Toilets: What’s all the flush about? A GroundUp Q&A

| Amelia Earnest
Photo courtesy of SJC.

Shit is at the centre of Cape Town’s recent political conflict. Today the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) is marching to the Mayor’s office and the Human Rights Commission to demand improvements to the City’s sanitation programme. But what is it all about? With so many players and issues within issues as well as poo being thrown at politicians, it’s understandable if you’re confused. So here is a simple Q&A that tries to explain Cape Town’s sanitation battles.

  1. Who are the main players?

    The main protagonists are the DA, which runs both the provincial and City administrations, the Social Justice Coalition which has been campaigning for several years for better sanitation in Cape Town, the ANC Youth League and what appears to be a faction of the ANC Youth League. Then there’s also disgruntled sanitation employees in Barcelona informal settlement and the no less disgruntled residents of Barcelona. There’s also the people the City has hired for its new janitorial service. There are also sanitation contracting companies, including Sannicare (but even the spelling of the name of this company is disputed) and Mshengu. Finally there’s the South African Human Rights Commission.

    The DA claims that Cape Town is doing better than the rest of the country on sanitation. Premier Helen Zille wrote, “The target date for the eradication of bucket toilets in Cape Town is 2014. We are close to meeting that target, unlike the rest of the country where there are still hundreds of thousands of public bucket and pit toilets in use, many of them ‘unserviced’.” Zille has accused the ANC Youth League of intentionally blocking the DA from ending the bucket system. She wrote, “They [the Youth League] are protesting against (and purposefully preventing) service delivery. The only plausible explanation is that they want the bucket toilets to remain so that they can be used as a potent election issue in 2014.”

    Mayor Patricia De Lille has received the most flak over sanitation. But as head of the City, the arm of government responsible for providing sanitation services, she is where the buck stops. She is on the defensive and has released a statement disputing the SJC’s criticisms and she has condemned the ANC Youth League, calling them “thugs”. Both the mayor and the Premier emphasise that continuous vandalism of the City’s toilets has hampered service delivery.

    Although both the SJC and the ANC Youth League are critical of the City, there is not an iota of love lost between them. The SJC is from the same stable of activist organisations as the Treatment Action Campaign and Equal Education, organisations in regular disagreement with government. The SJC’s General Secretary Phumeza Mlungwana has condemned the Youth League’s throwing and dumping of faeces in protest. Also, it’s hard for the Youth League to dispute accusations of hypocrisy because however bad the sanitation in informal settlements in Cape Town, there are many parts of the country where it is worse.

    Within the Youth League itself there appear to be divisions. The Youth League issued a statement condemning the use of faeces in protests. Yet one of its members is at the forefront of such protests: ward councillor Loyiso Nkohla. While admitting to his involvement with the faeces throwing protests, Nkohla maintains that his involvement is as a community leader, rather than an ANCYL member. Andile Lili is a former Youth League member who is also involved in faeces-throwing protests. He has been quoted saying that the faeces throwing incidents will be repeated.

    The Human Rights Commissions has been investigating Cape Town’s sanitation problems. However, it has also been met with the Mayor’s ire who has reportedly accused the organisation of being biased in favour of the Youth League. The Mayor also sent out a sort of call-to-action to the SAHRC and other similar organizations to educate residents about the merits of portable flush toilets, but a SAHRC spokesperson explained that the organization would “not be taking the mayor up on that call” because of “several issues [the SAHRC] doesn’t agree with”. While there are reports that SAHRC chairperson, Lawrence Mushwana, will meet with the Mayor to discuss her program, no meeting has yet occurred.

    There are claims, counter-claims, accusations, exaggerations, misrepresentations and outright lies. Premier Zille, for example, was caught fibbing by the fact-checking website Africa Check. The Premier tweeted, “No one has to use a bucket system in Cape Town. Everyone offered an alternative.” As Africa Check explained, the City itself maintains over 950 buckets. Moreover, many people in the City use buckets (or other means of defecating outside of a conventional loo) that are not maintained by the City.

  2. What are the disputes?

    There are at least three serious ones. The SJC’s main complaint is that the sanitation services currently provided by the City are not properly monitored and therefore the services the City claims to provide are often not working properly or inadequate. The ANC Youth League rejects the City’s replacement of the bucket system with portable loos. In Barcelona, workers of the company Sannicare went on strike for months over pay. Sannicare is contracted by the City to clean Barcelona’s bucket toilets. The workers, who claim that their conditions of employment were changed unfavourably when Sannicare took over from another company, blocked the N2 on a number of occasions. Meanwhile Barcelona Residents have emptied buckets overflowing with faeces in a nearby canal.

  3. Why is there a dispute over the City’s portable flush toilets?

    GroundUp published a detailed story on this a couple of weeks ago. In a nutshell, the portable loos are a mixed blessing. The City has distributed over 34,000 portable loos to people living in shacks. On the one hand, if everything works properly, they flush and they are odour-free and clean. On the other hand, if the City’s contractors do not service them regularly, they begin leaking and smelling. Many people living in shacks are also worried that they offer no privacy. However, the Youth League’s outright condemnation of the portable loos is unreasonable because they are often a better option than buckets. Also in some areas—the Premier gives Kosovo informal settlement as an example—it is extremely difficult to install flush toilets connected to the sewage system because of the high water table and high density of shacks.

