I have written more newsletters about toilets than any other single topic. This is because sanitation is such a basic need — and such an enormous challenge — in our context of rapid urbanization.
Toilets are also an emotive issue, not to mention politically explosive. So we accept that in the Western Cape (the only province not governed by the ANC) toilets will continue to be in the public spotlight in the run-up to the local elections, now a mere 20 months away.
This newsletter arises out of my attendance yesterday of the “public hearing” hosted by the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), following their week long “social audit” of the full-flush toilets the City provides in four informal settlements in Khayelitsha.
It is all too easy to be cynical about this exercise. One could ask: why is the SJC focusing exclusively on Cape Town when the 2011 census shows that close to 100% of the City’s residents have access to a toilet facility – 88% of them to a flush toilet connected to the sewerage system.
This has been achieved despite the fact that the population of the City grew by 30% in a decade. No other city can claim this level of service. The figures for the Province are similar, and are also the best in the country.
The SJC would respond by saying that, at this stage, they only operate in Khayelitsha. And the fact that it is much worse elsewhere should not stop them from pointing out what is wrong there. OK, point taken, let’s move on.
One could also ask: Is it fair to undertake an “audit” (whose methodology, questions and approach are unclear) and then invite the media to a “public hearing” where “preliminary findings” are presented as “fact” without any further analysis or interrogation?
Is it fair to expect the City to respond on the spot, without receiving any information beforehand, and without analysis or verification? Could this not justifiably be regarded as a deliberate public “ambush”? And does this promote the cause of better service delivery?
If the SJC were to answer honestly, they would say they also have to raise their profile (in order to raise their budget). Staging public confrontations with the City of Cape Town has served them well so far.
But we should not rise to the bait. Nor do I want to be cynical about the SJC. Active, vocal non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are crucial to any democracy — especially when they are genuinely motivated by a desire to improve conditions and enhance the quality of democracy for the poor.
I believe many members of the SJC, and most other NGOs, do genuinely care about the plight of the poor, even if they focus their attention exclusively on Cape Town.
But, having given the SJC the benefit of the doubt, is it too much to ask that they do the same in relation to the City and Province?
Perhaps we should base our relationship on the advice of the constitutional court, which has given guidance on the concept of “meaningful community engagement” including:
- Good faith, reasonableness, willingness to listen and understand concerns on the part of all parties, whether from the government or the community;
- Proactive, respectful and honest efforts by all parties to find solutions that are mutually acceptable.
DA governments are committed to this approach; we would like our bona fides to be accepted and we will return the compliment. That is the only basis on which we can avoid posturing and make sustained progress.
My years in government have taught me one thing: it will be impossible to win the war on poverty and achieve sustainable development unless the “whole of society” becomes involved.
Government certainly has a crucial role to play, but it is often difficult to define exactly where that role begins and ends. As the National Development Plan (NDP) notes, people generally prefer to “outsource” their own responsibilities and merely direct their “demands” to government.
The NDP is premised on the idea that, unless a significant majority of individual people, families, organisations and institutions accept that they share responsibility for making progress possible, it cannot happen.
The “progressive realization” of the right to sanitation, as required by our constitution, is a good example.
Obviously (in the case of full-flush toilets) government must provide things that are impossible for people to provide, at scale, for themselves: sewage treatment works and an underground network of pipes.
Unfortunately, underground infrastructure is often impossible to provide in informal settlements given the combination of topography, water table, densities and land ownership, which is why the City must provide a wide range of toilet types, sometimes on the periphery of privately owned land.
We fully accept that local government must provide “above ground” infrastructure in the form of public toilets in strategic locations, and that in informal settlements, it is essential to do so at a far higher ratio than for the rest of the population.
Cape Town has voluntarily set itself a ratio of one public toilet for every five families throughout the City’s shack settlements comprising 143,823 households. It has achieved this in 97% of cases. This is a far better than the vague national norm.
In addition, many people can voluntarily opt for a further service, the much-maligned (but convenient and hygienic) “portable flush toilet” for individual family use.
This is serviced by the City free-of-charge three times a week (unless the tanks are stolen by poo-throwers). I am not aware of local authorities anywhere in the world (let alone in South Africa) that offer this level of free service.
