The truth behind the ‘toilet wars' - Zille

The DA leader says truth has been the first casualty of the controversy

The truth behind the so-called "toilet wars"

This week has been dominated by what the media have described as "toilet wars". And, as usual, in war of any kind, truth is always the first casualty.

This edition of SA Today sets out, for the record, the facts of this messy situation. The first fact is this: open toilets are a serious affront to human dignity and cannot be condoned.

So how did it happen that toilets without walls were provided to the residents of Silvertown, Makhaza, by the DA-controlled City of Cape Town?

The issue had its genesis under my watch as Mayor of Cape Town when the City began an ambitious programme to deliver services (such as water, sewerage, roads, storm water and electricity) to 223 informal settlements (home to around 650,000 shack dwellers) across the metropolitan area.  Most of these settlements are the consequence of land invasions. Densities, and lack of planning, make "retrofitting" services in these areas a technically complex task.

But the technical difficulties pale into insignificance compared to the social complexities of upgrading a densely populated informal settlement.  Inevitably, upgrading results in intense community conflict, as some people have to move to make way for service installation, and people vie for access to the jobs that upgrading offers.  Usually, community conflict stalls delivery for many months, and often stops it altogether.  Very few contractors wish to work on these projects because of the social conflict that inevitably arises, which is why they always cost more and take much longer than initially planned.

To facilitate these processes where possible, contractors usually employ a "community liaison officer" (CLO) to achieve consensus and minimise conflict. In Silvertown, the CLO was none other than ANC Youth League (ANCYL) regional secretary, Andile Lili, who achieved notoriety when he was one of the group smashing the toilet enclosures in pursuit of the ANCYL's call to destroy infrastructure and make the City "ungovernable".

In his paid position as CLO facilitating the Silvertown provision of services, Lili had played a key role in implementing an agreement that emerged from lengthy negotiations with the community about how to meet their priorities out of the available budget. The budget, based on the national norms for the upgrading of informal settlements, provides one flush toilet for every five families. But the community understandably wanted one flush toilet per family. The proposed way to achieve this was for the City to provide the toilets and plumbing connections, while the families themselves would make a contribution and enclose the toilets.

This seemed an ideal win-win solution.  It certainly was for the 97% (1,265) of Silvertown families who built their toilet enclosures, often in the most innovative "en-suite" arrangements attached to their dwellings. But it did not work for 51 families (less than 3% of total beneficiaries). For whatever reason, they did not enclose their toilets, and some even used their open air toilets under cover of blankets.

The City resolved to end this indignity and to build toilet enclosures for the 51 - but faced resistance from the 1,265 families who argued that if they had built their enclosures themselves, so could the remaining 51. After listening to these arguments, Mayor Plato concluded that it would be untenable to continue with the indignity of open toilets. The City would therefore enclose the remaining toilets.

By this time, the ANCYL had realised it was on to a good thing.  Photos of unenclosed toilets had appeared in the media. The ANCYL lost no time using this to "prove" the lie that the DA treats black people with indignity, and developed a keen interest in ensuring the toilets remained open.

Mayor Plato then personally walked around Silvertown, speaking to the 51 residents with unenclosed toilets. He received a signed agreement from each of them that the City would erect enclosures around their toilets.

The City then moved in and began doing so. But the ANC youth league broke down the enclosures as fast as they could be built - against the pleas of the owners to stop doing so.  The police did their job and arrested two perpetrators on charges of malicious damage to property.  But the community was largely intimidated into silence.

This left the City with only two options:  to leave the toilets unenclosed, or to remove them.

The first option remained untenable. It was therefore resolved that the toilets would be temporarily removed until enclosures were built. Then the toilets would be returned.  This could, theoretically, happen within a few days.  In the meantime, the community would continue to be serviced by toilets on the national standard ratio of 5 families to 1 toilet (with a concrete enclosure).

Even this is far better than what is available in most informal settlements in ANC-run metropolitan areas. A recent National Treasury report found that Cape Town was well ahead of other metro municipalities in dealing with infrastructure backlogs and delivery of services. And Cape Town's service delivery lead is growing, despite the fact that the City faces massive urbanisation - pro rata higher than any other City in the sub-continent.

Cape Town would be even further ahead if it were not for the vandalism of municipal infrastructure, such as the wanton destruction of toilets perpetrated by the ANCYL last week.

According to Alderman Clive Justus, Cape Town's Mayco member for Utility Services, the City last year spent more than R80 million on repairing or replacing stolen or vandalised basic services in informal settlements.

For every R3 that the City spends of its R125 million annual budget for water and sanitation facilities in informal settlements, R2 is spent on repairs and replacement of vandalized or stolen infrastructure. According to Justus, if it were not for this lawlessness, the City would be able to upgrade informal settlements at three times the current rate.

Justus said recently that in the past financial year, the City had installed 422 water stand pipes, but had to effect 5 482 repairs to sabotaged or stolen pipes and taps.

In the same year, the City's Utility Services installed 2 458 toilets, but had to make 4 302 repairs to cisterns, pans, pipes and ablutions damaged by criminals.

Last December, 300 out of 464 toilets installed in a Delft informal settlement were broken or had parts stolen. In Philippi, vandals destroyed 26 ablution blocks containing six toilets each. In RR Section of Khayelitsha, chemical toilets were burned to the ground. This all happened within weeks of installation.

To address the theft of copper cabling, brass valves, lead batteries, manhole covers and water meters, the City is now using only plastic or steel pipes, and concrete for toilets. Underground electricity cables are now covered with concrete so that they can't be dug out. Cape Town's ‘Copperheads' task team has also cracked down on dealers of stolen scrap metal. The City has even provided padlocks and chains to community leaders to keep toilet facilities secure overnight.

Justus warned that a new pattern is emerging, whereby plastic pipes are stolen, despite their minimal re-sale value, concrete toilets are smashed with axes, and even padlocks are being taken. This is pure vandalism.

City officials report that residents sometimes vandalise facilities to secure more jobs in the subsequent repair programmes on the basis of the City's "local employment" policies, creating a perverse incentive for people to destroy newly installed infrastructure, to secure employment in the repair work. When contractors employ other outside labour, local communities often drive them out of the area, delaying projects by months and years. This pushes up the cost of services in informal settlements.

We have come to the conclusion that the best way to instill a sense of ownership and an ethos of respecting property, is for each family to contribute to the construction and maintenance of their own toilet.  The perfect condition of the enclosed "en suite" toilets in Silvertown is evidence of this.

But this type of intervention which encourages self-reliance and initiative does not suit the ANC Youth League who would rather ensure that people remain passive and powerless recipients of government handouts. 

We have seen through the ANCYL's strategy and it is time for the community to do so too. Unless they stand up for their rights against the intimidation of the ANC Youth League, they will remain victims and forfeit the power to change their lives.

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

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