  4. Why is there a dispute over the City’s maintenance of toilets?

    The SJC has for years been complaining about the City’s poor maintenance of toilets. Eventually this resulted in the City starting a special janitorial service, but by the City’s own admission this has not got off to an auspicious start with disputes over unclear contracts and inadequate equipment. Recently the SJC conducted an audit of the City’s sanitation contract with Mshengu Services in four informal settlements. These are examples of what the audit found:

    • More than half the toilets were in what the SJC called an “unusable state”. The Mayor’s office is critical of this statistic, complaining that the small area surveyed was not indicative of overall conditions. The Mayor’s office says that Cape Town boasts a 97.2% rate of access to sanitation.

    • The original budget estimate for upkeep of all Mshengu toilets was just under R165 million, but the state had only spent R126 million at the time the SJC social audit was released. The SJC states that, even when considering the likely expense of the remainder of the contract (using average expenditure per month based on previous spending records), there will be R30 million unspent without explanation as to how the same quality of service was provided so under budget.

    • Contracts promise two types of cleaning for chemical toilets, a draining of waste by honey sucker three times weekly and maintenance cleaning daily. However, the SJC audit found that only 68% of toilets had been cleaned by a honey sucker in the last week and, according to residents, no toilets were receiving daily maintenance cleaning.

    • While the City’s contract with Mshengu states that there should be a total of 346 chemical toilets in RR-Section, Taiwan, Green Point and Emsindweni, the SJC’s audit found only 256. The SJC says that this shows a lack of monitoring. Mayor de Lille’s explanation for the missing 90 toilets was that some toilets had been moved to areas in greater need. Others, she said, had been temporarily removed for maintenance reasons, sometimes stemming from vandalism.

    • None of the Mshengu toilets were fastened to the ground. Some of them have fallen over.

    • City contracts mandate that one Community Liaison Officer be hired for each area to oversee the rollout of toilets and to facilitate communication between residents and government. The SJC audit found no officers on site, and no community members reported meeting them.

    • The SJC claims that Meshengu’s contract states that every chemical toilet must be secured to the ground with sandbags. The SJC’s report shows that no chemical toilets were secured in the areas surveyed. Residents complained that the chemical toilets could easily topple or be pushed over. Indeed, photographs show that some have. In response, the City stated that the chemical toilets are supposed to be mobile and that piling up sand bags creates a night-time trip hazard.

    • By comparing the volume of waste dumped in Borchard’s Quarry to the number of toilets on site, the City verifies that the sanitation services it provides are sufficient. The City recorded 1.2 million litres of waste deposited in February of 2013. The SJC, however, calculated the total amount that should have been deposited in was 4.1 million litres. If the SJC is correct, what happened to the other 3 million litres of waste?

  5. What is the labour dispute in Barcelona about?

    GroundUp also reported on this a few weeks ago. This is a hard story to get to the bottom of. As we wrote:

    Confusion characterises this conflict. On the employer’s side, Sannicare is an obscure company that is extremely difficult to contact. Serious allegations have been made against the company. But there also appears to be little separation of representation of the striking workers, some of whom live in Barcelona, and the residents themselves, and some important facts supplied to GroundUp reporters trying to get to the bottom of this story were incoherently and inconsistently explained. From the various sources we spoke to it is apparent that communication between Sannicare and its employees is very poor.

  6. What are the different types of toilets?

    According to Africa Check (which sources Stats SA’s 2011 census) there are nearly 144,000 houses in informal settlements in Cape Town and there are over 34,000 toilets in informal settlements.

    A bucket toilet consists of a lidded seat placed over a bucket, which serves as the waste container. Usually the bucket has a capacity of about 20 litres. Because the waste container is unsealed and is shared within a household, odour and privacy are major problems. The ability to use the toilet in the household, however, does carry less risk than having to walk outdoors at night to use a toilet. The City is responsible for servicing the buckets three times a week, but no longer distributes them. Mayor de Lille has declared her intent to eradicate the “bucket system.”

    A portable flush toilet (PFT) has a hand flushing mechanism and a detachable, sealed waste container. It is an upgrade from the bucket toilet. Each flush requires the addition of several litres of water to rinse waste into the 16 litre lower container. While it’s an improvement on the bucket toilet, it’s hardly ideal.

    A communal chemical toilet is housed in an enclosed shelter. This type of toilet typically sits above a cesspit with 200 L capacity. The cesspit treats waste with chemicals. The toilets’ lockable doors and outdoor location offer privacy and removal of waste odours from the home. One toilet is supposed to serve five households. But there are serious disadvantages. Some households “claim” chemical toilets and lock them, preventing other people from using them. People have to leave their homes to use these toilets which puts them at risk of rape, assault and mugging.

    A communal flush toilet is connected to the city sewage system, offering the most odourless and sanitary form of waste removal. Full flush toilets are divided by stalls and enclosed. Although they are more private and hygienic, these toilets carry the same or greater safety risks as chemical toilets because residents often have to walk further to them. The City intends for each flush toilet to serve five households.

We leave the last word with Africa Check:

The Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Richard Baloyi recently informed a national conference that 272,995 bucket toilet systems were still being operated by municipalities across South Africa.

Cape Town is far from being the only “offender” in this respect. The toilet: household ratio is also “pretty dire” in many other informal settlements in South Africa, with “many settlements having no access to formal sanitation whatsoever,” Kate Tissington of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute told Africa Check.

Further, the City’s assertions – that in many areas they are simply not able to install conventional sewerage connections (because of the underlying ground, for example) – is an honest claim.

TOPICS:  Sanitation

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