Friday 8 July 2011

Cape Town Must Set an Example on Sanitation

The following article was published in the Cape Times on 7 July 2011. It can be found at

City must set example on sanitation

Last Thursday, I joined other Western Cape religious leaders on a “walk of witness” through parts of Khayelitsha to look at sanitation conditions, and the dangers they pose, not only directly to health, but also to people’s safety. I arrived straight from the memorial service for Professor Kader Asmal, and the juxtaposition was almost overwhelming: from the pristine City Hall auditorium, where we were welcomed with a bottle of water under every seat, to Khayelitsha, with its mud and stench of sewage, lacking the very basics of clean water and sanitation. After celebrating Asmal’s life, and the improvements that were achieved through his dedication, it was a shocking reminder of the challenges that remain and the dire situations in which far too many South Africans still live.

Our tour through RR and Taiwan sections was led by the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), a local community movement which has for the past two years been campaigning for improved access to clean and safe sanitation services for some half a million Capetonians without access to basic sanitation. It is not easy to grasp such vast numbers, but it is even harder to imagine the impact of seeing and hearing first-hand how the absence of these fundamental services affects residents daily.

The run-up to the recent local government elections saw an explosion of dissatisfaction with the state of municipal service delivery. The unenclosed toilets in Makhaza and Rammulotsi came to symbolise how municipalities across the country and across political parties are failing to uphold residents’ rights to safety, health and dignity. They also prompted wider questions about how our country engages with, and delivers to, society’s most vulnerable. With the elections behind us, sanitation no longer occupies the headlines, but it continues to dominate the lives of the millions of South Africans who continue to live without it.

This particular walk followed an earlier visit last August. I was shocked to see that many of the problems we witnessed then remain unattended to, almost a year later. A toilet which was blocked at the time of my first visit, not only remains blocked but is now in utter disrepair. The community has placed a heavy piece of concrete in front of the door to prevent it being used. Where one toilet can be shared between 60 and more people, it is shocking that those which exist can remain out of order for over a year.

Despite the terrible condition these toilets are often in, many residents would nonetheless rather use a blocked toilet than walk to a functioning one further from home, because of the dangers involved. The shocking truth is that for many, relieving oneself can be a life- threatening activity. We heard how residents are petrified of using the toilet at night, preferring to hold out until sunrise. It is hard to imagine telling toddlers that they must wait until morning to use the toilet, but this is the reality for many.

The fear is justified. Residents are frequently attacked while going to use toilets. SJC member Makhosandile Qezo has no toilet near his home. Instead, he must relieve himself in a desolate field between Lansdowne Road and the N2 highway. One morning last year, he was stabbed in the face while his trousers were around his ankles. Another young SJC member – 14-year-old Zanele – escaped an attack while relieving herself in the same field, but she was hit by a car on the busy Lansdowne Road and was seriously injured as she ran away. Women and children are frequently assaulted and raped.

The health risks of filthy toilets and water sources are also appalling. It is hard to find one family not afflicted by waterborne illnesses such as diarrhoea, gastroenteritis, worms, and severe rashes. When walking around Taiwan informal settlement, I noticed that the bank of chemical toilets on the community’s outskirts was surrounded by waste of every sort. Even at a distance, the stench was unbearable. Several of our party found ourselves battling with sinus headaches after our brief visit.

The provision of sanitation facilities for informal settlements that are in line with national norms and standards will take many years, and requires detailed planning. The city cannot do this successfully on its own. Alongside making the provision of clean and safe sanitation facilities for informal settlements a priority, it must call for public consultation through which experts and stakeholders can plan together. Residents and local authorities working co-operatively is always the best way to achieve effective, lasting results. In the interim there are tangible steps that can be taken to ensure that the existing infrastructure is utilised to its maximum potential.

At present, the city constructs toilets and standpipes, which then become the community’s “responsibility”. But it is completely unrealistic to expect a toilet that is shared, perhaps by over 100 people, to be properly maintained without state assistance. It is critical that the city budgets for and provides regular janitors for existing facilities. It is also unacceptable for the few toilets that do exist to remain in disrepair for months or even years, as we saw last week. Where I live, it takes less than 48 hours for sewerage faults to be repaired. The same level of service is unquestionably the right of those living in our poorer communities.

One lesson we learnt from the unenclosed toilet saga was how quickly delivery fails when there is a lack of meaningful engagement between communities and government. Civil society organisations and the religious community are uniquely placed to facilitate this process. For this reason, today we will join a meeting between the SJC and the mayor of Cape Town. This meeting follows an SJC protest, in which I participated, which was held on Freedom Day, April 27. Approximately 2 500 people symbolically queued behind a toilet outside Cape Town’s Civic Centre to illustrate how, 17 years to the day after we first queued to vote, far too many people still continue to wait for access to basic sanitation. A memorandum, signed by more than 10,000 people and 25 organisations, was handed over.

Mayor Patricia de Lille must be commended for agreeing to meet to discuss this important issue. I want to assure De Lille that I and the broader faith-based community will lend our support to attempts to bring various stakeholders around the table, to work together to ensure the progressive realisation of every person’s right to use a clean and safe toilet. Let us set an example in the City of Cape Town – a city which proudly encourages participation and values the rights of all inhabitants – that can be replicated in municipalities across the country.

Our problems are great, but we must make the needs of the neediest the highest priority of the whole nation, and every part of society. The solutions are neither quick nor easy. Effective consultation and communication, openness, honesty, transparency and trust, are necessary to ease our difficult journey forwards. Let us talk the talk and walk the walk together.

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