Township sanitation remains the pits

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s commitment to addressing the atrociously poor sanitation in schools seriously (Proper sanitation is a human right) is commendable, but I wonder how familiar he is with the generally poor sanitation in townships.

The scandalous deaths of a few children in pit toilets at schools over the past few years is an unmitigated indictment of ANC rule, but the real extent of the unsanitary tragedy is far worse.

In townships and informal settlements, the situation is dire. There are pit latrines, chemical toilets, shallow sewers and, worst of all, bucket toilets, of which there are still thousands — and this is in the richest and most powerful country on the continent.

The most important basic services for health are sufficient water and waterborne sanitation, and pit toilets, chemical toilets, low-cost shallow sewers (which women have to clean out to prevent faecal blockages) and bucket toilets are to varying degrees the cheaper (and degrading) alternatives to flush toilets.

So, the deaths of those pupils are the direct result of neoliberal budgetary constraints at the local level.

Health and human dignity were never serious considerations when these toilets were imposed on poor black people by the ANC government.

The main reason for this inhumane, unhealthy and depressing sanitation situation and therefore the biggest tragedy, especially for the poor black working-class majority, was because these most basic services were commercialised and commodified by changes to water and municipal laws between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s.

The closure of the water and sanitation department in the City of Johannesburg and the birth of Johannesburg Water, registered as a private company, was a result of these legislative changes.

These changes paved the way for the brutal imposition of prepaid water meters by Johannesburg Water in townships such as Soweto and Orange Farm, which today is the biggest reason for the water and sanitation deprivation people suffer daily, especially when unemployment and poverty are more pervasive than ever before.

Once the miserably inadequate free “lifeline” is exhausted, which only those registered as stigmatising “indigents” receive, and people don’t have cash to recharge expired meters, not only is there no water but also where there are flush sewers there is no sanitation.

Those affected must relieve themselves somewhere outside their homes, including at night, which has proven especially dangerous for girls and women.

When Ramaphosa refers to the increase in access to “adequate” or “proper” sanitation” in households, he doesn’t define it.

Research has shown the health disadvantages of all other cheaper, more dangerous and degrading forms of sanitation. The point must be made very clearly: flush toilets are the only safe, decent, convenient and dignified form of sanitation.

But it is precisely in this important area of basic services where the race-class nexus has proven the most durable and destructive.

Simply and crudely put, you get the standard or quality of service you can pay for and at the bottom of this hierarchy will always be the poor black majority.

But it gets more interesting, and ironical, when I look at what Ramaphosa was quoted as saying in the mid-1990s: “Macroeconomic populist pitfalls, which can have the opposite effect of good intentions in the medium term, have to be avoided.”

Combine that with the fact that he co-authored our Constitution, which asserts the miserable caveat that whatever social rights it enshrines can only be realised if available resources permit it, to appreciate the often deeply ironic vicissitudes of post-apartheid ANC leaders.

This caveat prompted Themba Sono, a former Unisa professor and a founder of the Black People’s Convention, to aptly respond: “What if the state never has enough funds to fulfil these rights? Does it mean these rights are held in permanent abeyance? Could such a right be a right then?”

We have been living for many years under an even harsher neoliberal policy regime than under apartheid.

Ask those school children who use pit toilets, the thousands still using bucket toilets and the households where prepaid meters were shoved down their throats.

Nothing stirs the indignity and anger of poor people more than degrading sanitation, Mr President. — Ebrahim Harvey


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