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The toilet collectors

PHOTO ESSAY - There are about 20,000 portable flush toilets in use in Cape Town. Each one has to be collected, cleaned and returned. Dennis Fortuin is one of about 300 workers who do this job. And he is very good at it.

Fortuin and his daughter Trinity.

Fortuin, who is 44, works as a pota-pota collector and cleaner in Freedom Farm, an informal settlement north-east of Cape Town International Airport's runway. Pota-potas are portable toilets that the City of Cape Town provides to families who live in shacks. Previously, Fortuin worked for two years as a handyman for the late struggle icon Jakes Gerwel.

Children wait to use a communal toilet in Freedom Farm.

Portable toilets offer each household a flushable alternative to the settlement's communal toilets.

Fortuin, who lived in Freedom Farm until three months ago, says, “This pota-pota system is good because, before, we used the bush and this posed health dangers.”

However, the portable toilets are not without their problems. For one thing, many residents complain about their lack of privacy.

Nosimphiwe Biko, who works with Fortuin, sits with pota-potas she has helped collect.

Fortuin is employed by Sannicare, the company contracted by the City to collect the toilets.

"On collection day, here at Freedom Farm, my day starts at 6am," says Fortuin. "I move around the households collecting the pots, taking them to the collection points."

Communal tap at Freedom Farm.

Although Freedom Farm's residents have the portable toilets, they do not have running water in their homes. They have to use communal taps to get their water for cleaning and drinking.

The settlement's 300 to 400 families are gradually being moved. It is in the path of a planned extension to the airport runway.

Fortuin delivers toilets from people's shacks to a collection point.

The pots are collected three times a week. There are six collection points at Freedom Farm. It takes about an hour to load the toilets onto the trailer. On the day we are there, Fortuin and his fellow workers collect over 120 toilets in 45 minutes. Fortuin works especially hard, and he also helps his colleagues.

“I have been here for 22 years, so most people know me,” he says. “When I go around collecting pots, I have no problems with dogs. The dogs are also familiar to me.” Fortuin wears protective clothing from head to toe.

“At times I have minor problems ... some households failing to put their pots where I can easily access them, but we always pick them up as we go around,” says Fortuin.

Once collected, the toilet pots are loaded onto a trailer.

Fortuin has been with Sannicare for two years. He is paid R130 a day and he works five days a week. "Besides collecting the pots from Freedom Farm, I also go to Borcherds Quarry to clean pots from other areas," he says.

Fortuin sprays disinfectant on the spot where the toilets were collected.

After the pots are loaded onto a trailer Fortuin sprays disinfectant on the ground where the toilets stood. "We spray the liquid after picking up the pots as a health measure. Children play all over, so this helps in preventing disease," he explains.

Now the pots will be taken to a cleaning facility near the airport.

The toilet cleaning process varies across areas, but works more or less as follows. There are collectors who live in the community known as "pullers". One puller is responsible for about 100 households. Collection can take as little as 30 minutes.

A puller will bring the toilets to an informal collection point agreed to by the community. A driver and helper in a bakkie dispatched by the City contractor will load the toilets to be taken to a cleaning facility in the industrial area of Borcherds Quarry near the airport.

In theory the cleaned toilets are returned by noon the same day. Each family has two toilets, so that they are not left without a toilet when one is being cleaned.

But in practice it doesn't quite work that way. Toilets get swapped and stolen; many residents want back the exact toilet they sent away for cleaning. Pullers therefore often accompany the toilets to Borcherds Quarry to avoid such problems.

Cleaning facility at Borcherds Quarry.

The smell at the collection point in Freedom Farm is unpleasant, but for first-timers, like the GroundUp reporters, the smell at the cleaning facility in Borcherds Quarry is unbearable. It is not just the smell of excrement that is awful; so too is the stench of the cleaning chemicals.

Fortuin not only collects toilets but helps clean them at the Borcherds Quarry facility.

"On my first days on the job I did not feel comfortable with the smell. It did not go well with me but I got used to it," says Fortuin. Asked if the smell is worse in the summer heat, he responds,"It does not matter whether it is winter or summer to me, the smell is the same."

The toilets are emptied on the floor at Borcherds Quarry.

The entire cleaning process at the quarry is done manually, but according to Luzuko Gangatele, one of the supervisors at the cleaning facility, plans are at an advanced stage to use machines. “Currently we are using a manual system, but around 2016, the whole process will be done by machines,” says Gangatele.

The excrement is hosed into the drainage system. The toilets are then soaked in disinfectant.

Cleaning the pots is an honourable job, Fortuin says. "My family is satisfied with my job, because that is our only means of money."

Nosimphiwe Biko takes a shower.

After the cleaning process the workers take turns showering in water mixed with liquid soap.

Patricia Peters returns toilets to shacks in Freedom Farm.

Once the toilets have been cleaned and all the workers have showered, the toilets are driven back to the various informal settlements and returned to residents.

Fortuin relaxes with family and friends on his day off.

Fortuin and his family left Freedom Farm three months ago for nearby Delft. He lives with his wife, Evangelene, and their baby daughter Trinity.

At their new formal home they have a permanent flush toilet, and hot running water. Most people who clean the toilets with Fortuin, however, still live in informal settlements.

“I take my overalls home for cleaning. My wife is not very comfortable washing it, but she does the washing,” he says.

“Most people in my community think I am mad. They always say to me they will never do such work,” he says. But Fortuin says he would like to do the job till he reaches pensionable age. He hopes the City will give him a contract.

Dennis and Evangelene feed Trinity.

Fortuin says he has a message for his child: "Education is key to success. Get educated up to university. Do not follow my example, because you will get do this type of job. If you do not want to go to school then you have to work with me cleaning the pots."

A correction was made to this article after publication. It originally stated one puller is responsible for 12 households. In fact one puller is responsible for 100 households.

This photo essay is part of the work Masixole Feni is doing for the 2015 Ernest Cole award which he received.

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