While waiting our turn to fill our 25-litre containers, we struck up a conversation with a 40-something year old man, who turned out to be Mr Riyaz Rawoot, a physiotherapist and the self-designated “Water Master of the Spring”.
We learnt it was Mr Rawoot who had constructed the improvised PVC pipe with 26 holes at the spring that allowed up to two-dozen people to collect water at the same time.
In the shadow of Day Zero, thousands of people from all over the city had collected water from this pipe structure, thereby saving vast quantities of municipal water.
In the international media, Cape Town received accolades for the innovative ways in which its citizens have managed to drastically reduce domestic water use.
The Newlands springs have also featured in numerous South African and international media reports on these civic initiatives.
On May 11, instead of applauding this innovative, citizen-driven initiative, the City of Cape Town notified Mr Rawoot that he had to dismantle the PVC pipe structure “by no later than Sunday, May 13, 2018” or else be held liable to pay the costs incurred for the removal of the pipe.
In a terse instruction written in a technicist and legalistic style, the extraordinary story of this PVC pipe at the spring was reduced to that of an “illegal” and inappropriate structure, much like an illegal shack in a squatter settlement about to be demolished.
There had been concerted pressure from Newlands residents - to remove the pipe and close the spring - who claimed that the people converging on their neighbourhood created noise at night and obstructed traffic on Kildare Road.
It was this pressure that led the City to decide to dismantle the pipe structure and create a new collection point near the Newlands swimming pool on Main Road.
While there have no doubt been real logistical issues, the manner in which the City has addressed these problems has reinforced widespread perceptions of municipal politicians protecting white, middle-class privilege.
As Newlands residents, we are very disappointed with the manner in which the City has gone about informing Mr Rawoot that he has to dismantle the pipe.
The City seems to have unilaterally decided this without proper legal, environmental or public participation processes.
Neither has there been any acknowledgement of Mr Rawoot’s citizen-driven initiative that has allowed thousands of people to save massive quantities of municipal water.
Instead of recognising this act of creativity and civic responsibility, his actions have been criminalised and he faces the prospect of having to pay for the dismantling of the pipe structure.
The City would do well to officially acknowledge Mr Rawoot in this regard and keep Kildare Road spring open as a heritage and memorial site.
The City also needs to publicly acknowledge that Newlands was once the site of forced removals under the Group Areas Act.
Many of the people collecting water at the spring once lived in Newlands and Claremont or have relatives who were removed from there in the 1960s.
For some of them, collecting water was also a remembrance practice and many of them reminisced to us and Mr Rawoot about their daily lives before the removals.
The threat to dismantle the pipe may very well be interpreted by many as another racialised indignity and a sign of the City’s failure to acknowledge the injustices of the past.
The City needs to initiate a meaningful process of constructive engagement with the current and former residents of Newlands residents, and recognise both Mr Rawoot’s civic contribution during a time of crisis and confront the festering wounds of Newlands’s apartheid past.
* Robins and Muller reside in Newlands