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13 May 2011 00:00
The open toilet debacle, dirty as it is, creates an opportunity for voters. The stink offers them an object lesson in the politics of disrespect, patronage and shabby performance which are the harvest of a society that too often refuses to exercise its right to hold those in power accountable.
The image of citizens utterly exposed and vulnerable on open toilets, regardless of where, cuts through the manifestos and stump speeches to the heart of the choices we face next week.
Do our public representatives treat us as human beings? That is the most basic service delivery question of all, and toilets are a good way to test it.
The Makhaza open toilets in Khayelitsha were called “apartheid toilets built by racist whites who don’t respect blacks”.
It is not enough for politicians to talk about dignity—they have to show that they understand the humiliation, the exposure, the danger and the illness that accompany open toilets, shared toilets, bucket toilets and polluted water. If politicians really did want to put the most vulnerable citizens at the centre of their programmes, the ANC should have come out as soon as the Makhaza affair exploded, admitted that they too built cabriolet toilets and begun to deal with the issue practically. They could have won a sustainable propaganda coup and improved the lives of their constituents at the same time had they done so.
The ANC preferred to hide its cabriolets, hoping no-one cared enough to visit the rural Free State and insisting they were doing better than the Democratic Alliance (DA) on delivery and dignity. The fact that the ANC knew about the toilet saga in the Free State in July last year but didn’t utter a peep until election time media coverage forced their hand is as telling as the hypocrisy is infuriating.
The news that the ANC’s mayor in Moqhaka, Mantebu Mokgosi, is a director of the company that was awarded the contract to erect the toilets takes the story to the level of a service delivery parable, complete with benighted citizens, greedy tenderpreneurs and rent-seeking politicians.
Frankly, no amount of explanatory spin from either the DA or the ANC has succeeded in convincing voters on this issue. But it isn’t just the politicians who are on trial. The Human Rights Commission (HRC) must come under scrutiny. The HRC took about three months to investigate the Makhaza toilets. It has so far taken seven months in Moqhaka. As it found against the DA-led city of Cape Town, it must surely find against the ANC-led Moqhaka council. So if Lawrence Mushwana, who has a history of political pliability, waits until after next weeks’ polls to release the commission’s findings, it will be hard to believe he isn’t acting to spare the party embarrassment.
This is all very depressing, but it is not cause for despair. Look at the candidates in your ward—even if it’s a rich one—and apply to them the toilet test. Vote for the one you think is most likely to understand that it is at the level of shit, and the ability to keep it private, and separate from our drinking water, that the state faces its minimum performance requirement. We’ll say it again: vote for toilets.
Election campaigns ought to bring out the best in our politicians. But they also bring out other things, notably an avalanche of food parcels, dodgy-style choices and last-minute ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille swapped her boardroom heels for sneakers with a DA logo with which she hoped to dance her way into people’s hearts (the results were — mixed—she looked better picking up trash in a front-end loader) while a waistcoat sported by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe with huge pictures of President Jacob Zuma plastered all over it drew attention at the Cosatu rally in De Aar.
Whether voters were won over by these fashion plates or not, they were getting more attention than usual elsewhere. Armed with food parcels and baby feeding packs, Cape Town DA mayoral candidate Patricia de Lille, who is also the provincial social development minister, visited victims of fires—an act of kindness for some, an election ploy for others—and the residents of the Midvaal municipality were treated to brand-new toilets this week, courtesy of the provincial government.
In other vote-gathering developments ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema rolled up his designer sleeves to build toilet enclosures in Viljoenskroon and, in Westonaria, residents received a new library and clinic—a week before elections—which perhaps went some way to appease them after the launch of a bakery and poultry project was cancelled at the last minute. ANC treasurer general Mathews Phosa dusted off his Afrikaans to woo the white voters in Limpopo and Mpumalanga and Zille proudly displayed her Xhosa—when audiences allowed it. Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde handed over an Eastern Cape bridge and a police station in Brakpan.
But not everyone had such fancy gifts to give, so Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had to settle for a sod-turning ceremony in KwaZulu-Natal—at an Eskom substation.
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