An abridged version of this open letter first appeared in City Press, 5 June 2011
Firstly, let me congratulate you on your ascent to the position of Mayor of Cape Town. You will no doubt be aware that with this position comes the challenge of delivering to a City which remains historically divided – with its poor residing on the flood prone and underdeveloped Cape Flats, and the relatively affluent along the coast and the northern suburbs. If we are to truly develop a great “City that Works For All”, we must do more to deliver to the most vulnerable communities. I believe that you share this vision, and hope we can work together in implementing it.
On 27 April 2011, I stood with approximately 2500 fellow Khayelitsha comrades to draw attention to the lack of access to clean and safe sanitation in my community. In an event organised by the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), we marched from St. George’s Cathedral – lead by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and other community leaders – to the Mayor’s office, where we peacefully queued behind a toilet. We did this to symbolically illustrate how – 17 years after voting in our country’s first democratic election – many of us continue to wait for access to the most basic of services. We invited your predecessor Mayor Dan Plato to personally receive our petition which was endorsed by more than 25 organisations and 10 000 people, but he failed to do so. More than a month later, we have yet to receive a response from the City of Cape Town.
While many take having a toilet that is clean and safe for granted, it remains a luxury for a great deal of our most vulnerable communities. Approximately 10.5 million people in South Africa still do not have access to basic sanitation services. According to recent research by the Water Dialogues, approximately 500 000 people in the City of Cape Town do not have access to basic sanitation. Although this is a challenge facing every municipality, sanitation provision is a local government function. As a resident of Khayelitsha, I intend on holding my local government to account in acting in accordance with its constitutional obligations.
The poor state of toilets and water services in informal settlements affects my community in many ways. I routinely see sewerage overflowing from manholes and toilets through people’s homes, stagnant filthy water collecting under standpipes, children playing in sewerage that gathers in pathways due to a lack of drainage, and toilets that have broken from overuse and vandalism. The most direct impact of this is on health. There is a very high prevalence of waterborne diseases, parasites and gastroenteritis of infectious origin. Personal hygiene becomes impossible to follow if the environment is permanently dangerous and unhygienic. Diahorrea has become one of the leading causes of death for children under five in Khayelitsha.
In addition to health risks, a lack of adequate sanitation renders residents far more vulnerable to crime. People are routinely robbed, assaulted, raped and murdered walking long distances to the nearest functioning toilet or empty clearing. At night, people are too scared to leave their homes, and often wait until daylight to relieve themselves.
Public toilets in many of Cape Town’s more affluent suburbs are maintained by dedicated janitors, stocked with provisions, and guarded by security personnel. In Khayelitsha’s informal settlements, there are no plans in place for the routine maintenance and monitoring of sanitation services, where one toilet can be shared by upwards of 100 people. This is left to the “community”.
The quality of existing sanitation services could be greatly improved by providing routine maintenance, monitoring and coordination of existing sanitation services. It would ensure that existing toilets do not fall into disrepair, and when faults such as broken pipes and overflowing manholes arise they are dealt with swiftly. It would reduce costs by ensuring that problems don’t reach the point of requiring costly repairs, and will greatly improve the quality of lives of hundreds of thousands. This was a key demand of our petition submitted to the City of Cape Town on 27 April, which seemed under the previous administration to fall on deaf ears.
Madam Mayor, we call on you to prioritise sanitation provision to all in Cape Town. There is no service more basic or local government function more pressing. The first step in doing this is to extend routine maintenance and monitoring services to toilets and water sources in informal settlements.
The progressive realisation of the rights of all to clean and safe sanitation will never be realised by government alone. The SJC holds that the only viable solution will come from widespread consultation between the City, experts, civil society, and communities. To date, the City of Cape Town has shunned the SJC and other organisations attempts to engage on sanitation provision. It has failed to recognise the scope of the problem, claiming that “there is access to sanitation in Khayelitsha” and has blamed all faults on vandalism. We hope that you will reject such callous denial, and commit to witnessing firsthand how this basic service is failing hundreds of thousands of Capetonians.
We look forward to working with you,
General-Secretary, Social Justice Coalition