One in four flush toilets inspected by the Social Justice Coalition in a number of Khayelitsha informal settlements is not working, according to the organisation. File picture: Courtney Africa

Cape Town - An SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) report into sanitation in Cape Town's informal settlements has numerous shortcomings, the city's mayor Patricia de Lille said on Thursday.

In a weekly newsletter, De Lille said the SAHRC's recommendations showed it did not understand the practical realities of service delivery.

“It is particularly astounding that the HRC can argue that the city's provision of chemical toilets constitutes unfair discrimination,” she said.

According to the recently-released report people's right to basic sanitation, equality and dignity had been violated.

Basic sanitation was defined as a toilet that was safe, reliable, easy to keep clean and kept smells to a minimum.

It recommended the city develop norms and standards for a basic sanitation plan for informal settlements within six months.

De Lille said these were recommendations, not instructions or rulings as claimed in recent media reports. She argued chemical toilets were used by municipalities across the country.

“Is the HRC arguing that their provision in every such instance constitutes unfair discrimination? Unless they do so, in these cases it will create the impression that they are deliberately targeting Cape Town.”

The Social Justice Coalition (SJC) said the report was a “major victory” for the poor and working class.

SJC project manager Axolile Notywala said the SAHRC investigation was the result of an SJC complaint and social audit.

The audit last year looked at the state of chemical toilets in Khayelitsha provided and serviced by outsourced company Mshengu Services, under contract between 2010 and 2013.

The commission began its investigation soon after. It said the city often treated “basic” and “emergency” sanitation as interchangeable terms in its programme.

It found the city had been formulaic in its sanitation provision without considering changing socio-economic contexts.

“A reasonable programme to realise the rights of basic sanitation must treat all persons affected... with 'care and concern' rather than merely an exercise of statistical compliance or a cold problem-solving endeavour,” the report stated.

The city treated the emergency ratio of one toilet per five households as a target or milestone, rather than as a ceiling not to be exceeded, the SAHRC stated.

“Of course, the city would like to provide full flush toilets on a 1:1 ratio, but this is simply not possible given very real practical constraints,” De Lille responded.

She said no other municipality voluntarily imposed a higher standard for access to sanitation, with 94 percent of households served at this ratio.

The commission opined that the city's widespread use of chemical toilets as viable basic sanitation in the long-term was unsatisfactory and did not meet mandatory national and local criteria.

De Lille said chemical toilets were only provided as a last resort and that portable flush toilets were provided to any community that requested them on a 1:1 ratio.

On equality, the SAHRC found that over 80 percent of the chemical toilets were in overwhelmingly black informal settlements.

The SAHRC found that though the city may not have overtly intended to discriminate, the violation of the right to access basic sanitation fell disproportionately on blacks.

On dignity, it was the commission's opinion that the city had equated the “informal” in informal settlements with temporary, despite many being in existence for years.

It said the city's sanitation programme for informal settlements continually referred to guidelines for emergency situations.

“To conceive of life in informal settlements as equivalent to emergencies, constant state of crises, is a fundamental affront to the dignity of the residents of those areas.”

De Lille said the commission had ignored the fact that it had improved the provision of sanitation in informal settlements from 14 000 in 2006 to over 44 500 this year.

She accused the SAHRC of playing the race card and linked it to the African National Congress's election campaign.

“Finally, while I respect the important role of Chapter nine institutions, it needs to be understood that they are there to underpin our democracy, not to undermine elected governments and their electoral mandate,” she said.