Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Celebrating Riverside: the Caravan of Love

Riverside mosque, on the banks of the Umgeni in Durban, first built by Sufi Saheb in 1895. 

TODAY we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Group Areas Act at Riverside, "The Rise, the Fall and the Resurrection of the Habibia Soofie Darbaar". The Group Areas Act was a particularly hateful aspect of apartheid legislation that displaced and divided millions of South Africans.

Riverside, on the banks of the Umgeni River outside Durban, was chosen by Hajji Shah Goolam Mohamed Soofie Siddiqui – or Sufi Saheb – in 1895 to be a spiritual oasis for a people in need of solace. From here, Sufi Saheb would bless the community with eleven mosques, 13 schools and an orphanage.

Sufi Saheb, as we all know, arrived here from Hyderabad on the inspired orders of his Shaykh, Hazrat Khwaja Habib ‘Ali [ra].

On a personal note, Riverside has always been a place of calm and consolation – especially when I stayed in Durban in 1986 after the 1985 uprisings. The legacy of Sufi Saheb is a great one, a living one – alhamdullilah – which makes me equally humbled to be in his presence, and in your presence.

In today’s talk I have decided to take a historical approach to explain in context why we are here today, and what lessons the Group Areas Act teaches us about ourselves in our challenging world. My talk is entitled the “Caravan of Love”.


AS WITH all stories, we start with ‘one upon a time’, for once upon a time – before Donald Trump – we were a mobile species migrating freely across oceans, land-bridges and continents.

We were migrating for many reasons: because of changes in climate; in search of better grazing for our herds; to avoid famine and to avoid poverty. And, naturally, we were migrating to escape oppression; and of course, being human, some of us were migrating in search of wealth and power. 

Colonialism – the godfather of apartheid – was also a migration, but it was the practice of acquiring control over another territory, occupying it with foreign settlers, and then exploiting it economically at the expense of the locals. Israel is the best surviving example.

The motivating factor for the colonial expansion of Europe, which mutated into apartheid in South Africa, was the extraction of minerals and resources that Europe did not have, such as gold, oil, spices, iron-ore, diamonds and cotton.  

Therefore, the exploration of the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French and the British – from the 15th century onwards – was a race for goods, raw materials and wealth. This would lead to the European Industrial Revolution, urbanisation, mass production and the French Revolution of the late 1700s.


The New World explorers, ironically often guided by Muslim navigators, saw themselves as racially, religiously and economically superior. This Orientalism can be traced back to a series of edicts issued by the Vatican from 1452 until 1508. 

In 1452, the Pope authorised Portugal to attack, conquer, and to subjugate Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ wherever they could be found. In 1508 it sanctioned the Spanish to do exactly the same.

The hard facts of history (we are not being anti-Catholic) tell us there was a determined drive into what Prince Henry the Navigator called the ‘Arab Sea’. The Pope’s keen interest was based on the Vatican wanting to retain its political grip on Europe. The Pope, the ‘supreme leader’, was being seriously challenged by Protestant breakaways and the Ottoman Empire.

What I have briefly described here provides us with the early historical context of our eventual South African experience. Southeast Asia, India, North America, South America, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East and Africa would be all subjected to European expansionism.  

To this effect, the Portuguese reached the Cape in 1488. The Portuguese met Khoi resistance and wisely stayed away, but the Dutch East India Company landed in 1652 to use the Cape as a replenishment station for its fleets.

The Dutch might have been Calvinist and anti-Catholic, but they did, however, share the same cultural chauvinism as the Catholic conquistadors. The British took over from the Dutch at the Cape in 1806.

Out of this – and I am simplifying things greatly – arose a group of discontented Dutch settlers. They spoke a form of Dutch borrowed from the streets called Afrikaans. The British presence at the Cape made the Dutch settlers feel marginalised. This would spark the Great Trek of the 1830s.

As a result, large ox-wagon trains pushed into the South African hinterland in an exodus said to have Biblical proportions. The reality was land seizure and bloody conflict with local houses such as the amaXhosa, the amaTshatshu, the amaPondo and the amaZulu. In South Africa, like Palestine, there was no land without a people for a people without a land. Nonetheless, this did not prevent the Afrikaners from establishing Boer Republics in the Free State and Transvaal.

