“Cape Town, Day Zero: Religion, Class, Theory”
Water in Africa—Transnational and Interdisciplinary Approaches
Conversations Across the Creek, Humanities Research Centre / Research School of Chemistry,
Australian National University, 10.05.2019
Between 2014 and 2018 I was spending roughly three months of the year in South Africa,
mostly in Cape Town, studying religion, culture and class, as a postdoctoral research fellow at
the University of Helsinki, and taking an eclectic approach to ethnographic research, drawing
a great deal on South African literature, music, and other forms of popular culture. When I
began this research in 2014, there were major concerns with power shortages, a problem which
has resumed this year. However, in 2017 and 2018, the concern in Cape Town was water
shortages, amidst drought.
Cape Town’s water crisis touched on three aspects of my research. Religion, class, and social
In Cape Town last winter, all the talk was about “Day Zero” when the council would shut off
the pipes, and water would be distributed at various public standpipes around the city, possibly
under military protection. Day Zero never in fact arrived, and there is now debate about whether
it was a genuine possibility, or merely a ploy by the city to coerce and shame the population
into changing its behaviour—either way, it must be said, the “ploy” worked very well.
* * *
It was also interesting to approach research in South Africa at this time, as an Australian
sociologist of religion, interested in hyperdiversity—Cape Town not only has significant
cultural diversity, but radical class inequality, too. In contrasts to more traditional
“Africanists,” South Africa was a sister settler colony to me. I often provoked shock in the
context of power and water shortages when I explained that both were relatively common in
Melbourne, where I grew up. Not that deeper questions of governance or deprivation are
comparable, but in everyday experience, power would fail in summer, and my grandmother’s
rose garden and hydrangeas looked shamefully and suspiciously lush amidst mandatory water
restrictions. Australia, in the view of many white South Africans, is simply not supposed to be
In Zakes Mda’s (2000) novel Heart of Redness, about the tension between tradition and
capitalist development in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, Dalton, a white, English-
speaking South African character, is mocked by some fellow white expatriates for staying in
South Africa. The expatriates argue that only the Afrikaners are staying—these families have
often been in South Africa so long that any hope of getting a European passport has vanished,
the only noticeable point of frustration between “English” and “Afrikaans” white youths I
encountered—and even some of them are going off to a separatist Afrikaner commune called
Orania, Dalton’s opponents explained.
“You are not aware that you yourselves have a homeland mentality,” Dalton tells them. “Your
homelands are in Australia and New Zealand. That is why you emigrate in droves to those
countries where you can spend a blissful life without blacks, with people of your culture and
your language, just like the Orania Afrikaners.”
This view of Australia as an English-speaking Orania has some rhetorical force, but those who
stay in South Africa make use of their resources, if they can, to turn to the private sector: private
education, health, and security, roof-top solar panels or a generator; and during the water crisis
some drilled boreholes in their gardens. This has a deeper political logic, as some white South
Africans have retreated from a public sphere they are no longer capable of dominating—
politically or culturally. High culture and low culture increasingly reflect the concerns of the
key consumer demographic—the black middle class. I discovered this looking at church music,
and also opera in South Africa, but it is also evident from watching television—commercials
for funeral insurance dominated coverage of last year’s World Cup—and reading the “quality”
national newspapers Business Day and the Mail & Guardian, observing debate over issues such
as Shakespeare in the school curriculum.
This question of the role of white South Africans in the public sphere has been given a
controversial ethical spin; the philosopher Samantha Vice (2010) published an essay titled
“How Do I Live in This Strange Place?” The title seems to come from an Afrikaans reggae
song, which serves as the epigraph for Rian Malan’s (1991) journalist study of late apartheid
South Africa, My Traitor’s Heart. She argued that whites are incapable of making a positive
contribution to society, because of the distorted privilege out of which their thoughts and acts
emerge. She advocated, instead, “a private project of self-improvement” based on “humility
and silence”—and disappearing from the public sphere; “blacks must be left to remake the
country in their own way,” she insisted.
