Makhaza Toilets: Review & The Way Forward

This article appeared in The Cape Times on 27 May 2010.

There was widespread controversy earlier this year when it emerged that 50 households in the low-income settlement of Makhaza (Khayelitsha) had been provided with unenclosed toilets, leaving residents deprived of their rights to health, safety and dignity. The City of Cape Town, governed by the DA, claimed an agreement had been reached with the community. It entailed the commitment to build an external toilet for each home, as opposed to one for every five homes, provided each household built their own enclosures (walls and roofs). However, many were not aware of this arrangement and, in some cases, were unable to afford the material with which to do so, forcing them to use uncovered toilets in full view of the passing public.

The source of the widespread media attention was an ANCYL complaint to the Human Rights Commission and public outrage, which culminated in an apology from DA leader Helen Zille on Human Rights Day.

The Social Justice Coalition has been at the forefront of a campaign focused on the delivery of clean and safe toilets to the people of Khayelitsha’s informal settlements. As such, we were encouraged to see an issue which is seldom discussed (given its private nature), but fundamentally important to one’s daily routine, making mainstream headline news. We hoped it would prompt debate around the complex issue of delivery of sanitation services, in particular, and the broader issue of improving service delivery through better consultation with communities, in general. Unfortunately, this has not transpired.

At the time, we emphasised that the Makhaza incident was not unique to the DA, or the city – it has happened while other parties (including the ANC) have governed it, and certainly happens in other municipalities across the country. We also pointed out that Makhaza was the tip (albeit a very illuminating one) of the proverbial iceberg. Millions of South Africans and hundreds of thousands of Capetonians continue to have no, or very limited, access to basic sanitation facilities. We urged those in government and in all leadership positions not to use the Makhaza incident as political cannon fodder, but to sit down together regardless of political affiliation and with cool heads attempt to resolve the problem.

Almost four months later, Makhaza is back in the headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. We have lost focus of the real issue at hand – residents in Makhaza and elsewhere who continue to live without adequate sanitation facilities – and are, instead, embroiled in yet another political skirmish. In an attempt to make a complex and heavily diluted situation somewhat simpler, this article will focus on three groups of actors who have been central to what has transpired over the past few months.

The first is the Cape Town Municipality, headed by Mayor Dan Plato. The mayor has repeatedly claimed that the city has done “nothing wrong” in Makhaza – an assertion which becomes immediately preposterous to anyone who has witnessed someone in the area sitting on a toilet in the open because he or she can’t afford to pay for it to be enclosed. The city has also routinely refused to acknowledge broader deficiencies in sanitation provision in the city. In March, the city issued a statement in which it claimed that “there is access to toilets in townships”. Last year’s city annual report noted that “100 percent of households have access to basic water and sanitation”. This is patently untrue, as anyone who has ventured into Khayelitsha will know, and indeed, according to the city’s own data, which shows that just over 45 000 households don’t have access to basic sanitation. Recent research by Water Dialogues has shown that the true figure is probably closer to 100 000 households.

The Water Services Act states that the municipality or local council is directly responsible for ensuring access to water services. We do not expect this to happen overnight, but the failure of the city to take responsibility has only heightened tension in Makhaza, and antagonism towards local government. Its failure to acknowledge that the problem exists on a systemic level hinders discourse on how this challenge can best be addressed.

It is indeed true that the city has since tried to provide walls and roofs for the remaining uncovered toilets, but it appears that it has again failed to adequately consult with the community around the issue. When the toilets were originally built, many residents were not aware of the arrangement to build more toilets at the expense of walls and roofs. For example, one elderly woman had no idea she was even receiving a toilet, let alone that she would need to build her own walls around it. This confusion has persisted, with many residents being unaware as to what the city was planning to install on Monday, but also of the city’s broader plans for the development of the community. The issue is not so much about the material which was used or the build quality, but rather that residents were under the impression that they would receive more formal, concrete enclosures. This difference might seem insignificant to those living in relatively affluent areas, but it is very significant for those who have been waiting years for a service as basic as a functional toilet, and served as a great disappointment.

Most residents we spoke to inferred that the community would have been very open to an expedient measure in the short term, but were not informed of a long-term strategy and were dissatisfied with the way the mayor and other officials had treated them.

The second group includes an intricate web of community organisations, leaders and political groups, of which the local ANCYL is one. In our view, the call by ANCYL regional secretary Loyiso Nkohle for residents to respond by destroying property and rendering the city “ungovernable” is dangerous, counter-productive, and opportunistic. It must be condemned in the strongest possible terms by all individuals and organisations seeking to improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Capetonians living in squalour. This call threatens all of our efforts – past, present and future – to improve the lives of those living in these communities.

However, Monday’s regrettable destruction and general resentment in the community cannot be blamed on the ANCYL alone. A wide range of community members have confirmed that the youth league was not alone in this action. A notable segment of the community supported and participated in the action, and were allegedly prompted primarily by community leaders and local ward forums. We must be cautious in simplifying the situation to the extent that we blame a single organisation for what transpired. It is likely that various groups critical of the DA are using Monday’s incident to opportunistically mobilise support from those who feel disenfranchised, but that must not divert us from addressing the fundamental problem.

The third, and last, group includes those who are directly affected by the situation, including the residents of Makhaza, and indeed anyone deprived of basic services living in informal settlements. Many of these people feel helpless, angry and frustrated. They find themselves between a rock and a hard place. In many cases, the traditional spaces for government do not exist here. Fixing a leaking sewerage pipe – something which is done in a matter of hours in more affluent suburbs – can take many months, or even years. We are routinely told that “the government does not care about us here”. Given such desperation and the vacuum left by local government, it is not surprising that community members turn to alternative local leadership structures or organisations to address their concerns. When they do so, they are often greeted with untenable promises and the notion that violent protest will get government to listen. Monday’s destruction was not born out of an evil impulse but, rather, frustration and anger. It is true that there are individuals and groups who seek to exploit this, but it does not change the fact that to solve the problem there is a dire need for intervention by the state.

All three groups have a pivotal role to play in finding an escape from the Makhaza impasse, and in so doing, moving towards improved programmes of delivery in informal settlements.

While violence and intimidation must be wholly condemned, the government must take the initiative in improving consultation between itself and other role-players. It has been repeatedly shown that communicating with community leaders does not qualify as communication with community members. A functional public forum must be established for this purpose, which would include community members, community leaders, civil society and representatives from different spheres of government. It would also need to involve ward councillors from all political parties (but notably the DA and ANC), to illustrate solidarity in their commitment to resolving the problem together. Local government has an obligation with regard to sanitation services, and must lead on this.

Before it can do this, however, the City of Cape Town needs to acknowledge that there are fundamental problems with the current sanitation strategy, and more specifically in this case, the approach adopted in Makhaza. Mistakes will always be made, whether there is a DA or an ANC government in office. Whatever was intended at the outset, it is now clear that the Makhaza toilets did not meet norms and standards which dictate that they be, among other things, “safe and hygienic” and “private and protected from the weather”, and, moreover, it has in fact caused considerable conflict in the community. To regain the trust of Makhaza residents, the mayor must come forward and acknowledge these shortcomings.

Lastly, but equally important, progressive civil society organisations and leaders must do their utmost to actively work with the government to ensure optimum delivery and to build alternative spaces where community concerns can be channelled productively and non-violently. Such co-operation is, of course, very much dependant on the government itself adopting a constructive approach. Unless we work together on addressing the substantive issues, attempts to uplift these communities will ultimately fail.

Click here to sign our petition demanding safe, clean and private toilets for residents of Khayelitsha and all informal settlements in South Africa.

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