Human Rights Commission to probe city toilets again

| Daneel Knoetze
The SA Human Rights Commission is to launch a new probe into the provision of chemical toilets. Picture: Masixole Feni

The SA Human Rights Commission is to re-examine its report on chemical toilets in the informal settlements, after finding procedural irregularities in the report.

The City of Cape Town successfully appealed against a report by the Western Cape Human Rights Commission (HRC) which found that the rollout of chemical toilets in informal settlements was a human rights violation. Mayor Patricia de Lille has hailed this as a vindication, but the SAHRC stresses that the key findings may still stand once procedural irregularities in the compiling of the report have been ironed out.

In July 2014, after a year long investigation, the provincial office of the SAHRC published a report which found that the City discriminated against black African people living in informal settlements. This demographic, the HRC found, was more adversely affected by poor sanitation, associated with long term reliance on chemical toilets, than other race groups.

“The [City’s] institutionalisation of disparate, inadequate basic sanitation service provision to residents of informal settlements violated residents’ right to dignity,” the report concluded.

Other findings related to an apparent lack of community participation in the City’s award of portaloo cleaning contracts; and the City’s “unreasonable” reliance on “emergency housing” guidelines (under the assumption that informal settlements were “temporary”) in rolling out sanitation services.

On Wednesday those findings were set aside by the SAHRC, after an appeal to the commission’s chairman Lawrence Mushwana. In its appeal, the City complained about “procedural irregularities” in the conduct of the investigation. For instance, the commission had allowed the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), which had laid the initial complaint against the City, to reply to the City’s submission to the investigators. This, the City contended in its appeal, was in breach of the commission’s standard Complaints Handling Procedure.

Mushwana wrote to the City’s legal team on Wednesday, saying that the merits of the appeal had been “thoroughly analysed”, that the appeal had been upheld and that the matter would be referred back to the SAHRC’s Western Cape office for re-investigation.

In a press statement on Thursday, De Lille said that the City had been “vindicated” and reiterated its claim that the original findings were “baseless”.

“The City disputed the findings immediately, in light of the fact that as a metro authority, we have a nation-leading record of sanitation provision for all areas of the city, including informal settlements. This is part of our commitment to ensuring a positive realisation of the rights of all residents,” she said.

But SAHRC spokesman Isaac Mangena said a successful appeal did not automatically mean the City was not committing a human rights violation or that the original complaint by the SJC had been dismissed.

He said the report would be taken back to the investigators to address the concerns raised in the City’s appeal and the City would be given a chance to make submissions on further evidence gathered by the provincial office. Once the “procedural irregularities” had been ironed out, the HRC’s key findings might well stand in a future and amended draft of the report, Mangena said.

in a statement released shortly after De Lille’s, the SJC called her claim of vindication “false and misleading”. The organisation said, “Rather than providing decent, adequate and acceptable sanitation for poor and working class residents in Cape Town, the City has chosen to spend another year fighting procedural battles.”

The HRC investigation was triggered when the SJC approached the commission in May 2013, alleging that the City had violated the rights to equality, dignity, privacy, basic sanitation and a healthy environment, of residents in four informal settlements. This was the SJC’s conclusion after a week-long social audit of services in four areas in Khayelitsha, in April 2013. Residents examined the condition of 256 chemical toilets and found half to be damaged, inaccessible or in a state of “extreme uncleanliness”. Residents reported that around a third of the toilets had not been emptied in the week prior to the audit. The City disputed the findings of the audit.

This article was updated after publication with the quote from the SJC’s statement.

TOPICS:  Human Rights Sanitation

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