088 12.06.2014 Human Right Commission (HRC) deputy chairperson Pregs Govender takles gross human rights violations , at an interview with Saturday Star at their head offices at Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng12.06.2014 Human Right Commission (HRC) deputy chairperson Pregs Govender takles gross human rights violations , at an interview with Saturday Star at their head offices at Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Pretoria - A top human rights official has described the “horrendous” reality of poor people who continue to live with no access to water, proper sanitation and decent living conditions as “degrading and unacceptable”.

Pregs Govender, deputy chairwoman of the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), said a Soweto woman who stripped naked in protest over bucket toilets in her hostel not being emptied for three months, used her body to make a “powerful statement”.

Nomathemba Hlongwane pulled her pants and underwear down and flashed her backside at passing motorists on a busy Chris Hani Road this week in a defiant protest action that saw her pictures go around the world.

Govender, who leads the commission’s work on water and sanitation, said: “Instead of just sitting quietly and being brutalised by her conditions, she (Hlongwane) did something quite powerful”.

She said her actions in the face of “daily humiliation and brutalisation has brought attention to a terrible problem”.

“She actually took her body and used it to make a very powerful statement to say ‘look at this, we might as well pour it (poo) in the freeway’,” she said. “People who don’t have water and sanitation are still the same people that didn’t under apartheid. This is not how people should live every day.”

She likened Hlongwane’s protest to the Crossroads protest in the 1980s near Cape Town, when women faced Casspirs and took their clothes off to stop them coming in and destroying their community.

“It’s an old tactic and in this instance she (Hlongwane) did get the attention of local and international media. People can’t just be judging her.”

Govender said the commission had been investigating a similar complaint to the Diepkloof hostel at the women’s hostel in Alexandra township in which “the conditions are absolutely dreadful”.

“The reality is that the government has committed to completely transforming the hostel system in our country and yet we have a situation where people today are still living in such conditions.

“The hostels have not been transformed to the extend that was promised; in fact in many of them the conditions are still as dreadful.”

These, she said, were the people for whom the promise of democracy was to change their lives to make sure that “we don’t have such unequal country”.

The commission has investigated several cases of human rights violations on the daily basis in communities denied basic necessities since 2010 from the open toilets in Makhaza near Cape Town to deadly water protests in Madibeng in the North West, where protesters were killed.

Govender said 20 years into democracy children shouldn’t be dying of water-borne disease. Nor should people get killed in a water protest in an area called Madibeng – a place of water.

If the government had a clear pro-active strategy that involved all in its spheres of governance “we wouldn’t be having the problems we’re having”. She said this year immediate action was taken after the death of four people in Mothutlung in Madibeng and what this showed was that it can be done.

“SANDF trucks came in and helped with water provision. It is possible to utilise the resources of our country to ensure that people have access to water and sanitation.

“The North West premier ensured the diversion of water from a mining company to the community. It is possible for all our government to co-operate and collaborate and it shouldn’t just take people dying to do so, or people protesting. It should be a pro-active response of government.”

According to figures on sanitation needs from the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, more than 324 000 households, mostly in informal areas have no access to services.

In Gauteng, there are more than 140 000 households without sanitation services and 58 306 of those are in Joburg’s informal areas.

Govender said the national average of the statistics looked quite good but when disaggregated to the poorest communities the situation went through the roof. She said while the Ministry of Human Settlements was committed to the eradication of bucket system, the commission found that the goal posts kept shifting. - Pretoria News Weekend