Let's Think

Cape Town heading for Symbaoe or Windhoek status?

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Cape Town might become the first major modern city to die because of climate change, but will not be the first in history, or in Southern Africa.

That ‘honour’ belongs to the medieval, Iron Age city of Symbaoe, near Lake Mutirikwe and the modern-day town of Masvingo in Zimbawe. In fact, it is Symbaoe, that we today know as the Zimbabwe Ruins.

The majority of scholars believe that it was built by members of the Gokomere culture, who were ancestors of modern Shona in Zimbabwe. A few believe that the ancestors of the Lemba or Venda were responsible, or cooperated with the Gokomere people in the construction the 11th century and continued for over 300 years.

The name comes from a contraction of the Shona dialect Karanga words dzimba-dze-mabwe, meaning ‘house of stone.’ It was first recorded in 1531 by Vicente Pegado, Captain of the Portuguese Garrison of Sofala. Pegado noted that. There is no absolute consensus amongst historians and archaeologists about the history of Symbaoe, but all accept that it was once a thriving city with a population of between 10 000 an 20 000 and that it had trade-links with China, India, and Persia.

While no single factor can be pinpointed for the demise of this once powerful state, the most likely reason seems to be a combination of climate change and urbanization. Its demise is implied by a description transmitted in the early 1500s to João de Barros, and seems to be linked to climate change at the time, deforestation, and the famine, and water shortage that accompanied it.

Around 1450 Symbaoe was abandoned because its hinterland could no longer furnish food for what then was an overpopulated city. There was a mass migration, and political shifts took place. By the time that the Portuguese settled in Sofala in 1505, the region was divided between the rival powers of the kingdoms of Torah and Mwene-Mutapa. The days of the people of Symbaoe dominating the region, were gone forever.

The Windhoek route

Another Southern African country, and its capital city, with a lot less potential to start with, took a totally different route.

Windhoek, situated almost exactly in the centre of Namibia on the Khomas Highland plateau, prone to droughts in a country which include the large Namib desert. It started off as a town at the site of a permanent spring known to the indigenous pastoral communities.

The town developed rapidly after Jonker Afrikaner, Captain of the Orlam, settled there in 1840 and built a stone church for his community. Then came decades of multiple wars and armed hostilities, and the neglect and destruction of the settlement.

 Windhoek was founded a second time in 1890 by Imperial German Army Major Curt von François, when the territory became colonised by Germany. That came to an end during World I, it had five years of military government form South Africa before the then League of Nations made it a United Kingdom mandatory country. The UK entrusted its administration to the then Union of South Africa as a self-governing British colony.

It was only after World War II that Windhoek’s development again picked up some momentum after it virtually came to a standstill after WWI. Then, especially since 1955, large public projects were undertaken, such as the building of new schools and hospitals, and the tarring of the city's roads.

Most importantly it included the building of dams and pipelines to stabilise the water supply to the city. The city introduced the world's first potable re-use plant in 1958, treating recycled sewage and sending it directly into the town's water supply.

Since Namibia became independent in 1990 the city, as capital could afford to go into a sustained growth phase. Its population has grown to close .5-million people, and is still expanding.

Expanding the city posed some geographical challenges, being surrounded by rocky, mountainous areas, which make land development costly. And, mindful of its water challenges, much of the land on the southern side of the city is excluded from industrial development because of the presence of underground aquifers.

However, Windhoek's City Council still has plans to dramatically expand the city's boundaries such that the town area will cover 5,133.4 square kilometres.

Windhoek would become the third-largest city in the world by area, after Tianjin and Istanbul.

However, having personally worked and lived in the city, I know that this also delivers a special charm – Windhoek having a population density of only 63 inhabitants per square kilometre.

Cape Town at a cross roads

Considering the modern scientific knowledge available, it should not have happened, but Cape Town has now reached some cross-roads where it will have to choose between the Symbaoe or Windhoek option.

By the grace of modern technology there is still a small window of opportunity to avoid the Symbaoe outcome. Despite all the warnings, the drought has caught Cape Town ill-prepared, and it would be irresponsible in the extreme to allow the political blame games now being played around the issue to come in the way of rescue work than needs to be done.

Those not knowing, or realising, what happens to people who ignore warnings of climatic events, should read, for its deeper message, the story of The Flood in the Genesis of the Bible.

by Piet Coetzer

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