Dignity at last after public stink
The Mail & Guardian’s photographer was desperately contorting herself to get the perfect shot. A year ago she had lit up the newspaper with a picture of an unenclosed flush toilet for the “Toilet Election” issue.
Now she was having a harder time. The toilet was enclosed and there was nothing sexy about a grey-brick building. Even its dull red door was uninspiring. But it did show the fruits of a large-scale building programme in the Free State township of Rammolutsi that had followed the pre-election media outcry.
Posing for a photo next to his new toilet, Lomo Mathanzima said he used to answer the call of nature in full view of his neighbours. Everyone was angry.
The same thing was happening in Makhaza, Cape Town. The issue went to the Cape Town High Court, and the Human Rights Commission looked into Rammolutsi. In both cases, it was found that the situation had “violated the right to human to dignity, privacy and the right to a clean environment”. Soon grey bricks and mortar were aplenty in both townships and people were relaxing on their flush toilets, safe from prying eyes.
Now Mathanzima is content. “The municipality consults with us all the time, which it didn’t do with the toilets before,” he said.
A few houses down, William Moahlodi was leaning on his gate. Chewing some pink gum and listening to the strains of jazz coming from next door, he said: “I was very unhappy last year. We didn’t have a covering and had to do our things in the open. Now we have these things and life is good.”
Microcosm of what was is happening
Other householders were quick to pose outside their toilets as the word spread that there were journalists around. People came off the street to chat. Their message was uniform – their toilet woes had been solved.
Gavin Silber, co-ordinator of the Social Justice Coalition in Cape Town, said the two cases were a microcosm of what was happening across the country. “Sixteen million people do not have access to proper sanitation and there is a serious disjuncture between policy and practice.”
A report compiled by the various departments involved in sanitation at the behest of the Human Rights Commission said because so many departments were involved was creating long-term problems. “The fragmentation of responsibilities at national, provincial and local levels results in no single national authority taking responsibility,” it said.
It also found that “a disturbing 28% of households still have to be provided with sanitation services and access is increasing at a less than optimal pace”. Universal access would cost R44.8-billion: R13.5-billion for new toilets and R31.3-billion to upgrade existing infrastructure. Municipalities only get R3.2-billion a year for sanitation through the municipal infrastructure grant.
The main recommendation was “the establishment of a single national sanitation unit within the department of water affairs with sufficient capacity to support planning, regulation and monitoring of sanitation service provision”.
No policy co-ordination
Silas Mbezi, acting head at water and sanitation non-governmental organisation Mvula Trust, said many problems with sanitation stemmed from “it being dealt with by four departments”. There was no policy co-ordination, he said, which meant there was no standard for toilet construction, all had different costing structures and no one agreed on the size of the sanitation backlog.
At the national level, four departments share responsibility for sanitation: water affairs used to run the show and still retains control over long-term planning; human settlements was given control of the main programme in 2009 and builds new toilets as part of its RDP roll-out; education builds its own toilets in schools; and co-operative governance is left with the responsibility of maintaining and emptying pit toilets. At a provincial level, health and public works are also involved.
Silber said the array of departments involved in sanitation was creating problems at community level. “You find that as many as eight different departments are ostensibly responsible for the same thing.” This made finding the one that was actually responsible for any one thing incredibly hard and created problems with deciding who would fund what, he said.
A long cycle
Neil Macleod, head of water and sanitation for eThekwini municipality in Durban, said the problem was that toilets were built as part of the RDP programme, which meant the focus was on a quick and large-scale roll-out with huge capital investment at the start. Each house had a toilet but no plans for its maintenance, he said, which was fundamentally wrong because sanitation problems lasted as long as sewage was produced. “It requires skilled human resources to design, construct and maintain systems for hundreds of years.”
According to Macleod, the construction of toilets has to be part of a long cycle, but for now toilets come without adequate sewage treatment facilities, pit toilets are built without a plan for emptying and flush toilets require amounts of water that are unaffordable in poor communities.
The lack of co-ordination and planning resulted in communities being left with the responsibility of maintaining their own toilets, said Silber. They did not have the resources and problems inevitably emerged that left people without working toilets and created health hazards. The death of 27 children as a result of diarrhoea in Cape Town in February was an inevitable outcome, he said.