Is there time to fix the pipes?

A Rumour of Spring: South Africa After 20 Years of Democracy (Max du Preez)

The title of Max du Preez’s book, A Rumour of Spring alludes to the Arab Spring — that moment when democracy blossomed, or should have.

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In December 2010, a 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who had sold vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, for seven years, had his trolley and all the vegetables thereon confiscated by a police officer. When he attempted to pay the $7 “fine” for trading, the officer slapped him and basically told him to get lost. This was not his first run-in with arbitrary and random police actions and he decided to take it to the local provincial authorities. They, the corrupt and arrogant, ignored him.

That slap was to be the proverbial slap heard around the world. Bouazizi planted himself in front of the provincial headquarters, doused his body in petrol and set himself on fire. He died 18 days later. Thus began the Arab Spring.

The title of Max du Preez’s book, A Rumour of Spring alludes to this “spring” — this moment when democracy blossomed, or should have.

Four months later, at the other end of the continent, a 33-year-old mathematics teacher Andries Tatane joined a protest of more than 4 000 people in a march on the Setsoto Municipal Offices in Ficksburg, Free State, South Africa to protest against poor service delivery.

They were met by the SAPS who turned water cannons on the crowd and then started arresting people. Tatane attempted to intervene. He was beaten and then shot in the chest twice by SAPS officers. He died on the street. All the officers were acquitted. Political analysts thought these would be the shots that would reverberate, if not around the world, at least around South Africa.

Du Preez is right: it was just a rumour.

Tatane’s death would be eclipsed 16 months later when the SAPS killed 34 striking platinum miners outside the small town of Marikana. Again, analysts pontificated about “watershed moments”, “turning points”, “tipping points” and “seminal” moments. Again, it was all a rumour.

Yes, Du Preez is an Old White Male (OWM) but if you think that is ground for dismissal, then you probably also believe that Julius Malema is a hopeless politician because he’s black. Du Preez brings his cynical, inquisitive and compassionate intelligence to the table in discussing South Africa after 20 years of democracy and the role played by the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). It’s an intelligence that has won him numerous awards, including the Excellence in Journalism award from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Southern Africa (1996)and the Yale Globalist International Journalist of the Year (2006).

If you’ve read any of his regular columns or one of his many books you will know roughly where he is going with this book. But it is in the details, the conscientious examination of events that make this one of the ‘must read’ books about our country. It is his conscience that is troubled, and this is best revealed in his anecdotes. The story of meeting Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou in 1987 with Thabo Mbeki and other ANC members, and thinking: ‘Surely these guys have a similar commitment to genuine liberation of our people?’

‘Ouch,’ he says, he was wrong. Just another rumour.

Sankara was killed three months later in a coup staged by his comrade Blaise Compaore. Now, 26 years later Burkina Faso is a textbook example of what Acemoglu and Robinson describe in How Nations Fail: The origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Burkina Faso is a nation of extractive institutions, embedded with corruption and cronyism, where important offices in the government are given to supporters of the president who operate with impunity and where the political/economic elite flaunt their opulence.

Du Preez covers the familiar territory of Jacob Zuma’s rise to power but includes all the elements that make the whole story read like a political thriller. Except that it is true. The way Mbeki was outmanoeuvred and humiliated, the way Zuma manipulated the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and how he gathered around him a security cluster of ‘100% Zulu Boys’ — Jeff Radebe, Nathi Mthethwa and Siyabonga Cwele. Shades of PW Botha’s ‘Imperial Presidency’ and his State Security Council, which we now know served mainly to intensify the environment for structural corruption?

Surely not, but it does sound like the same dogs barking. Du Preez quotes Prof Njabulo Ndebele on the Nkandla debacle — more than R200-million of taxpayers’ money spent on Zuma’s private residence. ‘Nkandla,’ says Ndebele, ‘manifests an advanced stage in the systemic nature of corruption in South Africa that has been growing over an 18-year period and gathered momentum in the past five years.’

Zuma reveals himself not so much a leader of the nation or even the government. He is a leader of the ANC, and as long as he remains as such, he is in essence protected from prosecution (there are more than 700 legal cases outstanding against him). And because the nation is rudderless, the technocrats that may have made the country viable have long been replaced by political appointees, mostly inept, some corrupt and largely indifferent but yet filled with grandiose schemes (think e-tolls, nuclear reactors, SAA).

Another telling anecdote. Du Preez recounts a story told him by a colleague of how the Indian government built a dam to supply Mumbai with 455-million litres of water that the city required per day. But if the city had simply fixed all the leaking pipes it would have saved more than 600-million litres per day. The moral for South Africa is that ‘we should first fix our leaking pipes and taps before we build a new dam’.

Du Preez thinks the nation will be saved from becoming a Burkina Faso, a Zimbabwe, a Russia or a Greece because of two things: our Constitution and the Independent Electoral Commission. That, as he says, ‘no one has tried to mess with it [the Constitution] so far’ and that the ‘credibility and efficiency’ of the IEC ensuring the ‘credibility of our elections are never in doubt’.

Well, the constitution is under threat — Zuma has said it needs to be changed. And the Electoral Court ruling last year that IEC officials were wrong to bar individual candidates in the Tlokwe by-election goes to the heart of its credibility.

All this may be theory, another rumour. For in the wings, as Richard Poplak has so cogently argued in the Daily Maverick (‘Hannibal Elector: The rise and rise (and rise) of the EFF’) is Julius Malema and the EFF. His followers are ‘ready to throw the ideals and rhetoric of liberation out of their shacks with the day’s rubbish… [they] want to hear that the system will come up for a review, and that title deeds are going to be shredded, banks nationalised, the Mzansi flag raised over the mine shafts’.

It may be too late to fix the pipes.