Afrikaner as a 'chosen people'

Stephen du Toit, a founding member of the secret Afrikaner Broederbond, penned the idea in the Afrikaner Patriot of 1876 that the Afrikaner was a distinct nation – or ‘volk’. It had a fatherland, South Africa, and its own language, Afrikaans. The Afrikaner was a chosen people. The destiny of the volk, he said, was to rule South Africa.

The Boer republics lived peaceably alongside the British until 1867 and the disruptive discovery of diamonds and gold. The first Boer War was waged in the Transvaal Republic in 1880, and the second nation-wide one from 1899 to 1902. It saw the Afrikaner crushed by the ‘scorched earth’ policies of Earl Kitchener, who razed Boer properties to the ground and established ‘concentration camps’ for surviving women and children.

Some 25,000 men were exiled to St Helena island, and over 25,000 (mainly children) would perish in the South African camps. Up to 100,000 blacks would also be interned, with an equally alarming number of fatalities. Time, unfortunately, does not allow us to explore this aspect of our history further.

As evidenced, the Afrikaners suffered deeply, experiencing great poverty after the war. But the dream of the volk did not die. The atrocities of the Boer War gave Afrikaner Nationalism impetus, as did Hitler’s rule of anti-Jewish terror spur Nationalist Zionism, two neo-colonial projects that were both given life in 1948.

Barry Hertzog led the Afrikaner National Party in the 1915 and 1920 elections under the Trump-like slogan, ‘South Africa first’ – for which we have to read ‘white first’. In the 1924 elections, he defeated the South African Party led by General Jan Smuts.  

In 1934, the United Party was formed by a merger of Prime Minister Hertzog’s National Party with the South African Party of General Smuts. In 1939 things came to head when Hertzog refused to commit South Africa to Britain's war effort against Nazi Germany, and resigned.

In 1948, after the Second World War, the National Party wrested power again at the ballot box. It immediately embarked on an ‘Afrikanerisation’ process of economic empowerment. It saw the birth of the Reddingsdaad Fund and the creation of SANTAM and the Volkskas Bank, now known as ABSA.

In the meantime, there had been other developments – particularly in KwaZulu Natal. For between 1860 and 1911, over 150, 000 contracted labourers from India had arrived in Natal to work in the cane fields, this after the local peoples had proved resistant to the idea.

No context given

I feel that there has been insufficient interrogation as to why these Indian labourers would be prepared to work in a distant land. It baffles me that no context has ever been given as to why Indian workers would actually agree to come to South Africa.

British economist, Angus Maddison, tells us that in the early 1700s India had been the richest country on earth, providing 27 per cent of global income (compared to Europe’s 23 per cent). After colonialism, this percentage slipped to three per cent. From being one of the richest countries, India went to being one of the poorest.

What hit India hardest during the Raj era of ‘state capture’ was a series of famines. In 1769, the Bengal famine wiped out 10 million, one-third of its population. The Chalisa famine of 1782, which affected the regions of Punjab, Delhi and Kashmir, experienced 11 million fatalities.

In 1792, the Madras, or ‘Skull’ famine, wiped out 11 million in Gujerat and Hyderabad. The Agra famine of 1837 decimated nearly a million, and the Eastern Rajputana one in 1860, two million.

What these human tragedies tell us is that by the time Indian labourers set sail for Durban, already over 33 million of their countrymen had perished – a social catastrophe bigger in scale than the current Syrian, Rohingyan, Uighur or Yemeni crises. These famines would wipe out nearly 20 per cent of the total population, with famines in India resulting in more than 60 million deaths up until the early 20th century.

So I believe the migration to South Africa by the Indian community came on the back of man-induced famine. Ironically, this was not caused by a shortage of food, but by racial arrogance and bad governance.

Florence Nightingale and Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, assert that the famines in the British era were due to the undemocratic nature of the Empire, and its inability, or unwillingness, to provide infrastructure to transport food.

White resentment

But things would be challenging in South Africa too. Growing white resentment at Indian presence and economic activity, something that had begun as early as 1885, resulted in the passing of the Asiatic Land Tenure Act of 1946. Indians had not been affected by the 1913 Land Act, which had restricted black South African land ownership, and destroyed its middle class.

