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How progress drives purification

Staff writer Ryan Lenora Brown had gone to Cape Town, South Africa, to report on “Zero Day” – the day the city’s faucets were going to go dry because of drought. But there had been a development.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Helen Moffett gets help carrying bottles of spring water she collected in Noordhoek, South Africa.

Every week, several senior editors at the Monitor gather to talk about the Weekly cover story. We approve cover art, discuss new story pitches, and check on how assignments are going. Earlier this month, at one of these meetings, we were thrown a curveball. 

Staff writer Ryan Lenora Brown had gone to Cape Town, South Africa, to report on “Zero Day” – the day the city’s faucets were going to go dry because of drought. But there had been a development. Zero Day, it turned out, wasn’t going to happen after all. The people of Cape Town had begun to solve their own problem. And in that moment, the unique way the Monitor covers the news came into sharp relief. 

For many news publications, perhaps, the story would have lost its reason for being. Cape Town was no longer going to be the first major city in the world to literally run out of water. Yet for the Monitor, that’s when the story became even more interesting, because it became a story about solutions. 

News media coverage is one of the ways that we, as societies, tell ourselves stories about who we are. What if we never told ourselves stories about our ability to solve problems? We might end up with a falsely pessimistic view of the world. Cape Town cut its water consumption by half in less than two years, and recent history suggests it is no outlier. From the landing on the moon to the deterioration of the ozone layer, humans have shown themselves to be amazing problem-solvers when determined to be.

But Ryan’s solutions-based approach also does something else. It shows how honestly grappling to find ways forward forces us to go deeper. In other words, commitment to progress becomes a relentless purifier.

Take the story of Helen Moffett. For this middle-class white woman, the measures taken during the water crisis have been transformative. She’ll never think about flushing the toilet in the same way again. But for Musa Baba, a black woman living in a shantytown, little has changed. “We’ve always lived like this,” she says.

This inequality is a legacy of apartheid, and in that way, the search for solutions in Cape Town has again laid bare deeper inequities that reframe the definition of a “solution.” Is the problem really solved if nothing changes for a huge swath of the population? 

Scarcity is an equalizer. Abundance gives scope for people to be “unequalized.” In some cases, that inequality is good. A society that rewards its best is a society that encourages all to do better. Communism failed utterly in this.

But clean, safe water touches on something essential to both human dignity and progress. And that brings Cape Town – and Ryan’s story – back to a few universal questions: Are we being honest enough about the real causes behind problems? Are entrenched legacies too daunting to overcome? Do we have the resolve to target them head-on?

If we do, there is ample evidence to suggest we can make headway. Cape Town can look to itself as proof of that. 

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