[Rumour of Spring is published by Zebra Press (http://bit.ly/1ecAOKn).]

This review was first published in the Cape Times on Friday 21February 2014

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Fracturing reality: the illusion of development

When environmentalist and endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh joined the dots between fracking for shale gas and contamination of the Karoo aquifer and linked that to environmental degradation and social conflict, some commentators dismissed it as baloney. Perhaps they need to focus on the real picture.

No one word describes Lewis Pugh, but single-minded crops up often. Not that his thinking is dogmatic or his vision blinkered—he’s bright and inspirational—but in so far as he’s focused on halting the destruction of the earth’s resources and providing hope for our children’s future. His decision to raise a voice against prospecting for shale gas in the Karoo comes as no surprise.

The giant oil companies—Royal Dutch Shell is one—use a controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking). A drill is sunk through the water table and down into the shale rock and then horizontally into the shale. Millions of litres of water mixed with a toxic compound of chemicals is forced down the hole and the pressure fractures the shale, releasing the trapped gas. More than 30% to 40% of the chemical-laden water mix remains below the surface. The rest is pumped out and has to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Fracking will deplete the scarce water resources of the Karoo and may lead to contamination of the groundwater table.

Pugh’s reasoning when he connects the dots between what’s proposed for the Karoo and what’s happening globally comes from first-hand experience. “I swam in the Arctic Ocean—not because I am brave or fool hardy or a show off. I swam because I should not have been able to do so. Global warming is a reality. The Arctic ice cap is melting. I swam in the glacial lakes of the Himalayas beneath Mount Everest, knowing that it should have been solid ice. I have seen the Maldives gradually being submerged by the rising waters of global warming.”

The oil companies want to frack for shale gas for a number of reasons. First, it’s profitable; second, the drilling technology, while relatively young, has proved effective (though not environmentally sound); and finally, especially in the case of Royal Dutch Shell, big oil does not believe in developing renewable energy resources. As the chairman Jorma Ollila stated, “we believe that [renewable energy sources] could provide no more than 30% of global energy by 2050”.

In 2005, Shell spent only 0.87% of its profit in 2005 on renewable energy, investing an average of $200-million—just 1.2% its 2005 total capital investment of $17.4-billion. Don’t expect Shell to allocate much of its earnings—a whopping $20.5-billion in 2010—towards renewable energy: more than 75% of capital investment will go to “upstream” projects—such as natural gas. “We think it makes a lot of sense to focus our innovation on natural gas, the cleanest-burning fossil fuel,” says Ollila.

There’s a fundamental short-sightedness in this focus. For starters, it is an illusion to believe we have another 40 years to plunder resources and damage the environment. Apart from the need to start immediately investing heavily in renewable energy, we need to protect what remains of the existing environment. The Karoo is a pristine and fragile ecosphere, dependent almost entirely on groundwater. Contaminate that water table—the Karoo’s life blood—and you will destroy the land and its people. That’s the reality.

Shell claims fracking will not contaminate the water table. Yet, the company could not explain why the corporations involved demanded that fracking be exempted—and got the exemption—from the regulations of the Federal US Safe Drinking Water Act, an Act aimed specifically at protecting groundwater?

When questioned about fracking technology, the oil companies point out that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that fracking does not pose a danger to the environment. However, the earlier decision of the EPA has been successfully challenged and is now under review by the US Science Advisory Board (SAB). All fracking activity in New York state and 160 other locations across the USA have been suspended pending the SAB report.

Shell claims that fracking is a tried and tested technology and is being used throughout the world. However, they cannot explain why the technological process has failed in the past and caused serious problems to the aquifers in areas where it has been employed. There have been more than 1 000 documented cases of groundwater contamination in the USA due to fracking. Shell’s answer that the other companies simply “made mistakes” implies that it won’t .

Yet, Shell’s 2010 Annual Report states: “We operate in environments where the most advanced technologies are needed. While these technologies are regarded as safe for the environment with today’s knowledge, there is always the possibility of unknown or unforeseeable environmental impacts.”

By its own admission Shell could face a situation while fracking where the groundwater is contaminated. Shell was asked if, in such an event, what it could do about it? As was pointed out, you can’t exactly flush contamination out of an aquifer.

Pugh says we can’t trust Shell. “Africa is to Shell what the Gulf of Mexico is to BP,” he says. “Shell, has a shocking record in Africa. It has spilt more than nine-million barrels of crude oil into the Niger Delta—almost twice the amount of oil that BP spilt into the Gulf of Mexico. It was found guilty of bribing Nigerian officials—and to make the case go away in the USA—it paid an admission of guilt fine of $48-million. To top it all, Shell stands accused of being complicit in the execution of Nigeria’s leading environmental campaigner—Ken Saro-Wira and eight other activists. If Shell was innocent, why did it pay $15.5-million to the widows and children to settle the case out of court?”

Shell has avoided the questions, and continues to claim that fracking is “not known to harm” the environment. Disingenuous. But the issue is more than fracking. The issue, as Pugh says, is pursuing renewable, safe energy. “We can survive without gas—we can’t live without water.”

That’s why the reality is the pursuit of renewable energy and not the illusion of so-called “cleaner” fossil fuels. Pugh says it is a civil rights issue, and is prepared to take Shell all the way to the Constitutional Court. “Enshrined in our Constitution, is the right to a healthy environment and the right to water,” says Pugh. “The Constitution clearly states that we have ‘the right to have our environment protected for the benefit of our generation and for the benefit of future generations.'”

It will be a hard fought battle, but the reality is we can’t afford not to fight it.

Donald Paul is a freelance writer. Disclaimer: He is an admirer and friend of Lewis Pugh. [This story first appeared in City Press, Sunday, 10 April, 2011.]