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Cape Town, Day Zero: Religion, Class, Theory

Ibrahim Abraham
Cape Town, Day Zero: Religion, Class, Theory
Water in AfricaTransnational 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 behavioureither 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 hyperdiversityCape 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
like this.
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 stayingthese 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
encounteredand even some of them are going off to a separatist Afrikaner commune called
Orania, Daltons 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 demographicthe black middle class. I discovered this looking at church music,
and also opera in South Africa, but it is also evident from watching televisioncommercials
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 Malans (1991) journalist study of late apartheid
South Africa, My Traitors 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 Worldan abnormal world presumably what comes after Malan and Vices
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 pressureback 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 wageryou 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 angstunder 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 successoften 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 anomiemorally 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 lawlessnesssomething 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 Milosevics
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
proventime and againthat 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 wavesor 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 Traitors 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.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Public Culture 12.2 (2000) 291-343 Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes The global triumph of capitalism at the millennium, its Second Coming, raises a number of conundrums for our understanding of history at the end of the century. Some of its corollaries--"plagues of the 'new world order,'" Jacques Derrida (1994: 91) calls them, unable to resist apocalyptic imagery -- have been the subject of clamorous debate. Others receive less mention. Thus, for example, populist polemics have dwelt on the planetary conjuncture, for good or ill, of "homogenization and difference" (e.g., Barber 1992); on the simultaneous, synergistic spiraling of wealth and poverty; on the rise of a "new feudalism," a phoenix disfigured, of worldwide proportions (cf. Connelly and Kennedy 1994). For its part, scholarly debate has focused on the confounding effects of rampant liberalization: on whether it engenders truly global flows of capital or concentrates circulation to a few major sites (Hirst and Thompson 1996); on whether it undermines, sustains, or reinvents the sovereignty of nation-states (Sassen 1996); on whether it frees up, curbs, or compartmentalizes the movement of labor (Geschiere and Nyamnjoh, in this issue); on whether the current fixation with democracy, its resurrection in so many places, bespeaks a measure of mass empowerment or an "emptying out of [its] meaning," its reduction "to paper" (Negri 1999: 9; Comaroff and Comaroff 1997). Equally in question is why the present infatuation with civil society has been accompanied by alarming increases in civic strife, by an escalation of civil war, and by reports of the dramatic growth in many countries of domestic violence, rape, child abuse, prison populations, and most dramatically of all, criminal "phantom-states" (Derrida 1994: 83; Blaney and Pashsa 1993). And why, in a like vein, the politics of consumerism, human rights, and entitlement have been shown to coincide with puzzling new patterns of exclusion, patterns that inflect older lines of gender, sexuality, race, and class in ways both strange and familiar (Gal 1997; Yudice 1995). Ironies, here, all the way down; ironies, with apologies to Jean-Paul Sartre, in the very soul of the Millennial Age. Other features of our present predicament are less remarked, debated, questioned. Among them are the odd coupling, the binary complementarity, of the legalistic with the libertarian; constitutionality with deregulation; hyperrationalization with the exuberant spread of innovative occult practices and money magic, pyramid schemes and prosperity gospels; the enchantments, that is, of a decidedly neoliberal economy whose ever more inscrutable speculations seem to call up fresh specters in their wake. Note that, unlike others who have discussed the "new spectral reality" of that economy (Negri 1999: 9; Sprinker 1999), we do not talk here in metaphorical terms. We seek, instead, to draw attention to, to interrogate, the distinctly pragmatic qualities of the messianic, millennial capitalism of the moment: a capitalism that presents itself as a gospel of salvation; a capitalism that, if rightly harnessed, is invested with the capacity wholly to transform the universe of the marginalized and disempowered (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999b). Such interrogatory observations point to another, even more fundamental question. Could it be that these characteristics of millennial capitalism -- by which we mean both capitalism at the millennium and capitalism in its messianic, salvific, even magical manifestations -- are connected, by cause or correlation or copresence, with other, more mundane features of the contemporary historical moment? Like the increasing relevance of consumption, alike to citizens of the world and to its scholarly cadres, in shaping selfhood, society, identity, even epi-stemic reality? Like the concomitant eclipse of such modernist categories as social class? Like the "crises," widely observed across the globe, of reproduction and community, youth and masculinity? Like the burgeoning importance of generation, race, and gender as principles of difference, identity, and mobilization? The point of this essay lies in exploring the possibility of their interconnection; even more, in laying the ground of an argument for it. As this suggests, our intent in this special issue of Public Culture is to animate further debate on the enigmatic nature of millennial capitalism, and also on its implications for...
