Why We Will Queue This Freedom Day

This is an unabridged version of an article by the SJC’s Gavin Silber and Mandla Majola, which appeared in The Times Newspaper on 26 April 2011

The brutal murder of Andries Tatane by Police during a protest for access to water in Ficksburg is symbolic of the inequality, poverty and injustice that continues to haunt most people living in South Africa today.  Tatane’s death has hit a nerve.  It has illustrated once again that South Africans are becoming increasingly aggravated and disheartened by the slow pace of delivery to historically disadvantaged communities. It has further illustrated the increasing willingness of the State to silence dissent when voices are raised.

Tomorrow, we commemorate Freedom Day, marking seventeen years since millions queued to vote in our country’s first democratic elections. Political leaders across all levels of government and all political parties will deliver speeches heaving with statistics and figures celebrating how much has been achieved in their respective constituencies.  They will come as little consolation to the millions who continue to live in abject poverty and are – despite all the promises – ignored by political leaders between election cycles.  No sphere of government is more responsible for basic service delivery and the development of participatory democracy than local government.  Building active citizenship and accountability must begin here.

The Social Justice Coalition (SJC) is a community movement working to do this in Khayelitsha – Cape Town and perhaps South Africa’s largest township. Here like in most sprawling townships, many residents continue to live without the most basic of services. It is hard to imagine any service more basic than access to clean and safe toilets and water, yet they remain luxuries for many.

The danger generated by the lack of access to sanitation services manifests itself in many ways.  The poor state of toilets and water services results in 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.  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.  Conducting simple bodily functions that many take for granted remain life threatening activities for millions of South Africans.

The failure to provide adequate sanitation services and indeed many other basic services to these communities has a primary source – the failure of municipalities to recognise so called “illegal” and “informal” settlements as communities that (given the housing backlog) will be with us for many years to come.  As a result, municipalities fail in their constitutional duties to plan, provide for and deliver basic sanitation to communities most in need. In Khayelitsha, 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.  Instead, the focus is on relocation.  When walking around an informal settlement flowing with sewerage last year, a city official responsible for sanitation services in the area quipped that these “people shouldn’t be here”, in front of a fourteen year old who had lived there for all fourteen years of her life.  Six months earlier she was seriously injured when hit by a car crossing a busy unlit road at night to relieve herself in a bush alongside the N2 highway.  While housing must be an ultimate objective, local governments have an explicit duty to provide basic sanitation to informal settlements in accordance with the Water Services Act.

The SJC is working to publicise what is traditionally a very private issue. On Human Rights Day last year, 600 SJC members queued outside a public toilet in the seaside suburb of Sea Point – a toilet which is impeccably maintained by full time janitors, stocked with provisions like toilet paper and soap, is well lit, and patrolled by security personnel.  None of these services exist for the overwhelming number of residents in informal settlements, where health and safety is being jeopardised on a daily basis. The immediate response by the City was one of denial and misinformation – a trend which continues a year later. It claimed that there “is access to sanitation in Khayelitsha” and that “finite resources pose a major challenge”. Recent research conducted by the Water Dialogues concluded that 500 000 Capetonians don’t have access to basic sanitation. Since our protest last year, the Sea Point toilets have been upgraded to the tune of R770 000.

Another common response has been to accuse the SJC of “singling out Cape Town for a national problem”.  We are very mindful of the fact that 10.5 million people nationally do not have access to sanitation most notably in areas historically neglected by the Apartheid State. As city residents, we have every right to hold our government accountable in meeting its obligations, particularly when such a crucial service is concerned.

The City of Cape Town and Western Cape’s governing Democratic Alliance recently acknowledged that sanitation “is not simply another function of modern local government but, historically and in principle the very core reason for its existence”.  We hope that this means our municipality will refrain from being evasive of their responsibility, and commit to ensuring that access to this fundamental right is prioritised and progressively realised.

Tomorrow, we will stage one of the largest peaceful protests for access to basic sanitation since 1994.  After a service at St. George’s Cathedral at noon the SJC will march to the Mayor’s office, where we will again form a queue behind a toilet to illustrate that many residents living in the City’s informal settlements continue to wait for access to clean and safe sanitation services.  We will be joined by various community organisations, religious leaders, and medical practitioners from across the City.  A petition will be submitted with over 10 000 signatures calling on the City of Cape Town to design and implement a plan for the maintenance of sanitation services, and to call for consultation on the long-term delivery of basic sanitation to all living in the city.

Freedom Day is an opportunity to reflect on the freedoms, rights and duties we enjoy today.  These are not exhausted in the voting booth.  The toil of democracy comes with consistently and patiently working to ensure that government meets its obligations.  We owe this not only to our many predecessors who died struggling for these rights, but to Andries Tatane and the countless others who continue to die waiting for the most basic services.


Gavin Silber is the Policy Coordinator and Mandla Majola is the Campaigns Coordinator at the Social Justice Coalition.

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