PhD research: A material culture analysis of representations of ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town, South Africa

October 2019 to September 2023
material culture
Day Zero
linguistic landscapes
Cape Town
apartheid urban planning
University of the Western Cape (South Africa)
Research fields
Cultural Sciences
Languages and Literatures

“Day Zero” indexed what was to be the day Cape Town ran out of water. While the dam water levels had been deteriorating since 2015, the Western Cape water crisis peaked during the periods mid-2017 to mid-2018; with water levels hovering between 15 and 30 per cent of total dam capacity. During late-2017, the first mention of plans for ‘Day Zero’ emerged and the city braced for a water crisis never seen before. The countdown to ‘Day Zero’ was clearly visible on highway signboards, newspaper articles, mobile messages and social media platforms. It was also made tangible in the introduction of water meters and tariffs by the City of Cape Town. Catalyzed by news of Day Zero, sales of water skyrocketed and plastics containers ranging from the very small (10 liters) to large tanks (5000 liters) were purchased to catch and store water. Day Zero also sparked frequent trips from poverty-stricken areas on the periphery of Cape Town to affluent areas in search of free spring water. This unprecedented movement of people into the city’s most sought-after residential areas brought along with it a number of problems linked to socio-economic class, race and a sense of ‘being out of place’. 

The study applies a mixed methods approach, employing both qualitative and quantitative means to collect and analyze data. Significant to this study are water shortage discourses relating to: apartheid urban planning and human migration, social responsibility and moral panic; as well as the economic impact of the crisis. A Material Culture framework will be used to analyze the assortment of data sourced from inter alia: Cape Town resident and key informant interviews, images and videos, newspaper articles and ephemeral human migration.