Dune by Frank Herbert is one of my favourite novels of all time. It’s not just that it’s good sci-fi, but more that its messages about power, water and humankind are powerful and transcendent, and feel more accurate as the years pass. I thought of Dune often on my trip to Madagascar.
The children in this particular quarter of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, had descended in a group around a young woman with an empty bottle of Eau Vive mineral water. She told them she had no cash but handed over the bottle. I watched as this group of children probably aged around 6-11, argued over the empty bottle.
I’ve travelled enough around countries that lack food and water security to know that water is life on so many levels, and that the commodification of it is a thriving industry in Africa- Shoprite and Jumbo Score here have aisles of bottled water. Yet everywhere you go in Antananarivo, you see water. From the luminous green canals flowing with waste- both human and otherwise-, to the rice paddies that line the roads around the city. It is a fascinating place where so much of the architecture is French, but now more regularly interspersed with more modern Chinese-built buildings. It feels olde world in some parts, with a colonial edge, and this unshakeable feeling that somehow still the old powers cling in the shadows, making decisions and influencing power.
It’s important I think, to juxtapose this with my home city of Cape Town, stuck in the midst of a water crisis and battling to come to terms with what it means now that this precious resource is running out. Madagascar feels like a dystopian vision when compared to Cape Town. Street kids fighting over an empty water bottle, huge signs for mineral water adorning walls in the poorest neighbourhoods. It’s like Coke grew a conscience and then changed its mind, and rather than trying to get the poor to buy coke, realised that water was a simpler, cheaper option.
The more I think of how water is already privatised in so much of Africa, the more the smug libertarian’s language of ‘it’s finally happening in South Africa’, feels merely like a buying into this neoliberal project which demands that value be placed on all things, pretending that the poor will eventually get a taste. It is merely another way of reminding us that we are not all created equal.
Do I think it’s the beginning of the end for Cape Town? No, but I do think we will need to embrace a new normal of scarcity. Sadly, the wealthy will in all likelihood follow the pattern of Pharoah, who, when asking Joseph to interpret his dreams, goes to bed and dreams of scarcity while possessing everything. Many will stockpile and not share, and our leftist friends will shout about how ‘the rich finally know how it feels’, while the rich sit back and drive up the price of water, making a camping holiday of it for their children who get to ‘bathe’ in the swimming pool each evening.
It comes to this; South Africa, like Madagascar, needs to start taking some power back, holding the powers that be responsible, ensuring that actual policy is changed to put infrastructure on the agenda, and that the people take some form of governance into their own hands. Elected officials are in place because we voted for them, it is time they were held to account. We often make the mistake of dividing our fellow humans into camps as either left or right, but perhaps in times like these we would be better served in remembering that Jesus believed in the beloved community. And maybe it is in that place that we can learn to be more fully human and more part of God’s big story as we learn to live together and to once again become stewards of creation.
By Wayne Eaves