There is such a thing as an academic tourist. International conferences open up new places to discover and revel in. This month I got to visit South Africa – my first visit to the African continent. I went to Cape Town for a workshop.
Upon exiting the plane, I was greeted at the airport by wall-to-wall signs raising awareness of the city’s severe water crisis. In many public spaces (including the airport), taps were shut down. Hand sanitisers were offered instead. The city officials fear that early April will be ‘Day Zero’, the day on which all taps will run dry.
Signs of the crisis are everywhere. They range from pleas at the airport to save water to frequent signs to the effect that ‘if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down’ in many restaurant bathrooms. You start to notice the wealth divide in places where signs like this are conspicuously absent. This sustains the utopia that Cape Town appears to be, with its abundance of beauty and culture. The AirBnBs I stayed at reminded me in bold letters that every extra minute in the shower counts, and that it is important to re-use ‘grey water’, the water we unthinkingly waste away, for washing the car and dishes.
When I booked my flight, I had little inkling of this impending disaster. Climate change was never more personal or visceral for me than when I was in Cape Town. I am aware of the carbon footprint of the journeys my academic privilege allows me to make. This is compounded by the fact that as an academic tourist, I was consuming the scarce resources of a city in crisis. However much I tried to minimise my presence by skipping showers, not washing my clothes and flushing only when necessary, it was hard to ignore the fact that my very being in Cape Town was a problem in itself.
Brimming with guilt, I felt the least I could do was to raise awareness of the plight of Cape Town and our moral responsibility to delay visits there until after the crisis. However, as I took this mission to heart, a Capetonian reminded me that while my plan to warn others not to visit Cape Town for the time being was well intended, it would inadvertently hurt a city that is already hurting. Thousands of jobs in Cape Town depend on tourism. By refraining from visiting this city, we would further stigmatise it, just when it badly needs visitors.
This moral dilemma serves as a reminder that as academics, we need to tread carefully with our privilege.
Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication