If ever anything summed up South Africa's future, it's "Overvaal" and "Day Zero' – but not necessarily for the reasons that might seem obvious.
The Cape's genuine drought-triggered water crisis and the shamelessly exploited circumstances surrounding enrolment at Vereeniging's Hoërskool Overvaal may not be naturally comparable – other than in being projected as signs of "crisis" or of the "ticking time-bomb" theme common to much fearful thinking about South Africa's future.
If people aren't dying of thirst in this hellish vision, they're forming themselves into racially inspired lynch mobs. But what really underlies, and links, the contest over education in Gauteng and the emergency-scale husbanding of the Cape's most vital and increasingly scarce resource is the very nature of our future as a society: the magnetic effect of cities, the pull of hope, the desire among millions for an urban middle-class life.
This is a good thing, perhaps the best thing South Africa could wish for – but only if South Africans confront what it really means. And what it really means – if we continue as we are – is that without economic growth and the more effective policies that must go with it, our crises will multiply in ever-growing cities incapable of matching the middle-class dream.
Research in recent months by analysts at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) presents a vivid picture of the challenge. The wider setting is defined by a shift in the structure of the economy towards high-skills tertiary and service industries. In 1990, mining and manufacturing accounted for 12.9 percent and 28.7 percent of formal employment respectively.
By last year, mining's share had shrunk to 4.9 percent and manufacturing's to 12.3 percent. Jobs in the more skilled sectors of finance (22.6 percent), trade (21.8 percent) and community, social and government services (26.9 percent) now account for the bulk of South Africa's formal employment.
For those with access to a good education, the future is brighter – yet South Africa has among the highest youth unemployment rates.
Between 2001 and 2017, skilled employment increased at a rate of 56.9 percent, while low-skilled employment increased at only 19.5 percent. This aligns with research released in December showing that between 2011 and 2016, more than 1.4-million South Africans migrated from mainly rural – and poorer-performing – provinces, mainly to the urban concentrations of Gauteng and Western Cape.
They were drawn by markedly higher salaries and wages, more jobs and better education opportunities. But the benefits of city life and the modern high-skills economy remain beyond the reach of many among the most hopeful and aspiring. The overall employment picture in 2017 shows that some 22.3-million South Africans are "economically active", meaning they have jobs (16.1-million), or they are actively looking for work (6.2-million).
But the labour force absorption rate (or employed people as a share of the working-age population) has fallen from 45.8 percent in 2001 to 43.3 percent today. And the official unemployment rate has climbed from 24.6 percent in 2001 to 27.7 percent.
For those with access to a good education, the future is brighter – yet South Africa has among the highest youth unemployment rates. Of the 9.3-million jobless people in South Africa today, 6-million are under 35 and 8.3-million are black – with the unemployment rate for black people being four to five times higher than that of white people, because of the country's uneven skills profile.
Statistics show that half of South Africa's children drop out of school, and fewer than five percent pass maths in matric with a grade of more than 60 percent (the number of children passing maths with 70 percent or more has declined by about 30 percent since 2008).
Of the more than one-million children who were in grade 10 in 2014, just over half managed to enrol in grade 12 in 2016. Leading educationist Jonathan Jansen highlighted a month ago the depressing outcome of the 2016 PIRLS (Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study) report, based on testing 12,810 grade-four pupils from 293 South African schools.
Here, and in the country's other growing cities, significant advances have been made since 1994 in education, housing, electricity and water provision.
He wrote bluntly: "Hold on to your seat. This study found that almost eight out of 10 children cannot read. No really, 78 percent of children in the grade sound words but do not understand the meaning of what they read." This is a key measure in assessing the hopes of the millions who move to cities hoping for a better life.
When it comes to finding work and carving out careers in the country's increasingly high-skills economy, the labour market absorption rate tells a grim story. The rate for people with a tertiary education is 75.6 percent, falling to 50.3 percent for those with matric, and just 34 percent, on average, for those with a qualification lower than matric.
Yet, in Gauteng's case for instance, the number of public schools in the province has grown by less than 10 percent since 2000, while the provincial population increased by more than 40 percent over this period. Against this background, the admissions pressure on better-performing schools comes as no surprise. A lot rides on the outcome.
Here, and in the country's other growing cities, significant advances have been made since 1994 in education, housing, electricity and water provision. But as demand for these and other services mounts, it is clear that meeting them will need much higher levels of investment.
Given our poor economic growth rate – GDP is expected to grow at a quarter of the rate of comparable emerging markets this year – domestic consumers (and the modest one-in-fourteen of South Africa's 56-million people who pay personal taxes – a tiny one percent of whom pay 61 percent of income tax) don't have the resources to trigger a turnaround.
Yet economic policies – and burdensome regulations, especially in key sectors such as mining and farming – have the effect of undermining investor confidence, or failing to provide the basic incentive of certainty on which attracting foreign investment depends. Instead, we are too often beset by inertia, incompetence or corruption.
In the face of the real challenges presented by the Overvaals and Day Zeros of the looming future, better policies and better planning will depend on better popular choices.
One of our strengths as a society is that South Africans' attitudes towards one another are healthier than they are often assumed to be. An overwhelming majority (84 percent) agreed in a 2016 survey that the different races need one another and that there should be full opportunities for people of all colours.
Furthermore, 75 percent of respondents, and 73 percent of blacks, also believe that "more jobs and better education" is the "best way to improve lives"... in contrast, for example, to the one percent of South Africans, and one percent of black people, who believe "more land reform" is essential.
But are the politicians aware of this, and, if not, why aren't they? The dystopian spectre of a future that doesn't work has always had a daunting appeal in South Africa – but then, so has a naïve faith in the promises of people who don't deliver. It is perhaps a measure of our resilience as a society that we know how to put up with hardship.
But as our cities fill with ever more expectant migrants from the increasingly intolerable deprivations and disadvantages of the country that was, hardships will weigh all the more heavily. A dynamic South Africa's hopes must ultimately depend on its own choices, and its willingness to make them, for we are a democracy and it's the people who have the power.
In the face of the real challenges presented by the Overvaals and Day Zeros of the looming future, better policies and better planning will depend on better popular choices. Without them, there will be no escape from the fear of yet more pitched battles at our school gates, or relief from obsessing over the date on which the taps will run dry.
Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom