Media: A crisis of dignity – 5 humiliating years later

31 01 2010

One of a human being’s most private acts is a daily ordeal for these families

Jan 30, 2010 8:25 PM | By Buyekezwa Makwabe – Sunday Times

Ntombifuthi Mdibaniso dreads answering the call of nature. The matric pupil has been cleaning up human excrement for the past decade – often with only plastic bags to cover her hands – to earn the right to use a neighbour’s toilet.

The humiliating ritual has become a way of life for the 19-year-old, who lives in a shack with her parents in a section of the sprawling township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town.There are no toilets for the hundreds of families crammed into the shantytown known as QQ section.

Those who need to relieve themselves can beg to use a neighbour’s toilet in exchange for some form of payment, use a plastic bucket in their own shack, go to the toilet in the bush or join long queues to use one of four communal toilets in another section.

The Sunday Times discovered the plight of Mdibaniso and her neighbours five years ago – she was then aged 13 – during turbulent protests over poor service delivery in the then ANC-run city and province. The young teen was reduced to tears by the filthy task.

Today the people of QQ section still face a crisis of dignity – under a city and province now run by the DA.

Minister of human settlements Tokyo Sexwale shed light on what was fuelling the crisis when he told MPs in parliament this week that the number of informal settlements in the country had soared from about 300 in 1994 to more than 2600 .

“Millions of our people are squatting … It’s a disaster in our country, it’s Haiti every day,” he told the portfolio committee on human settlements.

Another toilet crisis in Khayelitsha made headlines this week after the ANC Youth League accused the DA of violating people’s rights in nearby Makhaza. There, the city built more than 1000 toilets for residents on condition they erected their own walls around them. The furore has led to a probe by the Human Rights Commission.

But Mdibaniso said this week that having a toilet without walls would be better than nothing at all. “Things are much better in the rural areas where one will have a tap and a (pit latrine) toilet in the yard,” she said.

Mzonke Poni, a housing activist with Abahlali Basemjondolo – a community group fighting for better housing – described the situation in QQ section as a gross violation of human rights.

“I’ve heard of incidents where women have been raped when either crossing the N2 to relieve themselves or walking to beg for the use of a toilet in another section,” Poni said.

Said Mdibaniso: “When (neighbours) tell you that their toilets are blocked, you have no option but to use a bucket. If your house is in a dense area where there is no gap between the houses, the bucket will have to be used inside the house.

“One then has to walk with a full bucket to dump it in a drain along Lansdowne Road. It becomes a disaster when the drains are blocked,” she said.

She said it was difficult to take the 15-minute walk across a bridge over the N2 freeway to conduct one’s ablutions in what was once an open field, because of rapidly expanding shacks.

There are four communal toilets in a nearby section of the township, but Mdibaniso said there were long queues from dawn of people too afraid to relieve themselves outside at night.

City of Cape Town spokesman Kylie Hatton said authorities had wanted to provide portable toilets in QQ Section but residents rejected them because they wanted to be moved away to “formal erven and receive houses”. She said 4000 rented chemical toilets had been placed in areas around the city to ease the ablutions crisis.

“The housing backlog is estimated at 400000 households,” said Hatton.

Mdibaniso said: “What I want is for us to be moved from this place to a place where there is space so that we can get access to water, a working toilet and electricity.”

Vuyelwa Cogwana, a squatter in Makhaza, where the city erected the controversial open-air toilets, said: “I have been moved three times in three years. I cannot build walls around that toilet or use it because this piece of land is not mine. The owner may move in tomorrow and what would happen to the material I’ve used?”

The toilets at Makhaza, most of which have been shielded from public view by residents, are part of the city’s informal-settlement upgrading project.

There are nearly 4000 bucket toilets still in use in and around the city of Cape Town.

According to the Department of Water Affairs, over three million families and 828 schools in the country have no access to basic sanitation. – Additional reporting by Anton Ferreira

makwabeb@sundaytimes.co.za

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