The New Sociology of Public Discourse II: Blame it On the Rain

By Ronald Suresh Roberts

The historic month of February 1990 was torn, in retrospect, between historical grandeur and a rapidly globalising image management business. The grandeur was Nelson Mandela’s release from prison on the 11th of February; the emblematically managed image was that of Milli Vanilli, the fake boy-band that on 21st February won the Grammy for best new artists. The one was history, the other was strategic media trickery, and these contending figures seemed to inhabit different planets at that time.

As I pointed out in Fit to Govern (see page 133 and associated footnotes), Mandela, like Gandhi before him, was a “media colossus” but one with artless authenticity. Mandela wore Winne Mandela’s granny-spectacles to read that famous first speech in Cape Town.  In today’s strategic marketing jargon,  these were literally “bad optics” but others, like Cornel West, correctly saw a “jazz freedom fighter”, with an improvisational  brilliance akin to the late Hugh Masekela. Contrast Milli Vanilli’s smoothly rehearsed confection of an album, Girl You Know It’s True, containing a kind of anthem for 2018’s post-truth water crisis: Blame it on the Rain.

The ghosts of Mandela Masekela and Milli Vanilli each haunt today’s national water crisis, for better and worse. In Milli Vanilli you see the phony “strategic marketing” industry that has since thoroughly corrupted both the ANC and illiberals alike. Conversely, Mandela lives in the resilient 1997-1998 water law reforms that are, even now, quietly delivering a prodigal nation from its water crisis.  Below, I consider each ghost in turn.

Bad Ghost: “Strategic Communications” 

The bad genie springs from the old illiberal South African bottle that was uncorked at a May 1989 Democratic Party Indaba, ahead of that year’s whites-only general elections.  Led by the self-styled “young Turks” (Tony Leon, Douglas Gibson, Brian Goodall etc.), the DP “adopted a political strategy based on Von Clausewitz’s classical theories of warfare as applied to political marketing” (Tim Hughes, “Political Liberalism in South Africa of the 1980s and the Foundation of the Democratic Party”, 1994).  Truth is, of course, famously the first casualty of war and the DP’s militarised marketing of its “muscular liberalism” predictably drove honest technocrats, such as Raenette Taljaard, from parliament.  She explained that she was “deeply averse to engaging in war-like posturing with ANC colleagues” (Mail & Guardian, 24 March 2012).

Unlike Taljaard, Leon’s successor as DA leader in 2007, Helen Zille, drank the Kool Aid of strategic marketing in 1993, when she became Public Relations chief at the University of Cape Town.  This old playbook drove her 2018 water crisis appearance on BBC’s Newsnight, falsely citing the SA weather services: “This drought could never have been foreseen.  The South African weather services have told me their models don’t work anymore in an era of Climate Change… the experts can’t predict anything anymore.”  Actually, accurate official predictions of the current water crisis date back at least to the 2002 National Water Resource Strategy.  The weather service chastised Zille as “disingenuous and opportunistic”.

For the real truths, which used to be authoritatively and self-critically put out by Joel Netshitenzhe’s policy and communications system before Polokwane, we must these days  seek out technical journals such as Civil Engineering.  There Mike Muller, the pre-Polokwane Director General of National Department of Water Affairs, meticulously points out that the 2007 Western Cape Water and Sanitation Reconciliation Strategy identified the need, by 2015, for completed supply side interventions, bringing more water on line. These supply-side interventions would be necessary, according to the 2007 strategy, even assuming success of demand management efforts by water users (“Understanding the Origins of Cape Town’s Water Crisis”, June 2017).

Muller responsibly cites the primary evidence, being the minutes of the crucial 2013/14 technical support group and planning meetings.  These reveal that instead of timely initiation of a critical supply augmentation investments, the city made what Muller calls a “fatal error”.  It amended the demand projection models underlying the 2007 scenario planning.  It seized upon a downward blip in observed water consumption and expediently rebased water demand management (WDM) projections upon it.  This produced a happy story: good news for strategic marketers, perilous for country.  From the minutes: “The slowdown and subsequent reduction in growth of water requirement in the years 2011 to 2014 is mainly due to the effect of implementing WDM measures, and it can be expected that these reductions will be maintained.” (emphasis added).

The frank and prudent and consumption scenarios spelt out in the 2007 Strategy were wishfully revised downwards by 2014, with necessary supply initiatives concomitantly delayed. This despite ongoing population growth and the ominous phenomenon (observed in Namibia and elsewhere) to which Muller points: that people who conserve in times of crisis afterwards relax, so that consumption rebounds dramatically once rains return.  Therefore, while continuing to manage consumption downwards, prudent water strategy would have ensured a margin of redundancy in supply, just in case consumption rebounded, as Namibian experience predicted.

The upshot is that the Voëlvlei augmentation scheme funds for which Zille is now belatedly clamouring in late February 2018 (Heraldlive, 23 February), is money that responsible decision-makers ought to have sought and secured in 2013/14, in line with the 2007 strategy for timely completion of the scheme by 2015, so that it would already have been in place today.

