Toilets, Youth Leagues and Politics: When the Private Becomes Hideously Public

Nyeleti Honwana, Columnist

“There was widespread controversy earlier this year when it emerged that 50 households in the low-income settlement of Khayelitsha, Cape Town had been provided with unenclosed toilets, leaving residents deprived of their rights to health, safety and dignity” The Social Justice Coalition

Women standing next to open air toilet, in plain sight of all passers-by, Khayelitsha; Cape Town

Khayelitsha, one of the largest and most derelict townships in South Africa:

Located in the Cape Flats, just outside the bustling city of Cape Town, Khayelitsha is home to over 400,000 people (as of 2005), the vast majority of which live below the poverty line. While in Cape Town, I came across a story that made me think rather differently about youth and politics. Just a few years ago, in the zone of Makhaza, answering “nature’s call” was a humiliating and sometimes dangerous ritual for hundreds of families who did not have toilets at home. Begging to use a neighbor’s toilet, using a makeshift plastic bucket or waiting in line for hours to use one of the four available public restrooms in another zone, were the options available to Makhaza dwellers.

However in 2007, the Democratic Alliance (DA), – Cape Town governing party – provided fifty homes with open-air toilets in Makhaza. This sparked outrage in the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) who immediately approached the Human Rights Commission expressing their disgust with the open air toilets and calling them a violation of human rights. The ANCYL went so far as to declare war on the Cape Town municipality and demanded that they provide covers for the toilets. When interviewed, the Mayor of Cape Town, Dan Plato, said that “we were never approached by the residents…asking for assistance to cover the toilets.” In fact he says that the toilets were installed on the grounds that the residents themselves would find the materials to cover them; a statement that is denied by the residents of Makhaza to this day.

Dismantling the Zinc Toilet Covers

Soon after the ANCYL’s involvement and the onslaught of press coverage, the Cape Town authorities provided the residents with zinc covers for the toilets, which to their horror further enraged the ANCYL. Groups of young people went from house to house destroying the covers on the grounds that the zinc used was of the lowest available quality. Seeing this as a ploy by the ANCYL to gain support in the area, the DA ‘”emporarily” removed the 65 toilets whose covers had been destroyed.  This led to mass outrage and culminated in a number of protests led by the ANCYL. Residents burned tires in the streets of Makhaza and, together with the ANCYL, took the city of Cape Town to court. The trial began on November 24th, the day I left Cape Town.

While the involvement of young people in local politics in Khayelitsha cannot be denied; one might ask, in what way is this zeal affecting the wider community? In the DA run city of Cape Town, some have argued that the ANCYL seems to be nothing more than a political party vying for support, while trying to tarnish the name of its opponent–a ploy that will go far in the coming local elections of 2011. However, what started as a somewhat noble quest to get proper sanitation facilities for people in desperate need of them has become a political battleground for supremacy, leaving the poor people of Khayelitsha in as dire straits as when the “toilet crisis” began. In an interview with non-profit organization Intern Africa, resident of Khayelitsha, Andiswa Ngabi, expressed her discontent with the current situation, saying that “We are not happy…we are complaining about toilets without covers. Now, instead of doing what we want, they [the DA] just take off the toilets. We’re feeling that [the] government destroyed us.”

The crux of the matter is that residents of Makhaza continue to live without toilets, covered or otherwise, a problem that is not exclusive to Cape Town. The Khayelitsha toilet scandal should be used as a plateau on which differing parties can come together to discuss the eradication of this social ill but, unfortunately,both parties are more interested in playing the blame game than in finding an adequate solution. It seems to me that the city of Cape Town needs to acknowledge the wrong doing on its part. Mayor Dan Plato’s stance that they have done “nothing wrong” is evidently ludicrous upon seeing the pictures of the toilets in Makhaza. Whatever their intentions were, there are glaring problems with sanitation conditions in much of Cape Town, and the local government must take the lead in the rectification of this. Ultimately, whether the ANCYL was correct in tearing down the covers of the toilets or not, it is important that the municipality have the trust of its constituents and provide safe and hygienic facilities for them to use. Today there are almost 4,000 bucket toilets still in use around Cape Town.

Lastly, as young people involved in politics, it is our job to ensure that our influence works only for the betterment of our community. In this instance the ANC Youth League used their popularity in Makhaza destructively. I would agree with those who advise ANCYL leaders to put party politics aside and use their power to negotiate better terms for sanitation facilities in Khayelitsha.