The European swallow stands about five-foot-six in its socks, burns easily in the sun and enjoys a pint or two with the lads. It is also a small migratory bird.
In our summer months, the European swallow of the featherless variety can be spotted in coastal towns from Umhlanga to Hermanus. Come winter, he returns to his natural habitat and can be spotted in The Cock and Balls in Fulham High Street.
I am an African swallow. We prefer to conserve our energy – not to mention our limited financial resources – and migrate within the country. Winters in Durban, summers in Cape Town. Sprawled in my nest in Westbrook on the east coast, nursing a damaged wing after attempting to fly home from a friend’s house one unhinged Friday night, it struck me that the seasons had turned. My instincts said it was time to head west. My instincts have never been wrong, give or take a couple of marriages and a career in journalism.
And so I find myself hunkered down in a shack in the milkwoods of Kommetjie typing with fingers crippled from frostbite. I am clothed in a stinking onesie stitched from the fur of a dozen dassies and lined with the skins of two careless Cape seals.
I appear to have mistimed the migration. Cape Town alone decides when to call it summer. There’s nothing I can do about it now. I’d rather die of hypothermia than head back down the Transkei’s Roadkill Road.
A cloud of panic hangs over this southern tip of Africa. It used to be bong smoke, but now it’s panic. Word on the street is that Cape Town will run out of water by March next year. This is good news. I should be back in Durban by then. What? Don’t look at me like that. Okay, fine. It’s bad news for the people who live here. They could always move to Durban. By next Christmas we’ll all be drinking Chardonnay and paying R5m for a roach-infested rat hole in Gillespie Street.
I’ve never been a huge fan of water. Salt water, yes, but only because the ocean is made of it. I can understand why people would buy bottled water in a country where landmine victims outnumber cars, but nobody ever died in South Africa from drinking tap water. Unless maybe the tap belonged to a neighbour who suspected you of trying to turn him into a frog and shot you in the back while you were bent over drinking. Which probably happens fairly often in Limpopo.
Every day there are fresh statistics to scare the living hell out of everyone in Cape Town. The six dams that supply the city are currently at 38% capacity. Isn’t this quite good? It’s more than I got for maths in matric and I turned out okay.
In the old days when rain was a thing, consumption in the metropole was at 1.1 billion litres per day. It now stands at 585 million litres. A massive reduction. But the number is still too big for us to fully udnerstand. Look at it this way. We’re consuming the equivalent of 292 Windhoek draughts for every man, woman and child. Per day. That’s a reasonable average for the Cape Flats, but you’re not going to get those heroic levels in Constantia and Bishops Court.
I suppose not all of it is getting chucked down people’s throats. There’s bathing and watering gardens and washing cars and a lot gets wasted in places like workshops and hospitals where staff get grease and blood under their fingernails.
But apparently that’s still too much. The city wants people to shower for no longer than a minute. If you get caught running a bath, you’re stripped naked and publicly flogged in Adderley Street. I tried showering for one minute. At six-foot-four, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Sixty seconds was just enough to lather up into a striking resemblance of the abominable snowman. So no rinsing then? Seems unduly harsh. I went and stood outside, letting the freezing wind blow the suds from my quivering body. I didn’t want to use a towel because that would’ve meant having to wash it at some point. The penalty for washing towels is a light stoning. For now. I expect it will be escalated to the amputation of a hand by January. I went to the mall later with flaking patches of dried soap on my face and arms. Mothers covered their children’s eyes. I saw one woman gag.
It has also been recommended that you don’t flush the toilet if you’ve only had a wee. This isn’t a problem for me because I wee outside. Not in the street. In my garden. It’s a territorial thing. When I was married I’d sometimes do it indoors if it was very cold outside. One night my wife caught me in the act of marking my territory in the lounge. I stood there with my willy out, telling her it was the cat. That I was the cat. And the cat was me. Luckily she was hallucinating on benzos and found it all quite plausible. She poured me a saucer of milk and went back to bed. Actually, she didn’t even bother with the saucer.
In Cape Town, you’re also supposed to stand in a bucket when you shower, then use that water to wash the children who have to stand in their lunch boxes, then use that water to wash the baby in a soup bowl, then use whatever’s left over to water the one plant you have chosen to save.
On the rare occasion it does rain, the roads of suddenly full of people driving around aimlessly.
“Quick, get in the car. We’re going to Knysna.”
“Are you mad? Why?”
“They’re having rain. The car’s filthy.”
People are advised to close the toilet lid when flushing, presumably to save the seven drops that might splash onto the floor. They are also encouraged to use disinfectants, face masks and gloves where required. I don’t know about you, but once I’ve done my ablutions I generally don’t need to have the crime scene cleaners around.
Apparently Phase 1 of the disaster plan had been implemented. I didn’t even know there was a plan. A better one might have been to make provision for this crisis several years ago. They knew. Oh, yes. They knew alright. But there’s nothing sexy about desalination and groundwater abstraction projects. Not when you live in a city of mountains and beaches and a waterfront that makes Durban’s look like a dumping ground for junkies, vagrants and medical waste. Which is what it is.
We are warned that supply might be disrupted during peak water usage times. Being ‘self-employed’ I don’t know what this means but it seems unlikely I’ll be affected. People who live in high-lying areas will experience outages. I live two metres above sea level. I’ll be fine up until Donald Trump melts Antarctica and, in the middle of a drought, I drown in my sleep.
The city has appealed to people in low-lying areas – like Mitchell’s Plain and Gugulethu – to curb their usage to help their less fortunate brothers and sisters who are suffering terribly up on the slopes of Clifton and Camps Bay. Seems fair.
The city has also installed seven thousand “water management devices” on the properties of “delinquent” water uses. These are not juvenile delinquents. These are grown-ass people who just don’t give a damn. So their pipes are fitted with the equivalent of ankle monitors.
The city is divided into pressure zones. For instance, there’s no pressure in Observatory. You can wake up at midday, smoke a blunt and get a tattoo or a shot of tequila right there in the main road. No pressure at all.
There’s been talk of remotely manipulating valves in the reticulation network, but this seems to be some sort of code and nobody understands what it means. Apparently it reassures people. Not the paranoiacs, obviously.
If an area is using water above the daily limit, pressure will be reduced to force consumption down. Once consumption is reduced, pressure will be restored. It’s the old “I’ll have sex with you when you give up drinking” ploy. It’s the carrot and stick method, although I’ve never used either during sex, and it doesn’t work because there’s always one guy who wants to fill up his pool and wash his Range Rover, racehorse and trophy wife.
On my way for a surf at Muizenberg the other day, I passed two lots of people down on their hands and knees on the side of the road. This being Cape Town, I reckoned they were drunk, praying or doing yoga. Being the deep south, it could easily have been all three. But no. They were hunkered around an outlet from a mountain stream, desperately filling bottles and drums.
One of them looked a bit like Immortan Joe, the disgruntled civil servant who featured in Mad Max: Fury Road, a documentary about water shortages and how even a woman from Benoni can survive without an arm or leg or even a sense of humour.
Let’s end on a history lesson. Who said this? “It has only been through a century of dedication and a commitment to engineering excellence that the City of Cape Town has been able to guarantee clean water for an ever-expanding population. We are more than up to the task.”
a. Jan van Riebeeck in 1652.
b. Cecil John Rhodes in 1890.
c. Patricia de Lille in 2013.
It wasn’t Jan or Cecil.
It just occurred to me that a water shortage might also mean a beer shortage. Let the stockpiling begin.