From Makhaza to Moqhaka, End the Toilet Wars!

  • An unenclosed toilet in Makhaza, Khayelitsha (photo by David Harrison)

  • Unenclosed toilets in Rammulotsi, Free State (photograph by Madelene Cronjé)

For more than a year, national attention has been focussed on the ongoing saga of the toilets constructed without enclosures Makhaza, Khayelitsha.  We have watched as residents in one of the country’s most impoverished townships have been caught between a battle of brinkmanship between our two biggest political parties – the ANC and the DA.  This week, it emerged that unenclosed toilets stand in Rammulotsi, in the Free State municipality of Moinqhaka.  With local elections a few days away, the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) again[1] calls for the duties of local governments and the interests of these communities to come before those of political parties.  We call on both the ANC and DA to commit to enclosing these toilets, to consider broader challenges facing sanitation provision more generally, and to refrain from continuing to use this critical basic service to score political points.

The unenclosed toilets in Makhaza and Moqhaka have violated the rights of a few thousand people and understandably generated much public indignation.  However, 10.5 million people in South Africa continue to live without access to basic sanitation[2].  Millions have no access to a toilet, and are forced to relieve themselves in the open in isolated clearings away from their homes.  While doing so people are frequently assaulted, robbed, raped and sometimes even murdered.  A toilet and water source shared by hundreds of informal settlement residents does not receive regular maintenance from municipalities.  This leads to unhygienic conditions and thetransmission of waterborne diseases and illness.  Diahorrea is one of the leading causes of deaths for children under five in informal settlements.  According to the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, 100 children may die daily from Diahorrea – a number which could be reduced by 40% with the delivery of adequate sanitation.[3] The lack of basic sanitation in line with national norms and standards is a crisis faced by our poorest and most vulnerable citizens, and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The provision of sanitation is one the most important functions of local governments.  It is good that the ability to use a clean and safe toilet – traditionally a very private act rarely discussed – has become a focal point in the run-up to the municipal elections, but it is a pity that it is not being done in a positive manner with critical reflection on one’s own performance.  Political parties have instead passed the blame, and sought refuge in the relative under-performance of other areas.  Every municipality has a duty to ensure that the right to basic sanitation for every resident is progressively realised.

Many lessons can be drawn from what went wrong in Makhaza and Rammulotsi.  Both Judge Nathan Erasmus’s recent ruling and the City of Cape Town’s internal audit regarding Makhaza found that there was a failure to adequately engage and consult meaningfully with the community.  Preliminary reports suggest that the same failures occurred in Rammulotsi[4].  The response by municipalities in the aftermath also suggests that confusion prevails about what exactly qualifies as basic sanitation under the norms and standards. This confusion is not limited to unenclosed toilets, but indeed sanitation provision more broadly.  It illustrates that if basic services are to be provided effectively, government needs to positively engage with communities and civil society. The provision of sanitation to all in need is a complex task.  It will never be delivered successfully by government alone.

On 27 April 2011, 2500 SJC members marched peacefully from St. Georges Cathedral to the Mayor of Cape Town’s office. There a petition was handed over endorsed by over 10 000 residents of Khayelitsha and 25 organisations, calling on the City of  Cape Town to initiate a public consultation to discuss the long term delivery of basic sanitation to all those in need.  In the interim, we called on the City to immediately provide routine maintenance for communal sanitation facilities in informal settlements, which will drastically improve the quality of service and lives of residents.  The SJC is focussed on Cape Town because this is where our members are based, but the same problems exist throughout South Africa.  We are seeking to develop improved policies and approaches here which can be replicated elsewhere.

Providing decent sanitation throughout the country will not be easy or cheap. But across the world, the introduction of sanitation has improved public health, reduced pressure on health systems, and improved the safety of residents. Improved sanitation will surely confer the same benefits in South Africa.  Ahead of next week’s election and beyond, All political parties can demonstrate their commitment to the dignity and health of our country’s poorest people by working together to prioritise the provision of clean and safe sanitation.


[1] See SJC Press Statement of 27 May 2010 –

[2] Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (2010) –,

[3] Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (2010)  –


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