Danger of scoring political points in toilet wars

WITH next year’s election looming the emotive issue of access to sanitation has arisen again. A fortnight ago the Democratic Alliance (DA) labelled the number of houses lacking sanitation a "disgrace" and possibly in a pre-emptive move rolled out several thousand portable toilets in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township where access to better sanitation has been an inflammatory demand.

While sanitation is indeed a national concern and one that needs to be addressed there are clear risks arising from politicising the issue.

How serious are sanitation backlogs? In response to a recent parliamentary question Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale reported that there were almost 2.3-million households that lacked access. There is a chance that the picture is even worse; different Census 2011 calculations estimated a lack of access to sanitation applying to 5%-7% of South Africans and when adding the bucket system those without adequate sanitation rises to almost 10%. One assumes Sexwale is privy to data showing improvements since 2011.

While access to sanitation is a basic socioeconomic right and an important health issue it is curious that the DA should have come out so strongly in its condemnation of what seems quite a conservative figure especially given that its experience in Cape Town and Midvaal has demonstrated the challenges of delivering such an infrastructure-intensive service especially in rapidly growing and poorly planned informal settlements.

In fact including the bucket system with no access to toilets Census 2011 shows Cape Town up as the third-worst-ranked metro for attaining universal access to sanitation (although all metros have attained coverage for more than 90% of residents — the best being Tshwane where less than 3% of residents have no access to sanitation and the worst being Nelson Mandela Bay where just more than 9% lack access to sanitation).

Similarly DA flagship Midvaal is the second-worst Gauteng municipality after Mogale City. This was almost two years ago so the figures may have changed with most metros and Gauteng performing relatively well and Midvaal providing access to sanitation to more than 95% of its residents in 2011 (behind neighbouring Emfuleni’s 98% record).

Perhaps anticipating these statistics or in the run-up to elections or in response to protest action Cape Town has rolled out 11300 portable flush toilets with 12000 to follow in its bid to eradicate the bucket system.

To be seen is whether the toilets will be accepted by recipients with some community leaders said to have rejected the technology demanding flush toilets alongside formal housing and the Social Justice Coalition has argued that although they are an improvement they work on the same basis as the bucket system.

Objectively while the portable flush toilets are not attractive compared with flush toilets they provide a number of advantages not least an easy roll-out to informal settlements that would otherwise not lend themselves to any reticulated solution. In other words a second-best pragmatism is needed in considering them as an interim part of informal settlement upgrading as opposed to the eradication of these fixed features of South Africa’s urban landscapes.

The African National Congress (ANC) needs to consider carefully how it pitches its response to the DA’s Cape Town plans — an outright rejection could render its own future use of the toilets as hypocritical. Pushing for enclosed toilet structures as the ANC will know from its delivery trials in Moqhaka delays the scale and scope of sanitation projects by pushing up the cost and complexity.

While there is little that can beat an enclosed flush toilet for dignity hygiene and convenience it is not a practical or affordable option in many of the households awaiting sanitation. Perhaps this is why the DA while conveniently timed after its parliamentary question has gone about its roll-out without an explicit campaign — both as a strategic means to bolster Cape Town’s basic service record but also sidestepping technological debates in a politicised area.

It would be a gross injustice for those awaiting access to sanitation to (again) politicise a human right for political point-scoring. It can only be hoped that good sense prevails in the debates that take forward the best ways in which to address the backlogs.