* * *
In addition to anxieties around racial inequality, the Cape Town water crisis raised concerns
about governance, even though the Western Cape province is reasonably regarded as better
governed than much of the rest of the country. In his book Fire Pool: Adventures in an
Abnormal World—an “abnormal world” presumably what comes after Malan and Vice’s
“strange place,” still a ways away from the ambition of Cape Town to be a “normal city” with
apartheid division and post-apartheid dysfunction overcome (van Onselen 2015)—the literary
scholar Hedley Twidle (2017) noted the symbolism of water amidst widespread outrage at the
corrupt practices of former South African President Jacob Zuma:
“I Walked through Cape Town ahead of the Sate of the Nation address
… water cannons waiting in the alleys. … A press photograph taken at
the President’s Nklandla homestead in [rural] KwaZulu-Natal. A tear-
shaped pool out of which firemen are pumping water, which is then
hosed at great pressure—back into the pool.
… to convince the South African public that what looks like a
swimming pool is in fact a ‘fire pool’...” (ibid.)
Zuma is widely believed to be a major cog in a vast patronage network that includes many so-
called “black diamonds,” named for their wealth and rarity, who have prospered along with
ANC politicians from a corrupt process labelled “state capture”—in effect, networks of corrupt
individuals, manipulating government and not just advocating, but even legislating for their
own commercial interests. This is one way to approach the crisis: through a lens of public
morality in which the corruption of elites undermines all aspects of public life and policy.
Cape Town’s water crisis could also be approached from a sociological perspective through
theory of the risk society. As Ulrich Beck (1999) explains, the “question is how to take
decisions under the conditions of manufactured uncertainty, where not only is the knowledge
base incomplete, but more and better knowledge often means more uncertainty.” Climate
change has made the Cape’s weather patterns increasingly unpredictable, for example. The
Cape Town city council had to deal with competing demands and make the precise kind of
decision that sociological risk theory is founded upon: to build desalinization plants, in case a
supposedly once-in-a-century drought occurs, or expand infrastructure to poor communities
relying on water standpipes. Either way, they enrage the rich or the poor.
Slavoj Žižek’s (2000a) critique of risk society theory describes its knowledge-less regimes of
“choice” as characterised by an “anxiety-provoking obscene gamble.” There’s something of
the religious in this; it is like a version of Pascal’s wager—you must make decision you have
no knowledge of the consequences of, and you may already have made the decision that will
damn you, Žižek argues.
Beck (1999) argued that the “exposure of scientific uncertainty” can liberate the public sphere
from technocratic expertise. “The public acknowledgement of uncertainty opens the space for
democratization,” he hoped, allowing democratic politics to fill the gap created by the
uncertainty of experts. But I think we saw the opposite of that in Cape Town; citizens being
possibly manipulated by government, manipulating expert knowledge, even if it was for a
laudable cause. Those duped include Cape Town’s best rapper, Youngsta, who was hired to go
out to schools and perform freestyle raps about water saving, bizarrely tuning up in a mini-
documentary film produced for the Financial Times, complaining that it is the year 2018 and
we should have flying cars by now (Riddell 2018). The City promoted a united civic identity,
but this arguably disavowed the reality that, for the poor, nothing would change if private taps
were shut off.
I was reminded of an old essay of Louis Althusser’s (1946/1997), “The International of Decent
Feelings,” that argued against the idea of the equality of humanity—a proletariat of terror, equal
in its existential angst—under the threat of war and nuclear apocalypse. The old antagonisms
are still there, he insisted, and so are political alternatives. Žižek (2000a) similarly criticizes
Beck’s idea of risk society and democratization as an example of “strategies with subjects.”
