Could South Africa’s Drought Help Deconstruct the Divisions of Apartheid?

Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

Lately, we read a lot about the wealthy one percent building bunkers and buying land to insulate themselves from future natural disasters. But natural disasters can also level people in different socio-economic classes, because when you’re clawing your way out of rubble after an earthquake or scavenging for food, it doesn’t matter if your Bill Gates or Bill from around the way.

For the Huffpost’s Highline, Eve Fairbanks takes us to drought-stricken Cape Town, South Africa, where the white elite and residents of poor townships have taken austerity measures: washing dishes in recycled water; letting bodies go unshowered; even leaving turds in the bowl to reduce the number of flushes. Fairbanks talks with government officials, visits a spring and stays in a friend’s water-wise apartment to make sense of the drought’s effects. One surprising effect: By undermining the ability to have a pool, a long shower, a vast decorative yard, and deconstructing what Fairbanks calls the “infrastructure of privilege,” the drought has forged alliances between many white and black Cape Town residents. What remains to be seen is whether this expanded Cape Town community will last once the drought ends.

After the coming of democracy, though, both rich and middle-class South Africans did build fortresses: high, spike-topped walls went up around houses. Many of these houses don’t even have a bell, discouraging unknown visitors. Instead, they display ominous plaques depicting a skull or the name of the security company the owners have paid to answer their panic buttons with teams wielding guns.

Spend even a little time with the wealthy or white, though, and you’ll understand how aware they are that such fortresses can’t—or even shouldn’t—hold. One friend of mine near Johannesburg mused to me recently that both he and his wife know “deep down” that white people in South Africa “got away with” hundreds of years of injustice. His wife almost never admits this, or reveals any ambivalence about their four-bedroom house and self-isolating lifestyle, for fear of making herself “a target for retribution”: In other words, that ceasing to defend the goodness and justice of the white lifestyle might legitimize crime against whites or the expropriation of their land. Privately, my friend suspects “the opposite”—that keeping mum and apart is what inflames black anger. His wife’s view generally wins out, as it seems the more prudent. But what if there were a nature-made excuse to tear down those walls and try out a different kind of life? Would it really be so bad?

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