The Asiatic Land Tenure Act denied the right to purchase property in areas controlled by whites. Furthermore, Indians were only allowed to lease land in these controlled areas for trading purposes. The act, as we all know, came to be called the ‘Ghetto Act’, a precursor to its bigger brother, the Group Areas Act.

The Group Areas Act was promulgated on 9 July 1950 and it became the geographical driver of apartheid. It divided up cities and towns into racially segregated suburbs and townships. Places such as Sophiatown, Cato Manor and District Six became icons of community memory.

It is difficult to know exactly how many South Africans were affected by forced removals. Some estimated figures are three to four million, but these numbers can never measure the amount of suffering, psychological trauma and social devastation that went with it – and still haunts us today in the violence and anger we see in poorer areas.  


And of course, we cannot forget the Bantustans. They were legislated in 1951. Bantustans saw over 80% of the population confined to 13% of the land. The Group Areas Act became a writhing Medusa’s head, an ‘Afro’ of hissing legal snakes. From 1952 to 1984 the Act was changed, or amended, a staggering 18 times.

A paper delivered by GM Naicker at the Natal Indian Congress of 1956 provides us with salient details of forced removals in Durban. Indians were to be dispossessed of 4,608 acres of land and 3,873 dwellings. Nearly 58,000 Indians and 81,000 Africans would be affected in urban areas, and 7,000 outside the city.

Briardene, Prospect Hall and Riverside are also mentioned in the paper. 6,000 Indians and 5,000 blacks had to be moved off 480 acres and out of 400 dwellings.

The heart-breaking news that Riverside, like so many established communities, would have to move would have been shattering. I struggle to find words to describe it. The image of the Moghul-style gateway to Riverside lying in ruins is a hugely poignant image. To lose your home is the most devastating blow any human can suffer. I remember my first visit to Riverside being tinged with a sadness that seemed to rise up from the soil.

The Riverside gateway. Bulldozed in 1968. Resurrected in 2010 with some of its original pieces.
I can only imagine the hard work that must have gone into preserving the memory of Sufi Saheb during those troubled years, when we had a government that wanted to bulldoze our very souls into the ground. Our prayers are with all those who never allowed the legacy of a great man to be forgotten.

Finally, I want to take us to modern times, the era of instant material gratification, social media bigotry, Facebook racism, religious extremism, fake news, massive geo-political upheaval and widespread economic stress.

Indeed, things may look bad, but there is still a lot to look forward to. My Shaykh, the late Sayyid Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki, once told us – that despite the bad things in the world – there were good things too. We are not a people of pessimism, he would always say. We are a people of hope. I know that Sufi Saheb would agree with this.

As a Muslim community in South Africa, I feel that we have a glass that is half full, as opposed to being half empty. Firstly, take a look around you. We were not in Bosnia’s killing fields during the 90s. We are not in genocidal Burma. We are not in a Uighur camp. We are not in Gaza, Syria, Yemen or Libya. Nor are we fighting terrorist stereotypes in the right-wing democracies of US and Europe.

Today we are free to have a social function here today. I am free to give a speech. The imam is free to pray. Nobody will shoot us, teargas us or ask us to disperse.

We enjoy more freedom and more recognition than any other community 

I have travelled in the Muslim world, as well as to some of these democracies. I can assure you that in South Africa – as 4% of the national population – we enjoy more freedom and more constitutional recognition than any other community I know. But there is a price we have to pay. It is called active citizenship.

The late Maulana Igshan Hendricks, former head of the Cape Muslim Judicial Council, was a great believer in what he called the ‘fiqh of citizenship’, the relation of a Muslim to a non-Muslim state. Ebrahim Rasool, former US ambassador, has spoken about us living in a ‘Dar ul-Shahadah’, a place where we can practice our faith without interference.

Their views are supported by the famous Mardin Fatwa of the 13th century scholar, Ibn Taimiyya, which fully condones the principle of Muslim minorities living under friendly rulers.

However, our freedoms are granted to us on the condition that we honour them. It means we have to respect other beliefs and dignify other races. We have to keep our public leaders accountable. We have to look after the poor. We have to house the homeless. These are all things that apartheid, and the Group Areas Act, tried to take away from us: our humanity, our tolerance and our freedom to think.

In fact, the maqasid – the purposes of the Shari’ah – show us exactly how to be citizens. Shari’ah, or Sacred Law, was never instituted to punish people (which so many mistakenly believe), but rather – as Imam Jawzi and so many others have said – as a relief, or a mercy. For that reason, the maqasid are: the sanctity of life, the sanctity of faith, the sanctity of family, the sanctity of wealth, the sanctity of the intellect and the sanctity of the human character.   

This is Shari’ah, this is citizenship – not the cutting of limbs, the burning of mosques, the bombing of shopping centres, or calling others kafir and demeaning other peoples because they are different to us.

What we have to understand is that in South Africa, democracy is not the end point, or the end game. It the mere starting point on a continuum of human growth, economic 
empowerment and education. It is understanding our diversity as a strength. It is not being divided and ruled. It is creating a society underpinned by inclusivity. For it to succeed, South African democracy has to be a work in progress. We need to understand that.

Ghettoised identities

To guarantee our freedoms, we have to move away from our ghettoised identities, for they were imposed upon us by colonial and apartheid masters – we did not choose them. We did not choose to be called Malay, Indian, Coloured, white or black. South Africa is the very place where we shouldn’t have to indulge in this crude minority or majority discourse.

What I mean by this is that we are South Africans, first and foremost – black or white, Jew, Hindu, Christian or Muslim. We are able to say that we are South Africans first because we have a Constitution that guarantees our identity. We do not share the insecurities of other communities around the globe. Therefore, we do not need our sectarian identities to define us.

I believe that Hazrat Badsha Peer – who spread faith to those in the street – and Sufi Saheb – who built institutions – would agree with us today, 50 years after the horrors of the Group Areas Act at Riverside. These were men, great Sufis, who did not see the straightness of our hair, the colour of our skin or our social position. These were men more concerned about the state of our hearts. And their love for us all was an unconditional love.

I think love is a good departure point, because it was love that apartheid tried to deny us. We are all from Adam [as], and his prophetic light has passed through the DNA of all humanity to the Prophet Muhammad [SAW], a mercy to all peoples and to all things. For as the distinguished Andalusian Sufi, Ibn al-‘Arabi, has said:

 My heart is open to every form: it is a pasture for the gazelles, and
             a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Ka’bah of the
             pilgrim, the tables of the Torah, and the books of the Qur’an. I practice
the religion of Love; in whatsoever direction His caravans advance, the
religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith.

The graves of Sufi Saheb and his beloved mother.
The maqam, or burial place of Sufi Saheb, Durban, South Africa.

Riverside today.

All photos © Shafiq Morton 2018.

Review: remembering Allah, but being told not to

IT is a damning indictment on the state of things when Shaykh Yusuf da Costa notes in his introduction to The Remembrance of Allah Almighty, a translation of Imam al-Mundhiri’s work on the subject, that dhikr has become a dying tradition due to Wahhabi acolytes in our midst condemning congregational dhikrs.

His view is more than anecdotal. For his observation is based on outreach into South Africa’s cities and towns over the last decade. This gutting of communal tradition has toxic side-effects, like the lure of drugs and gangsterism – and as in the apparent case of Verulam – homage to the Islamic State.

In this work, which has a useful commentary by Mustapha Muhammad Amarah, the reader is shown the textual proofs for the value of remembering Allah, as well of some of the more celebrated dhikrs themselves.

Imam al-Hafiz ‘Abd al-‘Alim al-Mundhiri was a 12th century master of Prophetic tradition. This makes The Remembrance of Allah Almighty a weighty contribution, now accessible in English.

It is a soothing read – and a highly recommended text for our local imams – that offers us cool waters of hope and consolation. From its first pages, we are presented various traditions on the merits of dhikr, directly from the lips of the Prophet [SAW]. Ibn Mundhiri, for example, quotes Ibn Jabir reporting that the Prophet [SAW] had once said:

“A human being does not commit a deed that could save him more from punishment than the remembrance of Allah Almighty.” It was asked (by the Companions): “Not even fighting in the way of Allah?” To which the Prophet [SAW] replied: “Not fighting in the way of Allah, even if one hits with one’s sword until it breaks up.”