* * *
The water crisis also touched on religion. South Africa experiences what the Australian
anthropologist Adam Ashforth (1998) refers to as “spiritual insecurity”; there are a plurality of
explanations for the excessive suffering in life, but no single register has achieved “common
sense” hegemony of meaning. The South African anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff
(2000, etc.) noted in a series of essays around the turn of the millennium that new registers
were gaining prominence worldwide in accounting for status and success—often religious
My research was focused on middle class churches in South Africa, both conservative and often
Pentecostal churches, but also progressive churches. A progressive Methodist Minister was
prescient or prophetic about the situation which resulted, promoting water-saving activities
years before the city mandated them, and making me think twice about flushing the toilet, even
to this day, living in Canberra. It was progressive and pragmatic; different from the middle
class Pentecostals who were strongly apocalyptic in the late apartheid era, but now are dealing
with the anxieties of comfort. One Pentecostal musician described this to me as the “over-
realized eschatology” his co-religionists are wont to suffer from; a symptom of this newfound
The not unreasonable or at all imprudent progressive Protestant fear is a secular apocalypse in
an emerging culture of pure anomie—morally rootless and materially off the hook. Nihilistic at
worst, or a Bakhtinian carnival at best, it would be predicated on a festival of looting and the
pleasure of lawlessness—something underestimated in most political analysis, but noted by
Žižek (2000b) in explaining the popularity of Milosevic in cultivating a public culture of
“apathy and obscenity.” “He gave us the right to drive stolen cars,” he quotes Milosevic’s
former Information Minister (ibid.).
Conversely, I was told by several taxi-drivers that the drought was God’s punishment for the
city’s sins. Research on black South African Pentecostals by Peter Berger and colleagues (CDE
2008), uncovered a “punitive morality” largely lacking in Christian charity. The report argued
that “with the exception of encapsulated rich liberals and ideological socialists, Christians feel
somewhat besieged by the pathologies in our social fabric and that this hardens them against
the needs around them” (ibid.) But it seems to me, that over the years, South Africans have
proven—time and again—that they can do a much more inventive job of punishing themselves
than God ever could.
The most severe punishment is not drought, in any case, but flood, to wipe the wicked from the
face of the earth. The wicked might even be obliging enough help things along. There was a
story published in the Johannesburg Review of Books last year; “The Day the White People
Walked into the Sea” by Stacy Hardy (2018), one possible answer to Samantha Vice’s (2010)
question, “How Do I Live in This Strange Place?” Such is the nature of racial politics in that
strange place, I still don’t know if the story is satire or not. “I knew when the coldness would
hit; just past the surf line where the shallow water mixes with water from the heart of the ocean
and the brutal surf that lays ahead of that. More of us began to paddle out” (ibid.).
My time in South Africa produced a book, in part, about the surprisingly thriving field of
evangelical surfing missionaries (Abraham 2017); and I could picture these cheerful folk up at
dawn to catch the best waves—or to commit autogenocide.
“I pictured the beach in the morning littered with corpses,” the story continues, “like tiny
whales, beached and bloated. A spectacle of the dead, spat back, as if even the sea rejected us”
(Hardy 2018). In the end, it is only pet dogs who miss the white folks, slowly starving in
suburbia with no one to give them food or water.
Abraham, I. (2017) Evangelical Youth Culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Althusser, L. (1946/1997) “The International of Decent Feelings,” in F. Matheron (ed.) The
Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings. London: Verso.
Ashforth, A. (1998) “Reflections on Spiritual Insecurity in a Modern African City (Soweto).”
African Studies Review 41 (3): 39-67.
Beck, U. (1999) World Risk Society. Cambridge: Polity.
Centre for Development and Enterprise (2008) Dormant Capital: Pentecostalism in South
Africa and its Potential Social and Economic Role. Johannesburg: CDE.
Comaroff, J & J. (2000) “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming.” Public
Culture 12(2): 291-343.
Hardy, S. (2018) “The Day the White People Walked into the Sea.” Johannesburg Review of
Books, 5 February.
Malan, R. (1991) My Traitor’s Heart. London: Vintage.
Mda, Z. (2000) Heart of Redness. Cape Town: Oxford UP.
Riddell. J. (2018) “Cape Town: Life without Water.” Financial Times, 16 May.
Twidle, H. (2017) Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World. Cape Town: Kwela.
Van Onselen, G. (2015) “Cape Town: Another Universe.” Business Day, 10 June.
Vice, S. (2010) “How Do I Live in This Strange Place?” Journal of Social Philosophy 41(3):
Žižek, S. (2000a) The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London:
Žižek, S. (2000b) “Why We All Love to Hate Haider.” New Left Review (2nd Series) 2: 37-45.