April 23, 2022
By Adam Echelman
Steve Kretzmann is used to fighting with the city of Cape Town. “It’s quite healthy in a way that we can have these fights,” he says nonchalantly, “As long as I’ve got my facts straight.”
Lately, Kretzmann’s facts are not only straight — but they are also giving officials in Cape Town reason to be nervous. In partnership with the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), Kretzmann has published a series of stories chronicling how Cape Town mismanaged its water supply during a near-apocalyptic drought in 2018. These acclaimed stories are emblematic of Kretzmann’s broader approach to journalism – one characterized by an enduring sense of curiosity, a willingness to evolve and a relentless pursuit of accountability.
Kretzmann has long reported on South Africa’s sordid history with water, so he wasn’t surprised when Raymond Joseph, CCIJ’s former Africa editor, asked him to look into Coca Cola’s water consumption during Cape Town’s extreme drought. At that time, the city’s water reserves were running dry and the risk of a day with no water for millions of residents – known as “Day Zero” – was a serious threat.
The city ultimately averted Day Zero through a number of restrictions on municipal water, including halting the use of water for pools, lawns and car washes. Residents were also limited to an estimated 13 gallons of water a day or faced steep fines (for comparison, the average person in the United States uses 82 gallons per day). Households above a certain threshold had devices affixed to their pipes that automatically reduced their consumption.
But Kretzmann discovered that the city neglected to enforce those same restrictions for some of its major businesses. “For residents, if you used beyond a certain amount, the penalties came in very hard,” Kretzmann explains. Businesses, however, needed to pay a bit more but could “basically carry on using as much as they wanted.”
The city of Cape Town wouldn’t disclose who the biggest industrial water consumers were, so Kretzmann and Joseph filed a petition under the Promotion of Access to Information Act. When they received the data two months later, the numbers had no units.
They escalated the matter directly to the mayor until the data was finally legible. It confirmed their suspicions: businesses took advantage of the relaxed water restrictions and continued consuming at high levels throughout the drought. The data then led Kretzmann and Joseph to uncover a slew of malfunctioning wastewater treatment plants, which aggravated the drought and polluted the local estuary – so much so that it often smells of sewage.
That investigative approach builds on Kretzmann’s long-standing commitment toward community-led journalism. After working for years at East Cape News, he saw a gap in the coverage of South Africa’s townships, some of the poorest areas in the country. Journalists often wrote about these predominantly Black African neighborhoods, but few of those writers had experience living or growing up there. Kretzmann founded a new company, West Cape News, that enabled youth from these townships to tell the stories of their own communities and, in turn, to become full-fledged journalists.
He had a scrappy, no-nonsense approach that pushed youth to report and ultimately lead. “I’d have a youngster basically matriculated, finished his high school a few months ago, and say ‘I’d heard you take on reporters,’” recounts Kretzmann with a smile. “They’d say, ‘I live in Kaliche,’ and I’d say go to Kaliche and come back to me with a story. If they came back with a story, I’d take them on.”
According to Kretzmann, nearly every major publication in South Africa purchased a story from West Cape News in its heyday. But as the journalism market dried up in 2013, he had to pivot again.
He sees his current work as yet another bold moment for journalism. Instead of the constant competition for readers and sales, today’s journalists need to collaborate across platforms to dig deeper into investigative questions and maximize funding. It’s one reason he was initially drawn to CCIJ, which has helped him partner with Code for All, the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the National Endowment for Democracy and others.
While the industry continues to change, Kretzmann is grateful for the privileges he still enjoys as an investigative reporter. He relishes the opportunities to dive into local stories, like a feature he did on recent elections in the town of Emfuleni in Gauteng. It’s where Kretzmann grew up, and the changes he describes in the story are personal too.
On a national level, he feels a sense of pride for South Africa’s media. “We’ve got a lot of media freedom,” Kretzmann says, “A lot more than a lot of European countries, maybe even a little better than the States.”
He jokes about US movies, where residents get quiet, sit still and act nervous when police officers approach. By contrast, Kretzmann explains, South Africans have a conversation, perhaps even an argument with law enforcement. He sees that back-and-forth as part of government accountability, an everyday example of democracy in action and something he’s proud to advance in his own way.