There’s a Message for City Planners in Cape Town Plumbing Poll | Next City

Fueled by data collection, residents demand a basic human right.

Story and Photography by Ann Babe, Next City

A mother and father stand in the doorway of their Khayelitsha home, looking on as their two young children goof around on the small patch of dirt outside. It’s something like a front yard, only that — flanked on one side by the family’s corrugated tin shack and on the other by a public portable toilet balanced precariously on a slope — it’s a stinky and unsanitary one.

On this clear May day, though, the kids are focused on the play, not the bright, plastic porta-potty that looms over them.

In Khayelitsha, the densely packed, sprawling slum in southeastern Cape Town, this scene is nothing out of the ordinary. Chemical toilets — toilets that are not connected to a sewage system but instead store waste in small tanks that use chemicals to control the odor until they can be emptied — were designed to be short-term solutions. In the U.S., they are most often found on construction sites or festival grounds, but in Cape Town they have become permanent fixtures, accounting for more than 75 percent of the bathroom facilities available in some parts of the densely populated settlement. And with each toilet shared by five to 20 households, many of them large and multigenerational, the chemicals are far from effective.

The one I’m eyeing has serviced this family for five years. Others have been in use for more than a decade. They pepper the township in unsightly bursts of blue. Their odor is inescapable. And perhaps worse than the sight and smell is what they signify. Residents say the chemical toilets mean they can’t even undertake basic human functions with dignity. Each trip to the bathroom is dehumanizing.

With such limited access to decent restroom facilities, sanitation is a constant challenge in Khayelitsha. The seeming impossibility of overcoming it weighs heavily on the people, who say they struggle with sanitation every single day, which makes them feel like second-class citizens in their own country.

A 35-minute drive west of Khayelitsha is Cape Town’s richest neighborhood, Clifton. The posh bayside area brims with bungalows, luxe shops and fine dining spots where a hearty meal often costs more than an entire month’s earnings for many Khayelitsha families, whose median income is 20,000 South African Rand (about $1,400 U.S.) a year. One glance from Clifton to Khayelitsha, and it’s clear why there is such social strife in South Africa. While the post-Apartheid nation heralds a world-class constitution that guarantees basic human rights for everyone, nearly one-quarter of Cape Town’s population lives in informal settlements — which are overwhelmingly black — where accessing these rights is difficult, if not impossible.

Khayelitsha is the biggest and fastest growing of the slums, larger than many midsize American cities. It clings to the outskirts of the Mother City, as Cape Town is known, like a forgotten child at a dress hem. Residents feel disconnected from the city, they say, with many of them unaware of what services they can reasonably expect or what laws say they can expect them. “We are in a community where we don’t know our rights,” says Nosiphelele Msesiwe, a Khayelitsha resident. “We don’t know that it’s our right to get better service delivery.”

Msesiwe, who is 33, moved to Khayelitsha’s Enkanini subsection in 2006 with her son Oyama. For seven years, she endured the inadequate sanitation, talking to her neighbors about the problem, but uncertain of how to go about changing it. Then she heard about a group of residents called the Social Justice Coalition that were asking questions about toilets — and a lot of them.

Msesiwe joined right away. “Since then, I’ve never turned back,” she says.

Established in Khayelitsha in 2008, the SJC is a member-based social movement, 2,500 strong, that aims to increase the people’s awareness of their rights so they can make informed demands of government.

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