Thursday, 12 May 2011

The writing’s on the wall…the long wait for a toilet

In a week we've spent looking at progress and challenges faced by the poorest 48 countries in the world, we're keen to show that sanitation is an issue still providing challenges in those countries no longer in abject poverty. South Africa enjoys great economic prosperity - but the poorest and most marginalised still face a life without access to adequate sanitation. Jonathan Dockney writes here on behalf of the Social Justice Coalition about their campaign to ensure access to sanitation for the poorest, and recent campaigning activities to achieve this.

On 27 April 2011 – Freedom Day –, the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) hosted a Toilet Queue protest outside the Mayor of Cape Town’s offices. The Toilet Queue was held in aid of getting the city to deliver better sanitation services to the people of Khayelitsha. It was the second of two such planned protests, one held in Khayelitsha on 16 April 2011 and the second held in Cape Town on 27 April 2011.

The SJC is community-based movement, located in Khayelitsha in Cape Town, with a current membership of over 1000 active members. The SJC focuses on two main campaigns: addressing the shortcomings of the criminal justice system, and fighting for clean and safe sanitation in informal settlements.

The iconic queues of voters during the 1994 South African elections captured the miracle of that day, 17 years ago. Sadly, today, the metaphor of the queue also captures the sense of betrayal and let down felt by millions of South Africans, 17 years after the 1994 elections. The Cape Town Toilet Queue was held on Freedom Day to symbolically represent that, for many South Africans, freedom is far from won. This is where the Toilet Queue draws its motif. The SJC held its first Toilet Queue last year on Human Rights Day, with over 600 people in attendance. This was held outside a very well maintained public toilet in Sea Point in Cape Town. This Toilet Queue coincided with World Water Day and the World’s Longest Toilet Queue campaign, where people around the world queued for toilets in solidarity with those without this fundamental right. Since the 2010 Queue, the toilets in Sea Point have been upgraded to the tune of R770 000.

The Strategic Framework for Water Services (2003) defines a basic sanitation facility as:

The infrastructure necessary to provide a sanitation service which is safe, reliable, private, protected from the weather, ventilated, keeps smells to the minimum, is easy to keep clean, minimizes the risk of the spread of sanitation-related diseases by facilitating the appropriate control of disease carrying flies and pests, and enables safe and appropriate treatment and/or removal of human waste and wastewater in an environmentally sound manner.

The Strategic Framework for Water Services (2003) defines a basic sanitation service as:

The provision of a basic sanitation facility which is easily accessible to a household, the sustainable operation of the facility, including the safe removal of human waste and wastewater from the premises where this is appropriate and necessary, and the communication of good sanitation, hygiene and related practices.

The SJC’s campaign for clean and safe sanitation in Khayelitsha can be located within these above definitions. Approximately 37% of the 128 000 households who live in informal settlements in Cape Town do not have access to basic sanitation (Goldberg 2009: 7)[1] – this translates into almost 500 000 people in Cape Town[2].

The problem lies with municipalities that do not recognize informal settlements as legal structures. As a result, municipalities do not plan, provide for and deliver services, which they are legally mandated to provide. Sanitation services are also linked to the delivery of other services through a matrix of services. Thus, proper sanitation facilities and services require the proper functioning of these other attendant services.

The lack of proper facilities and respective services has resulted in appalling living conditions for the residents of Khayelitsha, where one toilet can be used by as many as 100 people. There is, as a result, a very high prevalence of water borne diseases, parasites and gastroenteritis of infectious origin. Residents who have to make their way through unlit pathways at night to relieve themselves often become the victims of crime, which includes robbery, assault, rape and murder.

The City of Cape Town’s delivery of sanitation services thus far has been an affront to the Constitutionally guaranteed rights of the residents of Khayelitsha. The delivery of proper basic sanitation is a local government function as stipulated in The Water Services Act (Act 108 of 1997). The city has provided sanitation technologies in informal settlements that do not meet basic sanitation standards.

Campaigning for change

It is as a result of the above conditions that the Toilet Queues were held. The first Toilet Queue took place in Khayelitsha on 16 April 2011 where about 500 people queued for sanitation outside the local councilors’ offices. This Queue served as a build up event to the Queue that would take place on 27 April 2011 – Freedom Day – in Cape Town.

Over 2000 people attended the 27 April Toilet Queue. This was an astonishing number of people – and considerably more than we expected to support us. Supporters gathered for an interfaith service at St. George’s Cathedral (Cape Town), where figures such as Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and activist Zackie Achmat spoke on the topic of basic sanitation. After the speeches, supporters marched through Cape Town city centre to Mayor Dan Plato’s offices to form a Toilet Queue, listen to community testimonies and hand over a petition (over 10 000 signatures) and memorandum. We make two demands in our memorandum:

1. Recognise – as a matter of urgency – the need for the development and implementation of adequate maintenance, monitoring, and coordination of existing sanitation services in Khayelitsha’s informal settlements. The City must develop, within its own structures, effective mechanisms for inter-sectoral coordination so as to ensure that the multiple departments involved in water and sanitation provision and monitoring are able to work together effectively to improve the living conditions of people in Khayelitsha. This will greatly and immediately contribute to improved health and safety.

2. Initiate a public consultation period during which an implementation plan and budget is developed to ensure that every household in Khayelitsha’s informal settlements has access to a basic sanitation and access to water within an agreed upon timeframe. This would include discussing which technologies currently being utilised do not meet Basic Sanitation standards and how to replace them. We, the undersigned, hereby offer assistance in any consultation process established to address the above challenges.

Government reaction

Both Queues were a success in that they mobilized large numbers of people to demand proper sanitation from their local representatives. However, the City of Cape Town has yet to release an official response to the Toilet Queue and memorandum – they have said that once they have studied the memorandum they will respond. However, responses from figures such as Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and the Democratic Alliance’s Cape Town mayoral candidate, Patricia de Lille, have been to question the SJC’s statistics – denial and misinformation. Instead of viewing civil society participation and protests as valuable contributions to building on the democratic experience, government officials, across the board, shun, deny and misinform.

The sad truth at the end of the day, however, is that the residents of Khayelitsha, and others around South Africa, are left out on the dirt heap of so many South African municipalities that are not delivering on their obligations.

Also check out:

Facebook: Social Justice Coalition

Twitter: @sjcoalition


Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. 2003. Strategic Framework for Water Services

(SFWS). 69pp.

Goldberg, K. 2009. The Water Dialogues: Cape Town Case Study.

All photo graphs credited to SJC.

[1] The City’s official figures are lower than those listed here as the city counts bucket toilets as comprising basic sanitation; the Water Dialogues report, however, does not classify bucket toilets as comprising basic sanitation.

[2] The national figure is approximately 10.5 million.

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