The buckets don't stop here: Toilet trials and tribulations in the Cape

Residents of Khayelitsha clear buckets used as toilets during the night. (David Harrison, M&G)

Residents of Khayelitsha clear buckets used as toilets during the night. (David Harrison, M&G)

Khayelitsha is reputed to be one of the fastest growing partially informal areas in South Africa and, despite some improvement, the situation is still dire. In Khayelitsha, going to the toilet means putting your life at risk.

It is early morning and in the dim light I walk carefully along the narrow stretch of grass and sand that runs between the shacks of Khayelitsha Site C and the N2 highway. 

I find myself in the middle of an open latrine with faeces in varying states of decomposition all around me. An overwhelming smell assaults my senses; I struggle to fight my gag reflex. 

Cars rush past to my right as the morning traffic heads into the city. 

To my left Site C residents emerge through broken gaps in the concrete pillar barrier that separates their shacks from the road. Many are carrying buckets containing "dirty water" accumulated in their shacks during the previous night, which they throw out on to the ground, hesitantly once they spot me.

A young boy walks past me followed by his twin brother. They are wearing matching shirts and shorts, both are barefoot. They each find an open piece of ground, squat and relieve themselves.

A woman standing in an opening in the concrete barrier calls out and asks me what I am doing. 

I explain my presence and why I hope taking photographs could help to make a difference. 

"Lots of people come to take photos," she says. "Still nothing changes."

Sewerage infrastructure
The City of Cape Town spends nearly 60% of its direct service delivery budget in poorer areas and has doubled the number of toilets delivered to informal settlements to more than 34 000 for the 2011-2012 financial year. It has also increased the budget for the provision of sewerage infrastructure and the provision of water, yet despite this, for large numbers of people living in informal settlements, there are still limited options when it comes to sanitation and it may indeed seem as though little changes.  

In September last year I started documenting sanitation issues around Khayelitsha. I've tried to understand and document some of the issues and problems faced by so many people living there without basic services and proper sanitation. 

I've seen how few properly working toilets there are in some communities and how far away many toilets are. Many communities don't have any access to flushing toilets at their homes. They must use either the blue plastic chemical toilets or portable toilets.

In extreme cases, going to the toilet might literally mean risking your life. Khayelitsha has some of the highest crime statistics in the country, with violent crime on the increase, rape and murder rates being particularly high. 

Added to this is the breakdown of the relationship between communities in Khayelitsha and the South African Police Service. There is currently a commission of inquiry into the police. It was prompted by allegations of ineffectualness, incompetence and corruption. 

But there are steps being taken, seemingly in the right direction, as special programmes get up and running. Also, community-based organisations are getting involved. They advocate for better sanitation and hold the service providers and city officials accountable.

Sitting in the rain one evening last year looking out over RR Section in Khayelitsha and the heavily polluted waterway that runs through the middle of the settlement, it was easy to see how there would be a sanitation problem there. 

Infant deaths
Just like so many other informal settlements nearby, it is in a low-lying area, prone to flooding, densely populated, and has little infrastructure and few basic services.

Residents don't have their own toilets. There are rows of flushing toilets, but the blue plastic chemical toilets and the portable toilet system are also in use. I have seen standpipes, which provide water to the community, that are located right next the toilets. They become a focal point for the community and young children regularly play in these areas, often barefoot.

Water samples taken from around RR Section show high levels of raw sewerage and of E.coli bacteria, which are responsible for diarrhoea. Khayelitsha reportedly has the highest rate of diarrhoea-related infant deaths of all districts in Cape Town.

In 2008 the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) was formed in RR Section. When the organisation heard testimonies of people who had been raped or had family members murdered while they walked long distances to use a toilet it started to focus on sanitation issues in Cape Town's informal settlements.

In 2010 the SJC launched its clean and safe sanitation campaign, which has, with the City of Cape Town's help, seen the introduction of a janitorial service project for flushing toilets. Now in its second and more successful phase, more flushing toilets are being constructed where conditions allow. 

City of Cape Town councillor Ernest Sonnenberg, the member on the mayoral committee responsible for utility services, has said that the city tries to provide these flushing toilets where possible. But he says topographical constraints, servitudes, land ownership issues and technical hindrances such as population density often make this impractical. When this happens, alternatives such as chemical or portable toilets are used. 

Nomlungisi Qezo lives with her three children in RR Section and is also a member of the SJC. Until a month ago she and her family used a portable toilet in an outhouse that she built on the side of her shack. A number of flushing toilets have recently been built in RR. Qezo and her family now have access to one not far from their home. 

"I'm so proud of SJC because without the clean and safe campaign this wouldn't have happened," she says. "I'm safe if I want to go the toilet late at night or early in the morning; we're seeing an improvement here."

Temporary services
I join Qezo and members of the SJC on their door-to-door campaign to get new members and begin new branches throughout the areas where services are still lacking. 

We go to Ndlovini, another informal settlement in Khayelitsha. The campaigners are well versed in the issues confronting the communities – they face the same challenges.

"These people still haven't got proper toilets", says Qezo. "But we'll fight for them."

Axolile Notywala, a researcher with the SJC, says: "There is still a lot that needs to be done because there are many people who still have to use the chemical or portable toilets. There are many areas that still need flushing toilets."

He believes that, because authorities see many informal settlements as being temporary, only temporary services are provided. These end up being used for years in some 

cases. Maintenance of these services is also a major problem.

"The city's janitorial project is having an effect in the communities in which residents are employed to clean the rows of flushing toilets, but there is a long way to go because people reporting issues often have to wait months before problems are attended to," he says.

This week, the SJC will be involved in a social audit in RR Section and other informal communities in Khayelitsha, where community members will learn to be involved in the monitoring of the performance of sanitation service providers. 

Notywala says: "We want communities to empower themselves through information, to hold service providers responsible."

Lack of access
Community members will be involved in monitoring the chemical toilet service provider in this programme.

The social audit system has been pioneered successfully in India, where, despite early resistance, it's become an important mechanism to address corruption and strengthen accountability in government service delivery there. Along with other SJC members, Qezo has been going door to door again, getting residents involved in gathering information and ensuring the service provider is held to account. 

"We need to know if the service provider has built the chemical toilets properly on a concrete base, otherwise they're not safe," she says. "We need to know how often the toilets are being cleaned and what chemicals are being used. We also need to know about the possible side effects of these chemicals."

Residents are supposed to report any issues they have with chemical toilets to a specific service provider community liaison officer, but they can report problems directly to the City of Cape Town if they're not attended to.

There is a toll-free number that city officials made available at a community meeting this week. The problem is that there aren't any payphones in this community to make the call from.

Although there are flushing toilets in many informal communities around Cape Town, in Khayelitsha there are still people who use buckets overnight because of safety concerns. And many people still use the open bush because of a lack of access to clean and working toilets.

Near the N2 highway the twins walk back through the concrete barrier into Site C and disappear into the sea of shacks. Just another day; just part of their normal routine.

Client Media Releases

Rosebank College to open Pietermaritzburg Connected Campus
Intellectual property: an investment tool
ContinuitySA senior manager wins at BCI Africa Awards
NWU students attend African Traditional Medicine Day