And the City could provide even more if it did not have to spend upward of R25-million per year fixing vandalized toilets in informal settlements.
Which brings me to the responsibility of individuals. This is easy to define and extremely difficult to achieve: Toilets should only be for the purpose for which they are intended and be left in the state a user would like to find them. Any faults should be immediately reported by sms (to 31373) or service delivery hotline (0860-103089) free of charge from any municipal office.
The City is currently busy assigning a GPS code to every public toilet, which will then have its own serial number on the inside of the door, so that the maintenance department can quickly target the exact toilet on the receipt of an sms notification.
The contribution of every family and community is to raise children to use toilets properly (with adults practising what they preach).
This is not an abstract issue for me. I myself attended a primary school that was only serviced by old-style bucket toilets. We were taught how to use them hygienically, and the system worked. In my husband’s case he only came into regular contact with a flush toilet once he had left the village where he grew up to go to university.
Today we accept it as a “given” that the only “dignified” form of sanitation is a full flush toilet. Preferably one per family. South Africa is still a long way from that, but Cape Town is closer than any other City.
So where do NGOs come in? They certainly have a role to play, but it would be a more credible role if they did not only target government when it falls short of an ideal standard.
Ironically, the SJC public hearing exposed the extent to which NGOs themselves fall short of dealing with this challenge holistically.
For example, I learnt how much general household waste gets deposited in toilets. The advice given by an independent panelist was to “cut food into very small pieces” when throwing it down a toilet.
I waited in vain for someone to point out that no undigested food should be deposited in a toilet. When I enquired further, I learnt that many blockages are a result of people trying to flush away huge amounts of stywepap (stiff mealie-meal porridge), or items such as plastic bottles and old shoes. These don’t flush away. They block the pipes.
How about the SJC running a major public awareness programme in Khayelitsha to raise awareness on this matter? And maybe they could even become part of our “Food Forward” strategy to prevent food waste (which we launched on Mandela Day).
But the finding of the social audit (that involved 195 respondents) that interested me the most, was the sub-heading: “Some residents clean their own toilet”. The report goes on to reveal that “28 out of 195 residents clean their own toilets”.
I asked the audience why it was considered so terrible to clean one’s own toilet (although I did concede that cleaning community toilets was a different matter).
Nevertheless, this section of the report reveals just how much the city of Cape Town actually delivers. At a cost of R60-million per year, the City employs 800 janitors to clean public flush toilets in informal settlements (in addition to the company contracts to maintain and clean chemical toilets).
The appointment of janitors inevitably generates community conflict — as all job opportunities do. The City has a computerized system (unique in South Africa) to prevent appointments through political patronage.
Janitors receive training in how to do rudimentary toilet repairs, report major problems, clean toilets and their surrounding area hygienically. (The SJC report found that 16% of the janitors interviewed said they had received no training).
They receive equipment (although the report noted they were not given pliers). They get protective clothing including gloves, t-shirts, uniforms, boots and rainsuits. The report found that 26% of janitors interviewed did not have rainsuits; and 26% did not have uniforms.
One presumes that they all had all the other necessary equipment. And 61% had all five types of protective clothing.
Janitors are also supposed to be inoculated before they clean toilets, and the City has fallen substantially short on this due to procurement problems. It is important and valid to point this out so that this can be prevented if at all possible in future. This is the value of such partnerships.
Then there was repeated community complaints about janitors not doing their jobs regularly. And the residents demanded additional “monitors” to check on whether the janitors were doing their jobs. When I asked what the elected (and well-paid) ward councillors were doing, the one councillor present argued that his job was “oversight” not “monitoring”!
Throughout the presentation, there was a revolving slide-show of some toilets in a horrendous condition. The 75% of flush toilets in working order were not shown. It was clear that most of the dysfunctional toilets had been vandalized in some way.
I could go on. But I have made the point. The service we provide is not perfect by any means. It can and must improve and we welcome partners who are genuinely committed to achieving this.
But unless we follow a “whole-of-society” approach things will only get worse rather than better. No government can substitute for the role of committed, responsible citizens who contribute to their own development.