Associate Professor Lesley Green is the deputy director of Environmental Humanities South, which addresses the integration of justice and ecological well-being via the social sciences and humanities. In a recent response to a reporter’s question on surviving Cape Town’s water crisis, Green warned against individual survivalism in the face of the crisis, urging instead for collective care and attention.
Like any other awful situation, the water crisis can bring out the best in us (if we learn to work together and transform how we live as households and as a city – a feminist ethic of care) or the worst (if we work on “my-household-uber-alles” survivalism – the patriarchal principle).
Indeed, the greatest flaw in the political management of the crisis so far has been leadership’s failure to offer a narrative that encourages people to pull together. Helen Moffett’s open letter to Patricia de Lille speaks to this.
But perhaps – if I think anthropologically – that failure is not just an oversight but is symptomatic of the broader problem: and that is the idea that ‘experts’ will solve this crisis.
There are two problems with this.
Like weather forecasting in a time of climate crisis, expertise discovers its limits when the predictables are no longer predictable.
And, expertise that is based on the patriarchal and militaristic “command and control” model assumes that expertise has no limits.
Spot the loop?
From “command and control” to care
As a feminist scholar who reads widely on decolonial ideas, I think there is something very important to consider here. Our mode of “I know everything” expertise, and mode of collective organising (command and control), both reach their limits in a time of crisis.
Experts and decision-makers have two choices. Either carry on pretending to have complete expertise and have everyone but themselves see the hubris of that, or work with people and say:
“We were totally wrong to assume that rainfall patterns would stay high. We’ve made choices in those years to spend funds on other pressing priorities. (This is what they were. We will put together a commission of enquiry to try to understand what went wrong with water sciences, and the communications between those with water expertise and decision-makers.)
“But right now we have a crisis to solve – and we can either fight with one another, or address this using what we have learned in the past about collective action. So, let’s create a water crisis committee with all public sectors involved, and set up committees on every street. Let’s work out how we can partner poor and rich areas to ensure we get through the next 180 days together.”
The key is to move from “command and control” approaches to implementing expertise, to an ethics of care, relationships and collective action.
Reclaiming collective action
South Africa in general, and Cape Town in particular, has a strong history of collective action in opposing apartheid.
We need to reclaim that, and bring the best of United Democratic Front-style leadership into this: “each one teach one”, street committees to ensure care for those on your street, and partnerships to care for sectors far away.
“Everyone depends on our collective capacity to create a workable ecology for homes and services and businesses.”
For example, middle-class, elite and working-class street committees could work together to install water filters and rain-water tanks at poorer schools, sponsor roller barrels for water collection, or work with NGOs like Habitat for Humanity to facilitate work parties to construct compost toilets. These are inexpensive to put up, but need to be done properly and managed well.
Districts, churches or Rotary-style organisations could sponsor truck hire for people living in areas without transport to fetch water. And yes, there will be conflicts, but if you remember the Peace Committee structures of the 1990s, there were teams available to help resolve these.
South Africans are incredibly divided and this kind of crisis will either force the fault lines wide open or offer an opportunity to step over the city’s divisions and start to fill in the cracks.
How you do that is not via command and control relationships, but by drawing the best out of people and encouraging relationships of care; knowing that what matters to one, matters to all.
The labour and power available through mass mobilisation of generosity based on care for the bigger picture is what will get us through tough days.
“But the situation is dire: Either we work together as a city, based on care and noticing needs, or we destroy the possibility of being a collective, which is what a city really is.”
And yes, it is going to be difficult to persuade the racist, nationalistic and patriarchal among us to do this. But the situation is dire: either we work together as a city, based on care and noticing needs, or we destroy the possibility of being a collective, which is what a city is.
The question everyone should think about is: what does it mean to be a collective, in this situation? In that way, we will rediscover politics and more specifically, an ecological politics. We all depend on everyone’s well-being. Everyone depends on our collective capacity to create a workable ecology for homes and services and businesses.
What is normally scoffed at as utopian from the perspective of the ‘strongest individuals survive’ mentality promoted by neoliberalism is now a basic and necessary home truth.
The democratic social contract only works if you build a functioning ecology.
The city’s ecology has broken down because of low rainfall. Human collective effort is now needed to supply what ecology has done for free.
Read Green’s call for finding opportunity in the water crisis…
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