After establishing the merits of dhikr, the author takes us to the tahlil, ‘la ilaha illallah’ (there is no God except Allah), a simple proclamation easy to recite, but loaded with reward and benefit. Ibn Mundhiri quotes an overwhelming amount of sources on this subject, but a Hadith concerning the Prophet Nuh [as] stands out.

According the Prophet [SAW], Nabi Nuh had told his sons to recite the tahlil, saying that its utterance (with sincerity) would have massive import, so much so that if it were to be placed on the scale of the heavens and the earth, it would outweigh them. Further traditions talk of the tahlil providing relief, and the promise of Paradise.

The author also introduces the reader to various dhikrs – all known to us – that are recommended to be recited at certain times of the day. What stands out in the text is that Ibn Mundhiri does not overload us with long works. Every brief dhikr that he recommends finds an equivalent in validated sources.

For example, the author spends some time elucidating on the merits of simply reciting ‘la hawla wala quwwata illah billah’ (there is no Power except from Allah). We are told, via tradition, that it is the door, the treasure – and in one case –one of the trees of Paradise.
“(Create) the vegetation of Paradise for its water is sweet and its soil is rich, so create many of its plants,” the Prophet [SAW] tells his Companions about the qualities of ‘la hawla wala quwwata illah billah’.

Ibn Mundhiri elucidates the merits of the istighfar, the process of humbling oneself and asking for forgiveness. Again, his treatment of the topic is accessible, understandable and clearly set out. In the commentary, we are informed that istighfar is an ointment; it stops Iblis in his tracks, it offers solace, and it removes the rust of the heart.

Ibn Mundhiri provides plenty Qur’anic evidence of the blessings of dhikr, and some of its rewarding characteristics. For instance, he quotes the verse from Surah Talaq: “For those who fear Allah, He prepares a way out, and He provides for him from (sources) he never could imagine…”

This verse was revealed after one of the Companion’s sons, ‘Awf, had been captured and the Prophet [SAW] had told him to recite ‘la hawla wala quwwata illah billah’. The revelation had come after ‘Awf had been able to free himself and escape with a herd of camels.

The book concludes with a section featuring the futuwwa of numerous scholars endorsing the act of communal dhikr, as well as the performing of dhikr aloud in congregation. The proofs in support of it are overwhelming, from all schools of thought and all persuasions.

The book concludes with a section by Shaykh Gibril Haddad, which explains the permissibility of uttering the word ‘Allah’ on its own, something criticised by the reductionists as bid’ah. His final words, which conclude the translation of Ibn Mundhiri’s work, are symptomatic of exactly why The Remembrance of Allah Almighty has been presented to us:

“The time of Al-Qiyamah (the Last Days) is approaching now. Hundreds of signs have appeared and one of them is that people leave the glorification of God. And sufferings rain down upon them. Then they ask for treatment by drugs. All illnesses go away by glorifying the Lord. Through your love for the Lord you will reach health, pleasure and happiness, here and hereafter.”

The Remembrance of Allah Almighty is a welcome and timely addition to our literature of understanding Allah, and is a must for your bookshelf.

Available at Timbuktu Bookshops,Cape Town. 
Or call 27-74-859854

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Once upon a pot...

This is a small daisy, flowers all year, but enjoys Spring. Up close a feast of colour and subtlety.

NATURE, which is a cyclical process of being and essentiality, has an astonishing way of doing her thing. Bountiful rains this winter in Cape Town have nourished, and replenished, the drought-dry soil. But what is interesting here is that all these pictured plants grow in pots. They endure sizzling heat in January, gaspingly hot gale-force winds in February and the challenges of water restrictions in March - and yet, against all odds, they survive. And when one bends close to these plants, and listens, and looks, an amazing micro-world of purpose emerges. Each species is intent on reproduction, growth and sustenance. And each species has its own unique way of doing things, from dazzling colours, hooked stamens laden with pollen, to hairy stems preventing insects from climbing on them to reach fruit. 

A forest of scented lavender.
Flowers hardly bigger than a human thumb put out signals for bees.

Geranium. Tough and hardy, but in blushing colour.

The humble nettle. Let if flower and see its beauty, hooked stamens waiting to embrace pollinating insects.

Cherry tomato vine. Hairy stems telling caterpillars to buzz off.

A spiky succulent putting out a  tender Spring message.

Perfumed jasmine after a shower.

