Our history has a lot to offer in addressing current water challenges
The spirituality that is linked to water has largely been neglected by the African continent, whereas some of the problems presented by climate change, for example, may not necessarily be solved by science alone but through a combination of deep-seated indigenous knowledge and a rich history that is lying unused. This is the view of Professor Mathole Motshekga who was speaking at the Water Research Commission (WRC) dialogue held on Friday 28 September 2012 at Freedom Park, Pretoria.
Prof Motshekga cited an example of the rainmaking cultural practice that has become known through the most famous rainmaker in South Africa, Queen Modjadji, also known as the ‘Rain Queen’, who rules the Balobedu community in the Limpopo Province. The Queen's history can be traced back to Zimbabwe 400 years ago. Stories have been told that the queen had stolen the rainmaking medicine from her father and fled to settle in the cycad forest where she practiced rainmaking, which eventually made her popular and her influence began to spread. As water was scarce in South Africa it is said that all population groups thought twice before tangling with the Rain Queen. King Shaka of the Zulus is also reported to have sent his top men to ask for her blessing.
“Our culture teaches us that women are at the centre of water provision; we should learn to respect them,“ said Prof. Motshekga in his rich historical narration. “A lot could be shared with the Kings and Queens as they often hold meetings with villagers. Perhaps the Commission should start looking into visiting these people as they are celebrating their rainmaking ceremony in October this year at Mapungubwe,” he added.
South Africa’s heritage celebration could also be linked to the major change in water legislation, i.e. the Water Act of 1956 being replaced by the internationally-acclaimed National Water Act of 1998 and Water Services Act of 1997. These two pieces of law changed access to water for all South Africans. However, many people still flock to big cities hoping for a better life, which leads to an ever-increasing backlog of water service provision in slums, noted Ambassador Thandi Lujabe-Rankoe, former South African High Commissioner to Mozambique. In a tearful rendition she also narrated her own childhood experiences of having to carry water as a young girl calling on the water sector to increase its efforts to ensure the rollout of basic and equitable services to all.
While water in South Africa is a scarce resource, a lot could be adopted from Stone Age communities, such as the San, who were formidable engineers in their own way. These people stored water sufficiently and adapted to changing climate conditions at a time when they had limited water resources, especially rainfall. "Their water storage facilities were just ostrich egg shells," commented Prof. Johan Tempelhoff of North West University. While most ancient water infrastructure in South Africa has been lost, evidence has been found of pre-colonial water storage and irrigation structures, which assisted local communities to grow crops and practice economic activities, such as smelting iron. Many of these practices were later adopted by the European settlers, such as the saaidamme, which are still used in parts of the Northern Cape today.
Water shortages are not new in South Africa. Our historical records show that, mid-Atlantic, Van Riebeeck feared a water shortage and commanded his captains to cut the rations. Water conservation was compulsory as the sailors had to carry large supplies of freshwater for their crews. This was the first water conservation measure taken by these new South Africans, on 20 March 1952.
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Speech by Ambassador Thandi Lujabe-Rankoe
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