When it comes to keeping the taps running, South Africa’s law books are clear about which department has to do what to meet their Constitutional promise of getting water to every citizen. Yet it is also crucial to understand how political officials, elected by voters, also play a key role in how decisions are made.
Political considerations can have a direct effect on decision-making, particularly technically complex operational decisions, like those that were encountered during the drought.
October 2017 was crunch-time. Water managers knew they had another long, dry summer ahead of them, and dam levels were precariously low. The person wearing the mayoral chain at the time was the Democratic Alliance’s Patricia de Lille. A career politician, activist, and trade unionist, with years of experience in the trenches of state affairs, De Lille had little background in the deeper technicalities of water management.
The symbol of the mayoral chain says a lot about this person’s role in the running of a city. In many countries in the world, the mayor’s position is mostly ceremonial. Not so in Cape Town. South Africa’s Constitution allows a mayor to get stuck into the nitty-gritty of decision-making of how to run a city. The scope that this legal structure gave to the mayor significant powers during the crisis, which had a direct impact on how it was managed at a city level.
She had set up the WRTT in May that year, which met weekly and pulled together the technicians and bureaucrats from the different departments across the City, as well as from provincial and national government, so they could draw up a tactical response to the crisis, communicate effectively, and make quick decisions. The task team leadership was housed in the Directorate of the Mayor. By setting up the task team in her office, De Lille raised the issue to a city-scale priority early on, which helped escalate responses in a way that many argue wouldn’t have happened if it had been left to the City’s Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS).
From the water management perspective, though, this was a bit contentious: the task team was essentially supported by the City Council. This removed the coordination responsibility from the City’s water department, although it was still responsible for implementing water-related projects. The political undercurrents started to create what some saw as competition between departments, rather than cooperation, and created some confusion as to who held responsibility for what level of decision-making.
At crunch-time, at the end of winter that year when it was clear that the dams were dangerously low, some of the senior managers thought it was time to share more detailed technical information with the public, such as the modelling around how much water was available. But De Lille vetoed the decision. Instead, she instructed the communications team to focus only on telling the public that the City was now moving to tighter water restrictions, and that everyone had to cut their water use down to 87L of water per person, per day.
Then, in October, as things reached fever pitch, a private consulting firm that specialises in communications and reputation management, Resolve, was brought in to take the helm of the City’s communications response.
Resolve took over much of the City’s communications, in particular handling the announcement of the Critical Water Shortages Disaster Plan, which helped slip into daily language the notion of Day Zero. With hindsight, it’s clear that was a double-edged sword: on one level, it stoked public panic, which drew some criticism as a communications strategy; but at the same time it did drive down daily water use drastically, according to analysis by researchers at the Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics.
At the end of winter when it was clear that the dams were dangerously low, some managers thought it was time to share more technical information with the public, such as the modelling around how much water was available. But De Lille vetoed the decision.
De Lille took responsibility away from the water task team that October, and chaired daily meetings herself. Resolve, started sitting in on these meetings at her invitation. Many felt this allowed Resolve to have significant influence, on operational decision-making.
In January 2018 the council took away the mayor’s drought leadership powers and in Febru-ary it passed a motion of no confidence against her. It isn’t clear if the DA turning against the mayor in this way had anything to do with the water crisis, or if that was their excuse to create another narrative against her. Some believe she got too involved in things she shouldn’t have. Regardless, she did help to ramp up the necessary pressure early in May 2017, which turned out to be important.
Even though these events highlight how much political interests can interfere with operational matters, the post-mortem analysis of how different people handled their leadership roles through the crisis, shows that it wasn’t all competitive, political, or undermining. And the lessons that emerge from the drought highlight the need for strong collaboration between various departments within a city’s governing structures, as well as upward, to the provincial and national departments involved, according to the Unpacking the Cape Town Drought: Lessons Learned report.
Just as South Africa’s Constitution gives the country’s elected mayors more than just a symbolic position, so the law gives specific responsibilities relating to service delivery to different national, provincial, and city-level government departments. National government, for instance, handles bulk water from dams, rivers, and underground sources, and shares it out between municipalities, farmers, and the natural environment. Local government takes care of the last web of pipes, and the water that runs out of the taps into people’s homes and businesses.
This could hinder local government’s response in a crisis situation. They’re subject to how effective other spheres of government are, and to circumstances well outside of the City’s jurisdiction. As the drought intensified, and with it the finger-pointing and blame-laying, the media ran thick with suggestions that national government – run by the African National Congress (ANC) – had deliberately stalled on building more bulk water infrastructure in the Western Cape Province, which is run by its chief political rival, the DA. This, as the rumour mill put it, was a way of undermining the DA’s political traction in the province. Although, in the view of many people in the City, it was largely incompetence within the national Department of Water Affairs that made it hard for the City to manage aspects of the drought response.
Whether or not the rumours of deliberate political subversion from the ANC are true or not, the declaration of the Western Cape as a disaster area became a national priority. In May 2017, Cabinet – a national function – declared three provinces as disaster areas as a result of the regional drought. This lead to the first national disaster South Africa has ever declared, and a legal process that released funds from national coffers to help pay for disaster relief efforts in the Western Cape.
This kind of cooperation – both between city-level departments, and between provincial and national departments – is critical for navigating a crisis like this.
The Water Resilience Task Team (WRTT), embedded in the Directorate of the Mayor, a bureaucratic arm, helped build bridges between these institutional silos so they could work together more effectively and be more responsive to the daily decision-making needs.
How effectively leadership cooperated between spheres of government, depends on who you ask. One provincial government official reckons there was good collaboration at a province-level from 2015. When politics became involved, cooperation dropped ‘in some ways’, and then improved later at the height of the crisis.
Both local and provincial government ramped up their disaster management response from early on, with senior leadership in the respective departments starting the process of declaring a disaster.
At this point, province kicked into gear quickly, mobilising personnel to be part of regular meet-ings through the worst of the crisis in 2018 and releasing resources. These meetings brought together technical water specialists, strategic managers, and political representatives. They even set up WhatsApp groups to keep communication channels open.
Even though some thought that, at a city level, political interests seemed to eclipse operational decisions from early on in the drought, some in the City acknowledged that ‘when politicians realised that the risk of water scarcity trumps everything, technical needs were then prioritised’.
The take-home message from the post mortem is that people in leadership roles need to drive management that is agile and responsive, and allows officials to learn and adapt as a crisis unfolds. Any effective climate crisis response needs to accommodate this kind of leadership approach, one that allows a city to move from a ‘command and control approach’ to one that is ‘reflective, adaptive and flexible’.