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The dried up Sarel Hayward Dam in the Eastern Cape due to drought conditions in August 2021 | Courtesy: Kaitano Dube (PhD)
The dried up Sarel Hayward Dam in the Eastern Cape due to drought conditions in August 2021 | Courtesy: Kaitano Dube (PhD)

In the climate crisis, Apartheid’s legacy lives on

Legacies of apartheid are exacerbating climate impacts in present-day South Africa.

The 1990s marked a new chapter in South African history. A white-minority-led Apartheid regime, concocted by the racist National Party, was abolished through a series of negotiations. However, it was only political apartheid that came to an end. Economic apartheid remained strong as ever, and it continues to impoverish many South Africans, making it the most unequal country in the world.

Apartheid, and the racial segregation it legalized, put “whites” on top: followed by Indians, “coloreds” and Black people. This was embedded into law — acts like the Group Areas Act of 1955, barred “non-whites” from living in the white developed areas. The act institutionalized racial separation by restricting where non-white population could own property, reside and work. Different non-white groups were were required to carry “passes” to enter white neighborhoods, disadvantaging them in terms of social, political and economic mobility. Over 3.5 million Black people were forced to relocate, creating the largest number of mass evictions modern history has ever seen.

In present-day South Africa, the richest 20 percent control 70 percent of the country’s resources. Despite making up a meager 7.7 percent of the population, white people own a huge chunk of the most productive farmland. And this racial segregation, as established by apartheid, is still alive and well in South Africa, playing a big role in determining who can access economic opportunities. This also makes poor Black and colored communities more vulnerable to climate disasters. 

Day Zero and Water Access

Take the example of Day Zero in Cape Town back in 2018. The Western Cape was experiencing a severe drought crisis and the affluent city of Cape Town was approaching “Day Zero” — a day that the city would run out of water. 4 million residents would eventually have to form long queues, daily, at public taps to access fresh water. 

And, of course, these impacts were not felt equally.

During apartheid rule, colored and Black Capetonians were forced to move to poor housing in low-lying flood-prone areas with limited access to water and sanitation. Today, similar patterns continue. The rich white minority live in elegant coastal and inland suburbs. Poorer Black populations live on low-lying flatlands prone to fires and floods, while now also dealing with the added stress of being unable to access clean drinking water, competing with their equally poor and marginalized neighbors for an already scarce resource.

“Cape Town is a pretty shocking place to live in — to see legacies [of apartheid] remaining all over the place… People who were wealthy were able to go to a store and buy 5 liters of water but people who were already facing water stress needed to go to a particular water point and wait in line for 6 hours to fill a container — this has huge opportunity costs associated with it,” said Alice McClure, Academic coordinator of the Future Resilience for African Cities and Lands at the University of Cape Town.

After a combination of aggressive water conservation campaigns, the city was able to avoid Day Zero. 

Now drought-struck Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB), a metropolitan municipality in the Eastern Cape, is fast approaching a similar fate. Day Zero is set to hit on June 17 as per the latest estimates; two major dams are predicted to run dry in the coming weeks and 40 percent of the metropolitan area’s residents will have no water supply. 

“Again, we see similar sorts of things where communities are struggling to get access to water,” Alex Lenferna, Secretary at the Climate Justice Coalition, said. “It’s typically the Black working-class communities that are the ones most impacted, while the wealthier upper class tends to have access to things like borehole water and other ways of getting water others simply can’t afford.”

Residents from NMB townships told the New Frame about their struggle to access drinking water. Many of their taps have been shut off for weeks, forcing them to drive around town in search of water. Additionally, in some settlements, even the little amount of water that has been provided to residents is not drinkable and can only be used for laundry and flushing toilets. To make matters worse, public taps with clean water only function during odd hours, and community members say the municipality has not sent any communication on how to access the water after June 17.

In a press release issued by the Nelson Mandela Water Crisis Committee, a group of local activists frustrated with the municipality’s water management said, 

“People are getting sick from the water, dams are running dry – and most reservoirs are starting to reach 0 percent… How is the situation under control, when children die, and people get sick from the overdose of E.coli in the water? And there has been no plan to review and look into this.”

Port Alfred and Bathurst in the Eastern Cape are other regions facing similar water shortages, since their main sources of water, Sarel Hayward and Golden Ridge Dams, have insufficient water. 

White farmers in the country control 90 percent of the country’s dams and enjoy unlimited access to water. Of the 4000 dams in the country, only 350 are owned by the government. These ownership patterns are just another symptom of apartheid. Nonetheless, work is being done to nationalize dams to democratize water access.

Kwazulu Natal floods

While one end of South Africa grapples with drought, the other, like Kwazulu Natal (KZN) province of South Africa — which experienced a flood and landslide that killed over 400 people in April and May — endured some of the most devastating extreme weather in South African history. A study found that the probability of this particular event doubled due to climate change. Some areas received exceptionally high rainfall, for example, of over 300 mm within 24 hours.

Most of the people who died lived in informal settlements, and of the 13,500 homes that were destroyed, 4000 were situated on riverbanks.

The recent flooding in KZN showed how racist policy from over 60 years ago cost human lives today. 

“A lot of the people who didn’t have access to resources in the past remained in marginal areas, [and] continue to move into marginal areas – seeking opportunities in urban cities. They don’t have the luxury to move into safe spaces so they move into areas that are more likely to experience geohazards – on steep slopes, on unstable soil, and obviously living in housing that is not safe,” said McClure.

These disasters provide a graphic illustration of inequality and poverty in South Africa. 

The region is expected to see an increase in aridity and droughts in the coming years, and with the hurdles of apartheid and colonialism looming large and seeping into present-day institutions, the poor Black and colored South Africans will continue to suffer. 

If the present situation is any warning, climate justice must be the clarion call for South Africans in the age of climate change. 


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