and racially stratified post-apartheid social environment, and the guy is handing out buckets to white people at the black taxpayer expense — it’s not a super good look. Hundreds of pissed off South Africans put it to words better than I do:

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It is very important to see how the government will handle this problem. When Day Zero comes in April, residents are to queue in one of 200 water collection points throughout the city with armed guards making sure people don’t get more than 25L per day. As the Times put it, we’re truly going Mad Max. But the question I’m interested in seeing is the placement of these points. Townships are extremely dense with people, but don’t have the wealthy vote for the next election cycle, which could very well incenstivize the placement of these points. It’s politics that largely got the water crisis to be this exacerbated in the first place. With the ANC party holding the national government and the DA holding the regional government, budgets have been handed off from one election cycle to the other with each budget focused on getting short term votes. This means funds have long been dedicated to short term poverty alleviation to long term infrastructure projects. When Cape Town should have been listening to the dooming weather patters and shocking population increase, officals should have been allocating funds to desalination tanks and a better dam system much longer ago.

The city centre business are already exempt from the water cutoffs in order to keep business running. Informal settlements are also exempt. But what about those living in townships that are formal settlements? What about people in Muisenberg, who my Uber driver tells me wait for over an hour at collection points already? What about lil ol me in Observatory?

Time will tell. Commnuication from up top has been unreliable from the start. Every day was a changing percentage of how full the dams were, and statements about the current state of water is geared more towards political pats on the back than actually dessimating important information to citizens (I just read an article celebrating the fact that we pushed Day Zero back to April 16… when the Times reported it was to be April 22. Go figure.) But desalination plants from the Waterfront should be online by March, and until then, hospitals, clinics, informal settlements, and clinical points will still have access to water.

This is the first major city in the world to run out of water, but it is most definitely not the first city. Cape Town has many rural groups to turn to to gain valuable protips on how to last without water. If they take some proper notes, they could rise from this political embarrassment as a decent case study on how to survive when other countries inevitably run into the same problem. Maybe by that point we’ll have no need for our buckets and back braces.

The coming weeks will be interesting, to say the least. But to those wondering if we’re flopping like dried fish out here, we are okay. The water crisis is as bad as it sounds, but people will adapt and adjust to do what is necessary to make push through Day Zero, or, in a perfect world, make sure the day doesn’t have to come.