Sanitation plan goes down the drain in Khayelitsha

A pioneering programme to maintain and keep toilets clean in Khayelitsha has failed. As a result, each blockage diminishes the number of toilets and forces people to walk longer distances, sometimes at the risk of their lives, to find another, or squat in the bush.

One of the first things you see when heading into Khayelitsha along the N2 highway towards Port Elizabeth are rows of blue chemical toilets. They are one of three types of toilet provided for residents; the others are flushing and portable.  

Khayelitsha, which means "new home" in isiXhosa, is stuck between the highway and the ocean. A prime bit of real estate with views of Cape Town's famous mountain, it is home to between 300 000 and a million people. The area is a jumbled mass of corrugated iron shacks and illegal electricity wires clinging to pylons. The smell of sewage mingles with that of the sheep heads and chicken being cooked for commuters.   

In tiny gaps between the packed houses are toilets. But finding one that works is a challenge, as is holding it in for as long as you can and making sure you do not go to the toilets at night, which is just too dangerous. Here the simplest of acts, enjoyed without restraint by people in Cape Town's suburbs, is a daily terror.

Axolile Notywala, a local activist, said a favourite tactic of malicious people is to kick over the chemical toilets when someone is inside. "They are supposed to have cement bases, but most of them do not. And they have to be emptied by a company that sometimes does not do its job."

Risky outings
Portable plastic toilets are handier; they can be used indoors and reduce the need for risky outings at night. You see them lying around communal taps, waiting to be washed.

On the day the Mail & Guardian visited it was the flushing toilets, maintained by the city, that seemed to be the cause of the most discontent and people gesticulated angrily when they were mentioned. Built in blocks of up to 10 toilets, some were in good working order, but most were not and could be found by their smell.  

Most of the seats had been broken off, leaving a water tank and a ceramic base. And in about half of the toilets the bowls were overflowing with faeces, newspaper and other solid rubbish. The solid mass was an indication that they had been like this for a while.

Amanda Mcenge said the only way to use these toilets is to balance yourself by placing your hands against the walls and your feet on a brick or rock on the floor. "You have to do anything you can not to touch the toilet."

A row of toilets forms the northern wall of Grace Mabesa's yard. A broken standpipe next to the toilets leaks water.

Standing barefoot on a dry spot, she said the toilets are always a problem. Three do not work. "They have been broken for many months and we cannot get anyone to come and fix them. People from other areas are also coming here because their toilets are broken. With so many people using our toilets, maybe 500, they are getting broken."

With so many toilets out of commission, people have to walk a long way to find one that works.

Daily fact of life
Notywala said many people give up or are too afraid to wander far from home, so they end up using the area next to the N2 highway or go in the wetland in the middle of the RR section of Khayelitsha.

Jo Barnes, senior lecturer in community health at Stellenbosch University, has tested the wetland's water. It is toxic, she said. As is the water at the base of the standpipes.

This water also flows into the sea. "This kind of environment creates a situation where diarrhoea is not an affliction, but a fact of life," she said.

The Social Justice Coalition, a non-governmental group that works in Khayelitsha, has been collecting testimonials from people who have fallen foul of criminals while trying to find a place to go to the toilet. One man was attacked while squatting down beside the highway by a group of men who demanded his cellphone and stabbed him.

That, said Gavin Silber, the coalition's coordinator, is a daily fact of life in Khayelitsha and the reason why the organisation campaigns to get the city to do better in terms of providing sanitation.

"It may seem like a small thing. But if you get the sanitation working and do so by involving the community, you create a safer environment and one where people trust their city more."

The coalition's campaign bore fruit when the city created a janitorial service, he said. It was supposed to be a way of giving people jobs – cleaning the toilets and reporting any faults. But it has not worked.

Patricia de Lille, executive mayor of Cape Town, has admitted this.

Community consultation
"I would like to apologise to the affected communities," she said in a press statement. Although 282 janitors were employed, they did not have adequate clothes or training and were not monitored, she said. But with lessons learnt, the programme will be attempted again.

"Of further concern is that little or no provision was made for community consultation or education," she said.

This is critical, said Silber. "You have to include the community in its own development. If you don't then they have no ownership [of it] and these projects will fail."

Kylie Hatton, the city's spokesperson, said the programme is a victim of its own success, with people streaming into Khayelitsha because of the work opportunities. So any services that are provided are overwhelmed by people coming into the area to use them.

Councillor Shehaam Sims, mayoral committee member for utility services, said providing toilets to areas such as RR is a real problem, as is maintaining them. Although RR has 188 flushing toilets, 579 portable toilets and 100 chemical toilets, they are always being broken, Sims said.

They might stink, but locals seemed to have mastered their gag reflex. A bright yellow sticker on a row of flushing toilets tells people who to call to report a leak, but water in one of the toilets runs constantly.

Mpathi Baliso, standing outside the toilets talking to someone inside, said there is no response when the number is dialled.

He said people come from far away to use "his toilets", even if three of them are blocked. And when the queue for them becomes too long, people go to the verge of the N2. "Where else can we go?" he said.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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