For a critical sociology of how the flaws of public discourse fed into the water crisis, it is important to nail down that Zille both understands the Muller narrative and obfuscates it for strategic marketing purposes.  Her distortions are not honest mistakes or amateurish confusions but stem from premeditated information warfare. To see this, attend closely to Zille’s own words, in the following blink-and-you-miss-it confession, offered during her SABC interview on 22 January: “In 2013 we had a very close to record rainfall year.  The dams were overflowing in 2014.  The crisis at the time . . . was electricity. We were having blackouts.  At that time it was critical to keep the lights on, but the dams were overflowing”. (Zille, SABC interview 22 January@5:05-5:27:

Zille concedes in the heat of this interview that because the dams were momentarily overflowing, the critical long run decisions of the known water crisis were deferred: a classic error of complacency, as well as an inability to walk and chew gum at the same time by competently managing water and electricity at once.  Instead of frankly stating these truths in 2018 for useful post mortem purposes, Zille actively vandalises the public information that ought properly to give early warning of looming problems and so trigger timely interventions.

Good Ghost: Pre-Polokwane Water Law Reforms

Zille’s blame-the-rain game obscures not only the optics of the water crisis, but also the effective technics of the unfolding water-rescue. Like a new Nongqawuse, but this time with a happy story from a strategic marketing makeover, Zille bizarrely credits “the generous donation by farmers of vast quantities of water from the Eikenhof dam”.  (Perhaps we must also thank the “150-year supermoon”, fittingly last seen in Nongqawuse’s own era, of which Zille tweeted a photograph on 31 January).

Reality is less colourful: the 1997-98 water law reforms abolished apartheid’s property rights fundamentalism—the old “riparian” or riverside rights—that previously gave farmers unfettered privileges to dam and take water from rivers running through their land, regardless of broader needs. Recent so-called “gifts” are actually the product of months of negotiations between the national department and the relevant Water Users Association, which is itself legally a creature of the 1998 National Water Act.  Such associations are subject thereby to national government directives (section 95) and to dissolution (section 96) wherever recalcitrant towards the public good.  Even without the Donald Trump tutorial in The Art of the Deal, therefore, it is fairly obvious how the 1998 Act stacks the cards for national government to make arrangements in public interest.

The underlying radicalism of the National Water Act was indeed its establishment of national government as public trustee of water resources (section 3).  This instituted an orderly, fair and eco-friendly nationalisation of water rights, without compensation.  It is this thoughtful and resilient deep structure from the pre-Polokwane era that enabled today’s dysfunctional ANC and DA national and local governments to avert, summarily, the crisis they have themselves stored up over the last five years.

In “Water, Life and Justice”, Kader Asmal’s 1998 Abel Wolman Distinguished Lecture at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, which I personally drafted as his policy and strategy advisor, the then Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry explained: “Clearly water management and allocation is an arena of what has been called hydropolitics, rather than merely an apolitical technical pursuit. In South Africa the hydropolitics were based on deliberate acts of discrimination against the black majority by a white minority. It is not without significance that apartheid’s most crudely racist Prime Minister, J G Strijdom, was the minister responsible for water, namely irrigation, when the basis for the quiet genocide of black infant mortality was laid in the early 1950s.” Asmal’s pre-1994 predecessor in the Water Affairs portfolio was the murderous apartheid Defense Minister Magnus Malan, sent there for political safe space, after the 1991 “Inkathagate” scandal exposed his role in the De Klerk regime’s funding of “third force” violence.  Water rights sat within the “deep state” of apartheid political culture from the outset, when rural white voters gave DF Malan the wafer-thin 1948 election victory that formalised apartheid.

As with so many pre-Polokwane achievements (death penalty abolition, freedoms of sexual orientation, constitutionalised socio-economic rights), the water law reform was not merely world class, but world-beating.  It garnered the Stockholm Water Prize (the Nobel Prize of the Water science sector), for what Stockholm International Water Institute’s website today reminds us “is sometimes described as the world’s most comprehensive and visionary piece of water legislation”.


One threat of the ANC’s own recent populist turn was its maladministration of this world class framework.  Another, now, is its clumsy re-argument of issues it has already won, re-opening for debate and possible reversal victories of principle that it ought really to be consolidating.  This is happening because the actually existing ANC has not known how to steer the fine pre-Polokwane statecraft that it inherited (including the abundantly pro-poor  property clause of the 1996 Constitution).  Why else but from sheer incomprehension of her own existing power and influence does Minister Nomvula Mokonyane believe that she needs to “expropriate” dams (or anything else) from the already amply subordinated water user associations, in order to secure the genuine imperatives of the public trust?  Zille is no better, calling for dams “where water would otherwise run into the sea”. This is staggeringly retro. The Stockholm Prize folks thought that when we established the environmental reserve in Part Three of the 1998 Act, we understood the need to prevent degradation of the environment itself, by planning for a necessary reserve of water indeed to reach the sea.

Alarmingly, today’s illiberals fervently believe themselves to have captured the ANC during the December 2018 National Conference, described as a “game-changer” (Tony Leon); that “the private sector is the only thing that works” (Peter Bruce).  They boldly aspire to make President Ramaphosa their own personal Milli Vanilli.  What, then, is to be done?

For Walter Benjamin, the duty to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it “the way it really was.”  Rather, it means “to seize hold of memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”  The pre-Polokwane archive is a vital resource for current dangers across the political spectrum. That archive requires competent historical explicators fervently to protect not only the ten days in February that separated Mandela from Milli Vanilli in 1990, but also the ten years between Polokwane and Nasrec now.

Roberts wrote Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki (2007) and was policy and strategy advisor to Minister Kader Asmal on the pre-Polokwane water law reforms (1996-1998).


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