Action Needed to Resolve Toilet Unrest Along N2

The aftermath of a recent violent protest in Barcelona, Nyanga. Photo kindly provided by GroundUp. Photo by Mihle Pike

Recent Protest Action Comes After Months of Conflict and Failure to Act

The aftermath of a recent violent protest in Barcelona, Nyanga. Photo kindly provided by GroundUp. Photo by Mihle Pike

Dramatic closures of Cape Town’s N2 highway by former employees of Sannicare – a private company contracted by the City of Cape Town to service certain container toilets across the city’s informal settlements – have captured the public’s attention over recent weeks. While the destruction of public or private property – and in particular violent attacks on municipal workers – must be condemned, it is important to understand that these are not isolated and spontaneous events. Tension in informal settlements in Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Nyanga and other areas has been brewing for at least six months due largely to poor performance and communication by Sannicare, and has been worsened by a lack of adequate monitoring or intervention by the City of Cape Town.

Workers believe they have been mistreated, and lack adequate recourse to have their grievances addressed peacefully. As a result, thousands of residents who use these toilets and (to a lesser extent) tens of thousands of road commuters have suffered. Some of the affected areas were without toilets for many weeks as buckets became full and were not being collected and emptied. Residents complain that the smell during this period was unbearable and maggots began to cover the toilets.

The SJC has recently spoken with former Sannicare workers who claim that they were originally employed by a Sannicare sub-contractor known as Sanas. Their contracts commenced in 2011 when they were receiving R268 per day. During November 2012, for reasons that are still unclear, Sannicare took over the contract from Sanas. Workers claim that Sannicare cut their pay in half and an agreement was reached whereby the rate would be raised to its original amount of R268 within one month.

This did not happen. A further agreement was later reached that the amount would be raised on 1 March 2013. On 25 March, however, workers wrote a letter to Sannicare informing the company that their pay had still not been increased and that if the agreement was not honoured they would begin striking on 2 April. There was no response and the strike came into effect on 2 April. Further letters were sent to Sannicare on 4 and 7 April but workers received no response from the company.

In order to ensure that toilets continued to be serviced during the strike the City met with Sannicare and agreed that municipal workers would service the toilets while negotiations were underway. This arrangement was meant to be in place for one week. During this time Sannicare did not meet with the workers to negotiate and City workers continued to service the toilets past the original one week period. Workers in the Gugulethu requested that the City stop sending its workers, as the arrangement appeared to be preventing them from resolving the dispute with Sannicare. When workers asked City officials to intervene, they were told that the City would not be involved as this was an employee-employer dispute.

Towards the end of April Sannicare finally called a meeting with their employees. Workers were issued with letters informing them that they had been dismissed. Some workers signed these acknowledgement letters, while others did not accept the letters and still maintain that they are on strike.

According to the Local Government Municipal Systems Act, the City is legally obliged to ensure that outsourced basic services are implemented adequately and that these services are monitored in order to ensure they are provided. This includes ensuring that the City steps in to ensure a reliable level of service and decent working standards when contractors under-perform. Such intervention should have occurred many months ago.

The lack of monitoring is not unique to Sannicare. Last month’s social audit on ‘Mshengu’ toilets in Khayelitsha[1] exposed serious failures on the part of the City to ensure that outsourced services – such as the installation, cleaning and maintenance of toilets – are properly monitored and implemented. Although the Mayor has agreed with the SJC and noted that monitoring of contractors is inadequate[2], no details have been provided on how the city plans to take remedial action. 

As of writing, the protests continue and the N2 is once again littered with waste while law enforcement vehicles monitor the situation. To move beyond the current impasse it is vital that all roleplayers – including the City, ward councilors, community structures, Sannicare and workers – come together to reach a resolution.

With regard to long term and systemic remedial action, as highlighted in our social audit report, the City must employ proper systems and capacitate itself to ensure that monitoring of outsourced contracts is improved. We have called on various other levels of government including provincial and national departments as well as Chapter 9 institutions such as the Auditor General, the Human Rights Commission and the Public Protector to investigate how this can be resolved not just in Cape Town but in municipalities across South Africa.

It is tempting to blame the breakdown of this essential service solely on the actions of a few individuals, but the reality in this and many other is far more complex. It is imperative that this vital service be restored, but also that we learn from what went wrong to ensure similar incidents are reduced in future.


For comment please contact:

Phumeza Mlungwana              0744178306

Axolile Notywala                     0743861584

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.