Birds hover, waiting to catch unwwary insects.

Hibiscus after rain.

Edible nasturtiums with a seductive blossom.

Geranium flower head, ready to explode.

Sweet mint.

Spring is a season of extraordinary growth.

© Shafiq Morton 2018

Monday, July 23, 2018

Supporting BRICS, the only way to economic progress

In a world fast being polarised by rich-poor divides and Trumpism, South Africa hosts the 11th BRICS summit at a critical juncture in our history

A SUFI sage once proclaimed that Creation was perfect, but man wasn’t. The world of people, he said, was not faultless. The earth was not created that way. If peace treaties were made only between friends, our enemies would devour us. If we were flawless in character, we would not need friends.

However, he added, our challenge was to reach out. We had to make a difference where we could, appreciating that we were as imperfect as the next person, and needed to work on our own souls; this all before we criticise others.

Nelson Mandela – a true world statesman imbued with the wisdom of suffering – profoundly realised the above. When ‘instructed’ by western interests to spurn the company of people such as Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro after 1990, he replied that he would not abandon his friends, those who had helped the anti-apartheid struggle in its greatest hours of need.

In some quarters, pragmatism is called realpolitik, traditionally defined as ‘a system of politics based on practical, rather than moral considerations’. However, in the case of Madiba, realpolitik became practical politics based on moral principles, whilst fully understanding the existing realities.

BRICS, a body consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and representing the rump of the developing world – is such a case in point. Each country’s politics may raise questions, depending on one’s view, but the over-arching principles of BRICS are far greater in import than localised issues.

The stated goals of BRICS – the promotion of technological information, the primacy of education, economic co-operation, the closing of the gap between developing and developed nations, climate change and the establishment of a development bank – are all vital issues for over one-third of the world’s poorest populations.

To understand BRICS, we have to contextualise its founding rationale. It was born on the fringes of the G8 Outreach Summit in 2006, where disappointment was expressed at its failure to rectify its economic model for managing the global economy, especially in the light of its lack of success in significantly closing the poverty gap.

A child of the 1970s during the neo-conservative Reagan and Thatcher years – especially after US President Nixon had de-linked the dollar from its gold standard – it was felt that the G8 had failed to satisfactorily address pressing global economic issues. The summits had begun to attract thousands of anti-globalisation protestors, who felt the system had failed them.

The first BRIC summit was held in Russia in June 2009, with South Africa invited to make up a vital African component in 2011. South Africa would host the fifth BRICS summit in Durban in 2013. Interestingly, South Africa was invited to BRIC – not because we would complete the most convenient acronym  ‘BRICS’ as The Economist once chauvinistically suggested – but because at that time South Africa had the continent’s biggest economy.

The term ‘BRIC’ was originally coined by Goldman Sachs in 2001 after a study on the global economy concluded that China and India would eclipse the Euro zone and the US in terms of economic power by 2050. Today BRICS represents 20 per cent of the world’s GDP in a growth area serving 40 per cent of the world’s population.

Themed as ‘BRICS in Africa: Collaboration for Inclusive Growth and Shared Prosperity in the 4th Industrial Revolution’, BRICS members meeting in South Africa will be reflecting on issues such as the global order, inclusiveness, trade and the New Development Bank, a BRICS initiative to break the fetters of the IMF and the World Bank, particularly resented in the developing world for their crippling interest rates and unsympathetic pre-loan conditions.

The 11th BRICS summit will also be a golden opportunity for President Cyril Ramaphosa to map out the country’s vision, especially after the moribund and unproductive Zuma years, and to draw Africa closer to BRICS and long-term infrastructural development for our marginalised communities.

To say that this will be a critical summit is something of an understatement. For lurking in the political background is the phenomenon of Trumpism and Euro-zone right wing-ism – the lawless triumphalism of corporate business marginalising the poor; this seen in a cavalier disregard for global warming and gross militaristic misconstructions of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

Like any multi-state body, BRICS may certainly not be without its own inner tensions, but its overall long-term vision in galvanising the developing forces of the world cannot ever be underestimated.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Cape Town’s water crisis: we are not alone

Photo Shafiq Morton
THIS piece is not about the blame game, triggered by the ‘worst drought in living memory’. Nor is it about the arrogance and the rank incompetence of our city authorities, who only woke up when they realised that they would be the first administration in the world to run out of water.
No, this is not about the DA and its cloying attempts to shift the blame, and nor is it about the ANC, intent on scoring points against the DA. Locked into five-year election cycles that have ignored long term planning, our political parties have simply dropped the ball.
The point is; water affects every South African citizen. We are a water-stressed country, and water has to transcend party differences.
Today’s status quo – the city of Cape Town unilaterally installing water restriction devices that have never passed SABS or NRCS muster – is the equivalent of a chain store blaming its customers for its poor service, and then forcing them to purchase inferior goods as a result. It is no wonder that the public is angry. 
Bureaucratically, Big Brother now fully controls our water, and we are now captive to the big business of water reticulation. Then there is the fact that plans to heighten dam walls, clean alien vegetation and maintain channels in the catchment areas were either never done, or simply neglected.
The great shame, the why of the water crisis, is that government and council have ignored a host of water experts – sometimes even their own – for decades. In fact, the first caution about water in the Western Cape was issued in 1970. The second warning, the result of research in 1990, said that we could run dry by 2007.
In 2005, a local company, Grahamtec, offered to install a R2 million desalination plant at the V & A Waterfront at its own expense to showcase the cost effectiveness of desalination. The city turned it down.
Since then, South African manufacturers have struggled to get local tenders, despite the fact that their plants have been installed internationally in places such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia, and successfully helped to wean Singapore off the Malaysian grid.
Then there has been the whiff of corruption: suspensions at the state owned Umgeni Water. Our own desalination plants re-labelled overseas and offered back to us at four times the price. Israeli desalination technology, copied from South Africa, being considered the cure all – from so-called water experts, who have exhausted the West Bank aquifer, pirated Syrian water from the occupied Golan Heights, nearly drained  the Dead Sea – and who have covered the land with alien, water guzzling pines. 
But back to the why of the water crisis. In 2007, water researchers issued another warning; this time saying that if current demand continued, Cape Town would run dry by 2012-15. Michael Muller of the SA Water Institute reported that the council was ‘arrogant and over confident’, saying that our water would last until 2022.
To its credit, the city did institute some measures of saving. But as we all know, that was not enough to get through our latest drought cycle – which began in 2015, largely due to the El Nino phenomenon, a change in the surface temperature of the Pacific.
The earth’s ocean currents and weather systems are all inter-linked, and El Nino – or its effeminate twin La Nina – shifts the trajectory of frontal systems, causing droughts in some regions and flooding in others.
For countries such as Australia, Brazil, India, Spain, South Africa and the US, the complex El Nino/La Nina effect has meant drought. For other regions of Asia and the Caribbean, it has meant torrential rainfall and high-strength cyclones.
The harsh reality is that parts of Asia, the Americas, Australia and Africa are all severely water-stressed. In Brazil, over 800 metropolitan areas have become water-stressed; Perth and Melbourne in Australia face similar challenges, and Barcelona – not unlike Cape Town – went to the brink.
This is all happening on a planet – which is covered 70% by water – but where only three per cent is potable, and of that, another 50% is locked up in glaciers.
As a surfer who has monitored the weather keenly for five decades, and who as a radio presenter has done a daily weather report for 20 years, I can safely say that our climate is slowly changing over the long term.
Whilst our cycles of dry and wet years have more or less remained consistent within the limited bands of predictability, there have been shifts. For example, kelp – a cold-water organism – has encroached further into False Bay due to fewer westerly winds, which warm the sea after the cold upwelling of the southeaster.
Our weather systems – admixed with the side effects of global warming – often result in more extreme frontal incidences, such as the Peninsula’s near-cyclone of June last year and the hurricanes of the Gulf.
However, at the end of the day, water crises are rarely a matter of rainfall, but more a case of bad human management. In this, we are certainly not alone. For us to survive, there is a need for a more a more holistic understanding, and environmentally sensitive approach, to water catchment. People should not be punished, as in Cape Town, for going off the grid.
However, whatever happens, our precious water resources must not fall into the hands of greedy privateers, which occurred in California. It is the duty of the state to provide water for us all – without discriminating against the poor, for whom the bucket queues of Day Zero are already a daily occurrence.

An edited version was first published in Muslim Views.