This article by SJC Coordinator Gavin Silber appeared in the Mail & Guardian 0n 23 March 2012. The South African Human Rights Commission has declared March Human Rights month – with a particular focus on access to water and sanitation. The SJC has been participating in the HRC’s national Sanitation Hearings, aimed at highlighting community concerns and discussing potential solutions.
There is no greater indictment of tour collective failure to address historic injustice in Souh Afria than the admission last week that 16-million people still live without access to a clean and safe toilet. Having just celebrated Human Rights Day, it is important not only to reflect on the rights we won almost two decades ago, but also on how — for a third of the population — basic rights to health, a clean environment, safety and dignity are violated daily.
Few families living in poor informal settlements or rural areas are left untouched by the broad impact of inadequate sanitation. Unhygienic conditions in and around toilets directly contribute to the widespread prevalence of illnesses such as diarrhoea and gastroenteritis.
Crime, particularly in urban slums, and too few functioning toilets render residents particularly susceptible to attack. People are assaulted, robbed, raped and murdered on the often arduous journey to relieve themselves. Others are hit by cars while crossing busy, unlit roads in search of a toilet (informal settlements have some of the highest pedestrian mortality rates in the country).
Unspoken act of using a toilet
In spite of the severity of these challenges, openly discussing the deeply personal act of using a toilet has long been taboo. The
catalyst needed to bring this to the light of day was the media fanfare and public outrage over the thousands of toilets without walls or roofs that had been built in various municipalities across the country, forcing residents to relieve themselves in the open.
This was an extreme but illustrative example of broad systemic failure in sanitation policy and provision nationwide.
Much of the media coverage focused on the squabble between political parties, but in homes, churches and town halls across the country an important discussion had been ignited. This conversation was not limited to affected communities, but spread to those living in more affluent suburbs previously unaware of the scope of the problem.
Sanitation has come to exemplify a government failing to redress the starkest imbalances of the past. It is no surprise that the 2011 local-government election became known as “the toilet election”.
The source of our failure to provide sanitation and other basic services to the urban poor is the enduring view that thousands of communities housing millions of residents are, in fact, temporary. At least 10% of all people in South Africa live in informal slums, generally on the periphery of large cities. Since 1994 the focus has been placed on housing provision as a way to “eradicate” these communities. More recently, we have seen all levels of government begin to acknowledge that this approach has failed and call for more attention and resources to be directed towards basic service provision and informal settlement upgrading. We have not, however, seen these gestures turned into policies, budgets and implementation plans. As such, little has changed on the ground. As migration into cities increases, we can ill afford to stay on our current trajectory. Sanitation provision could serve as a vital first step towards progressively realising the vision of turning informal settlements into more livable communities. Successfully doing so entails rolling out two parallel but interlinked processes.
Local government must ensure proper facilities
First, local government — the sphere of government responsible for delivery of water and sanitation services — must take immediate action to ensure that existing facilities function optimally. This might sound like common sense, but a significant portion of facilities fall into disrepair because municipalities believe their responsibility ends once communal toilets have been installed.
A toilet stall shared between 100 people quickly breaks down without routine maintenance and cleaning. Poor monitoring means that once a toilet breaks down, it can remain in such a state for months, or even years. Simple interventions such as routine janitorial servicing and monitoring systems would greatly improve the quality of life and ultimately save the state money.
The second process focuses on delivering additional facilities, where required, based on need, and depends on the government building continuous and meaningful relationships with stakeholders. The provision of sanitation and other basic services is too complex for the government to handle on its own. Local governments must call for support from experts but must also consult communities, who know better than anyone what solutions are needed. National and provincial governments also have a critical role to play in providing support to municipalities, both financially and in the provision of coherent guiding policies.
The South African Human Rights Commission has declared March Human Rights Month and the focus in 2012 is on water and sanitation. During recent hearings on sanitation held across the country, it became evident that all concerned, including the government, agreed that delivery had to be prioritised. It is now up to all South Africans — including those with several toilets in their homes — to ensure that these commitments translate into action.