Cette communication commence par le récit d'un incident qui eut lieu en juillet, 1998 quand, dans un campement de fortune en dehors de Soweto, les gens furent avertis qu'un serpent géant connu sous le nom de Inkosi ya Manzi[Roi des eaux] était en colère et qu'il menaçait de détruire le campement. Notre but ici, c'est d'examiner des questions d'insécurité spirituelle dans un contexte de pauvreté criarde, de difficulté et de violence. Nous voulons mettre ici en lumière ces aspects d'insécurité qui ne sont pas réductibles aux seules conditions objectives de danger en examinant des questions d'épistémologie reliées aux modes d'appréhension de l'action des forces et êtres invisibles sur les heurs et malheurs de la vie de tous les jours. Il s'agit ici de cinq sources d'anxiété épistémiques en conjonction avec trois cadres d'interprétation différents. Nous suggérons que l'intensité relative de l'insécurité spirituelle à Soweto découle, dans une large mesure, du manque d'un cadre dominant d'interprétation. Opening with an account of an incident in July 1998 when warnings were circulated in a shack settlement outside Soweto that a giant snake known as Inkosi ya Manzi [King of the Waters] was angry and threatening to destroy the settlement, this paper seeks to examine questions of spiritual insecurity in a context of widespread poverty, hardship, and violence. It seeks to examine those aspects of insecurity that are not reducible simply to objective conditions of danger by examining questions of epistemology relating to modes of understanding the action of invisible forces and beings upon the fortunes and misfortunes of everyday life. Five sources of epistemic anxiety are identified, along with three distinct frames of interpretive authority. The paper suggests that the relative intensity of spiritual insecurity in contemporary Soweto derives in large part from the fact that no one framework of interpretation enjoys dominance.
Vintage UK 1991 Page 369 to 373 The Zulus were too polite to say so, but they thought this white man was mad. He claimed it was possible to grow food in the dust in waterless places without spending any money. Even a child knew that was nonsense. So Neil (Adcock) and some helpers set out at Mdukatshani to prove them wrong. They purloined some railroad tracks from an abandoned siding and built a towering scaffold on the riverbank. Then they took a tractor tire, cut it into scoop-like segments, and bolted it spoke-wise onto the hub of an old tractor wheel. A system of pulleys lowered the wheel into the river. The rubber scoops dipped into the swift brown torrent and spun the tractor hub, which turned the differential from a scrapped Land Rover, which drove a pump, which delivered water to a dry, stony garden site hundreds of yards away. There, in soil fertilized by dung and the ash of cattle bones, some Zulu women planted and reaped a bumper crop of vegetables. Surrounding communities were hugely impressed. From that point, the scheme started moving forward. Neil organized a committee of tribal elders to run the project, casting himself as their humble servant and technical adviser. The committee was nominally in charge, but it was Neil who really made things happen. He was a man who could stand on a barren, eroded hillside, miles from the nearest water, surrounded by incredulous peasants, and say, 'There will be a dam here.' And lo, a dam there would be, or a weir across the river, or an irrigation furrow to carry a trickle of precious water from a distant spring to tiny patches of tillable land. Bankrolled by donations from churches, foreign governments, and the Angio American conglomerate, he hired armies of Zulus to work on a vast iron-age engineering project-laying furrows, stringing fences, blocking dongas with dikes of stone. Dams were dug with shovels, the dirt carried off in buckets on women's heads. Neil drew plans in the dust with sticks, and judged levels with his naked eye. If a boulder lay in the path of one of his furrows, Zulu women built a bonfire under it, heated it until it glowed, then doused it with pails of water. Voila. The rock shattered. Zulu dynamite, they called it. In the spring of 1977, the first water came trickling down the furrows and into the pioneer gardens, and for a while, the dream seemed to be coming true. In her monthly newsletter to donors and supporters, Creina wrote, 'We sense the beginning of a small revolution.' Mdukatshani became a place of pilgrimage for young white volunteers yearning to atone for the sins of their fathers. A steady stream of foreign diplomats and new missionaries came to see the project for themselves. The man who met visitors at the project's gates was getting on toward sixty now, completely grey, and balding. Neil was always wearing dusty jeans and car-tire sandals, and the first thing he showed off was always his waterwheel; he was immensely proud of his waterwheel. After that, visitors were escorted through a complex of eleven houses, huts, and workshops, all built in the Zulu fashion of mud, stone, and thatch, and costing less than $125 apiece. In the workshops, Zulus were assembling experimental solar cookers and beating old oil drums into prototypical methane digesters. There was a fish pond stocked with bass and tilapia, and an earthen cave full of glowing glass beads, the raw materials of a thriving craft project. Under Creina's direction, the beads were turned into Zulu jewellery of astonishing beauty and sold in the distant cities.
  • I Abraham
Abraham, I. (2017) Evangelical Youth Culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
The International of Decent Feelings
  • L Althusser
Althusser, L. (1946/1997) "The International of Decent Feelings," in F. Matheron (ed.) The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings. London: Verso.
The Day the White People Walked into the Sea
  • S Hardy
Hardy, S. (2018) "The Day the White People Walked into the Sea." Johannesburg Review of Books, 5 February.
Cape Town: Life without Water
  • J Riddell
Riddell. J. (2018) "Cape Town: Life without Water." Financial Times, 16 May.