Interview: Zille leads Cape’s fight against Day Zero

Cape Town risks running out of water due to drought, but the combative head of the provincial government is doing all she can to avert disaster.


Whether enjoying a day at the beach or a stay at a city hotel, not even tourists are spared the reality of Cape Town’s historic drought. Light aircraft buzz the city’s beaches, trailing banners urging visitors to #beatDayZero – the day when taps are expected to spit out their last reserves. Hotel staff spread the message – limit your showers, flush toilets sparingly – the water crisis is very real.  

For Helen Zille, the combative veteran politician and current premier of the Western Cape, dealing with the unprecedented disaster could define her legacy in provincial government. Speaking to African Business in Cape Town, the former leader of the Democratic Alliance, the country’s main opposition party at national level, insists that while admirable progress has been made by citizens in slashing water use, complacency could still lead one of Africa’s wealthiest cities to disaster.

“I don’t think we’ll see Day Zero this year but we’re going to have to continue to save in order to avoid it. If we become complacent we will have Day Zero. If we continue saving water to the extent that we’re currently saving it and if our augmentation plans come on stream this year we will avoid Day Zero. The big variable is whether we are going to avoid it next year and that depends on the rainfall we are going to get this winter.”

As meteorologists scan their charts for precedents, city dwellers and rural communities desperately hope that winter rains will offer relief. In the meantime, Cape Town, galvanised by the ticking time bomb of Day Zero, is enforcing water limits of 50 litres a day per citizen. The response has been impressive; according to Zille, the restrictions and the vigilance of Capetonians have reduced usage to around 450m litres per day from a high of 1.2bn litres per day 18 months ago.

Nevertheless, Zille admits there will be an “inevitable” hit to business confidence and the economy. Ratings agency Moody’s predicts that agriculture and tourism will suffer, while Cape Town’s budget faces “significant challenges” in fiscal 2018, including a major hit to the 10% of revenue it receives from water charges. The city has targeted cost-saving measures of R1.5bn ($126.8m) in response.

Given the scale of the crisis, questions are being asked about whether the provincial and municipal administrations – both under the control of the Democratic Alliance – should have done more. Moody’s is scathing of the City of Cape Town’s efforts, pointing to a lack of diversification in water supply and a “slow” crisis response. It argues that the tangled governance structure of the city’s water supply contributed to the crisis. Zille points out that local government – particularly her provincial role – is constrained by a limited mandate.

“In water specifically, bulk infrastructure and supply is a national government competency,” explains Zille. “Local government competency is cleaning that water and getting it to the end user… The province has very minimal powers in relation to water and we’re also responsible for disaster management. When it looked as if Day Zero was unavoidable, that’s when my role kicked in strongly.”

Castigating the ANC

While Zille’s scope for action is constrained by her mandate, a long career in national politics and strong regional profile grants her a prominent public-facing role. Ever the political streetfighter, Zille uses the pulpit to castigate her old foes in the ANC, which she accuses of mismanagement, corruption, and a failure to deliver promised water projects.

“This ghastly drought happened at the same time as the national department [the Department of Water and Sanitation] overran its budget dramatically, both for reasons of irregular expenditure, corruption, fruitless and wasteful expenditure and huge delays. All of these projects which were supposed to have been ready a long time ago have been delayed so it would have been a totally different situation today had those projects happened.”

Zille argues that ANC negligence has forced local policymakers to rush into bulk supply provision, going beyond the city’s usual mandate to clean water and deliver it to the end consumer. The city is ultimately expected to spend R12.7bn on water and sanitation capital infrastructure over the 2018–22 period, say Moody’s, but Zille argues that local policymakers have been mindful of overspending. 

“The big risk is that you put huge amounts of capital into water augmentation, especially desalination, and then there are offtake agreements which mean you have to buy a certain amount of water every year whether you need it or not. So we had to try and get the balance right and in the end we decided on a goal by 2020 of augmenting 300m litres per day – 150m litres from aquifer extraction and 150m litres from desalination in various formats.”

Hard choices

When asked if this meant local authorities were exceeding their mandates, Zille remains unrepentant.

“We either had to choose between that or running out of water. Fortunately the declaration of disaster gave us the flexibility to do things that under a normal legal environment you wouldn’t be able to do… Water is going to have to become a lot more expensive, but at least we don’t have to factor in the corruption.”

If implemented alongside savings and a return of rains, augmentation may offer a way out of the crisis. The inauguration of President Cyril Ramaphosa also offers hope of renewed national assistance after he appointed Gugile Nkwinti, former minister of rural development and land reform, to replace Nomvula Mokonyane at the Department of Water and Sanitation.

“I’ve got respect for Gugile Nkwinti,” says Zille. “I’ve worked with him on rural development and land reform, and we’ve have a lot of help from him when he was minister of that portfolio and we’ve had really good progress. He understands what we are trying to do with land reform. So I think I’m going to be able to get much more done with Gugile Nkwinti than I did with Nomvula Mokonyane.”

Return to the frontline

For Zille, whose prominence in national opposition politics has somewhat declined since the Democratic Alliance elected Mmusi Maimane as its leader, the water crisis represents a return to the frontline.

“There are crises every day of the week, but this is a big one – the prospect of running out of water just can’t happen, so you’ve really got to concentrate the mind. But somehow my life works in a nice synchronistic pattern – every time I think I’m going to have a nice relaxing period another crisis comes along to fill the vacuum.”

David Thomas

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