South Africa’s big stink
Boniswa Stone, 35, an unemployed mother, needs to answer nature’s call. It’s the dead of night in Khayelitsha’s Taiwan section. Stone fiddles in the dark for her cellphone and uses the light to look for old newspapers. She steps outside her shack and heads to the shared portable chemical toilet. She walks inside and lines the toilet seat with newspaper, while trying not to look at the mountain of faeces. She sits down.
She switches off her cellphone and keeps the cubicle door slightly ajar to keep out the smell.
Today she couldn’t “hold it” until the morning like she usually does.
Stone is just one of thousands of Khayelitsha residents who do not have access to decent sanitation.
They rely on toilets built by the City of Cape Town, in what was supposed to provide the poor with dignity. The toilets would be cleaned by janitors several times a week, thereby providing jobs in the poverty-stricken area. But when the Cape Times visited Khayelitsha, they were not happy, feeling stripped of their dignity.
In the hierarchy of sanitation, Stone is not the worst off. According to the latest census figures, 50 139 (3.07 percent) households in the Western Cape and 748 588 (5.18 percent) in the country do not have any access to toilets.
“I’m nervous to use the toilet at night because there is no light inside and some drunk people may tip them over while someone is inside,” Stone told the Cape Times.
She said the toilets were cleaned twice a week.
“They use a pipe to suck up the stuff inside the toilet and they spray the outside with water, but on the inside they are not cleaned.”
The tender specification of Mshengu Service, the company awarded the contract to supply and maintain the toilets, states: “When locating the toilet, ensure that the founding area is compacted and secure. Sandbags with a weak cement mixture should be used in sandy areas to assist with securing the founding area.”
According to the tender specifications, the 32-month contract for providing 3 841 chemical toilets, in 107 informal settlements, has an estimated value of R165 million. A total of 871 of these units are in Khayelitsha.
When the Cape Times visited the area, none of the portable toilets were secured to the ground. The Cape Times is also in possession of a photograph with most of the toilets in Taiwan toppled over, reportedly by wind.
In the township’s BM section, residents have flushing toilets. Many are flooded, broken or locked with rusted locks.
“Some of the toilets are leaking and others don’t work,” said BM resident Noxolo
Mqhele, 42, said: “We don’t use those because when you flush them the stuff inside rises up.”
Out of frustration, the residents have taken to cleaning the toilets themselves. They bought their own padlocks to try to maintain order and keep those who do not use the toilets properly out. When someone needs to use the toilet they ask around for a key from the residents. This system doesn’t always work. The keys are shared between numerous families, but it is not clear who has the key at any one time.
“The people who are supposed to clean don’t clean inside. They say they are waiting for the chemical and they don’t have gumboots and masks to work,” Mqhele said. “Our government is not working for us. How can we live in this filth? When you come, the toilet is full of s**t.”
Because there is no light inside and outside the toilets, many people feel safer using the bushes instead.
“You can’t be comfortable when you are inside the toilet at night because you don’t know if the person knocking on the door wants to rob you,” Mqhele said.
Another BM resident, Ncumisa Xhalabile, 45, is afraid of being a victim of crime while using the toilet at night.
“At night I use a bucket,” the mother of six said. “I crouch outside my house because I can’t subject my family to the smell. I wear a long dress so that if someone comes close they won’t be able to see what I’m doing.”
She said she felt saddened and hurt that she couldn’t use the toilet in peace, and felt angry that the issue has been politicised.
She accused the DA-run city council of not delivering services to the poor as promised and felt all they wanted were votes.
Another resident, Ntombovuyo Mfino, 25, said they had placed stones on the floor of the flooded toilets to step on.
“A few of the toilets are working and many are flooded. We don’t know who to call when they [toilets] don’t work,” she said.
Mfino said the toilets were built on a wetland area. She said the toilets flooded from a combination of leaks and the wetland area.
During a drive through the section, at least a dozen toilets have been abandoned. They are filled with dried faeces and soiled newspapers, and many no longer have water tanks.
In RR section, the residents use portable chemical toilets. On the day of the Cape Times’s visit, the toilets were full of faeces baking in the summer sun. When we tried to open one of the toilets, a man was inside holding the door closed because there is no locking mechanism.
“This is not right. This is not up to human standards,” said resident Siphosethu Mabaso, 33. “It’s easy to catch diseases here.”
He echoed the worries of all the residents the Cape Times spoke to about using the toilets at night.
“At night it’s better to go in the bush because if you go that way [pointing at the toilets], you may not come back,” he said.
Another resident, Boyce Poni, 29, said it was sometimes better to use the bush because some people did not take care of the toilets.
“After the weekend there is s**t everywhere.”
On the day of the visit, there was litter and other paraphernalia outside the toilets, even though the tender specifications stipulate that the “2m perimeter of each toilet” should be cleaned.
Gavin Silber, co-ordinator of the Social Justice Coalition, said the biggest problem was that there was no monitoring.
“In some areas, toilets can be shared by as many as 100 people. The city doesn’t do monitoring,” he said.
Silber added that the city had made an effort to fix things, but conditions were still poor. He said communities felt “left in the lurch” because they were not consulted. He said what was needed, was for the commitments made by the city to be put into action plans and those not performing to be held accountable.
The problems of the janitorial service have been under the spotlight for the past few months.
The city has acknowledged the weaknesses and Mayor Patricia de Lille has promised to make improvements before the end of the year. “While the city did employ 282 janitors to identified areas, there was insufficient monitoring of the service provided, inadequate training and delays in the provision of protective-clothing,” De Lille said in a recent press statement. “Of further concern is that little or no provision was made for community consultation or education on the nature of the service provided.”
Ncumisa Xhalabile said she was not hopeful things would get better in the near future.
Her young children have suffered skin rashes and runny stomachs. “Those in charge must give each family their own toilet. That way we will be safe. We just want to be safe.”