Words: Kim Gurney | Photos: David Harrison
Can design avert the toilet wars in Cape Town? We explore urban form and social change by comparing two majority black Cape Town neighbourhoods: Khayelitsha, a sprawling settlement on the city’s eastern periphery, and Dunoon, a post-apartheid neighbourhood located on a busy northern transport corridor. Both reveal a common ethos of self-built propositions. The citizen, it seems, is delivering the city
The approach road to Look- out Hill in Khayelitsha, a 30-year-old township established during apartheid, is dotted with potholes that the cars ahead traverse in confident zigzags familiar with the worst. Situ- ated about 35km outside Cape Town, Khayelitsha is home to an estimated 450 000 people (or 391 000 ac- cording to 2011 census figures). Its sidewalks teem to either side: Afro Zorro Car Wash, window frames, mattresses, bathtubs and basins, signs reading “Trailers for hire” and “Scrap for sale,” cash stores and hair salons, a man pulling an overloaded bin, a suitcase abandoned on its wheels, chemical toilets lined up under a tarpaulin, roadworks ahead with a sign: “STOP/ RY GO”. Like any other South African neighbourhood in early 2014, the street poles are also festooned with electioneering posters. “Step up for Diversity” urges the ruling African National Congress (ANC). “Register to Win” says the op- position Democratic Alliance (DA). “Don’t vote, organise,” admonishes a bus shelter stencil.
That is exactly what a constellation of non-governmental organisations based in Khayelitsha have done. The Social Justice Coalition (SJC) and partners triggered a Commission of Inquiry into policing in Khayelit- sha, instituted by the premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille. Its daily hearings at Lookout Hill community hall are gathering testimony around alleged inefficiencies and a break- down in relations with the commu- nity, to make findings and ultimately national recommendations. Indeed, the complainants suggest the case is emblematic of post-apartheid realities in other townships and informal settlements, an idea replicated by their distinctive black T-shirts with white circular logo: “Safe Khayelitsha! Safe South Africa!” In contrast, the police underscores in its open- ing statement a rejection of systemic failures in favour of a contextual approach. This ideological seesaw infuses proceedings from the outset and also the larger anvil upon which they repeatedly turn.
Outside the Lookout Hill community hall, a boy washes his body in the water of a blocked drain. Inside, Khayelitsha residents bear witness to their daily lives. The texture of their testimonies is a startling weave linking everyday acts, like sanitation, with vulnerability to brutal violence. The voice that brings this story home, in a quietly determined way, belongs to Nontebeko Nduna, a community activist for SJC and a mother of two. Nduna sits before the formal com- mission behind black-cloaked tables, sleek microphones and large con- textual maps pinned to the walls in front of a packed public hall. Half the listeners wear headphones to better understand her testimony that a translator renders live from isiXhosa into English. She manages to elegantly carry off the black T-shirt of the activists’ coalition with highpinned hair, deep pink fingernails and matter-of-fact tone. Nduna lives in a shack in CT section of Taiwan informal settlement in Site C, she explains. Her family has an electric- ity box but no water and no toilet, so they have to use communal toilets about 10-15 minutes’ walk away.
“Others use portable toilets but unfortunately we don’t have them because you need space to have a portable toilet and we don’t have space in our house to put that portable toilet,” she says. “So when the communal toilets are closed, I walk towards the N2 [highway] where I help myself.” Walking that distance, she explains, anything can happen because the communal toilets close at night and there are no lights. “So anyone can follow you and do anything. People get robbed. They get raped. There is nothing that does not happen in that area when people are going to the N2 to help themselves.” In winter, adds Nduna, when the sun sets earlier, she carries her cellphone to light the way as well as illuminate the interior of the toilet. “So that is a thing that attracts the person to rob you because they want the cell phone you are holding.”
Ongoing protest action has politicised the toilet, casting it as a cipher of freedom
Nduna’s recommendations to the commission include more visibility: “in town there are police riding horses … and if we could have lights,” she adds. At one point during her testimony, Nduna stands on her chair to better point out on a map to the commissioners exactly where she is talking about. Two weeks later, she takes me there.
We are standing in a coral-coloured communal toilet in Site C. On the right are washbasins, and through an open doorway three toilets. The door to the first is broken and the flush is perma- nently running. The seat is missing. Graffiti on the left says “Sex me plz” and on the right is a crude porno- graphic drawing. There is no toilet paper and no lighting. Further along are three open showers. This commu- nal facility opens at five in the morn- ing and shuts at nine in the evening. During the day, says the attendant, it’s so busy there are often queues. She keeps the place as clean as possible. A woman is scrubbing her laundry in basins outside. Further along, a water tap stands in a circular concrete drum. An informal business set up across the way in a container signs itself: Bobo Bread, Handmade Belts.
I am briefly thrown back to September 2011 and a visit to the Habitare Furniture Fair in Helsinki, a precursor event to the Finnish capital’s tenure as 2012 World Design Capital. An exhibition of “outhouses” caught my eye — outside toilets for second homes in the countryside. The modernist array of wood, glass and eco-friendly gimmicks included a cascade of brightly coloured flowers down a tiered flatpack model—all the better for soaking up excess rainwater—and the winning design by Yoshimasa Yamada with windows to mimic the knots of trees. How such innovations would read back in the Western Cape where local politics was fraught with the issue of open toilets was a mystery back then. More so in 2014 as Cape Town assumes the World Design Capital mantle with its own tagline, “Live Design, Transform Life,” and the strategic mission to promote design as a tool for making “better cities for people and improve lives within an African context.”
Ongoing protest action in the interim has further politicised the toilet, casting it as a cipher of freedom. Nduna, who has lived in Khayelitsha since 1997, is standing in the alley outside the communal toilets wear- ing orange and yellow drop earrings, big brown sunglasses and the same black T-shirt as before. The high- pinned hair is gone but her quietly poised demeanour and deliberate manner are unmistakeable. She points down the street fronted both sides by dense dwellings to the pink building where she lives next door. There is one streetlight between and it hasn’t been working for years. At night, when the toilets are closed, she must navigate a myriad of shacks towards the N2 and find a place to relieve herself, where she becomes vulnerable to attack. “This area is one of the most dangerous,” says fellow SJC activist Luthando Tokota. Nduna nods in agreement and they both fall silent. “Let’s move on,” he suggests.
We cross a busy road from shacks onto a piece of veld adjacent the N2 in the RR Section. “Do you want to cross over?” Tokota asks and, as we set foot on the grass edge, I better understand why. It is difficult to sustain a conver- sation in the nauseating waft. “People get robbed, they get raped, and also the accidents … You can see the distance and all of them have to use this space,” he says. “Any questions?” In his narrow-brimmed black hat, flash buckle with an eagle insignia, and black briefcase on the back seat of my car, Tokota is a suave guide to the sanitation realities in Khayelitsha. We start with dozens of toilet innards lined up on the roadside for collection before traversing the bush, portable toilets (or “porta-potties”), chemical toilets and different versions of flush. The latter are usually communal and padlocked, with five families officially sharing three keys per unit. New green-doored loos in RR Section provide some relief — but only for families closest, and with access to keys, says Tokota.
Many are in disrepair: chemical toilets assembled without concrete bases are unstable and sited in vulnerable positions — in one instance, next to a swamp. These kinds of issues are reflected in a social audit that SJC published in 2013, which it conducted on 256 chemical toilets across four Khayelitsha areas. “Peo- ple don’t want to use them, they bet- ter go to the bushes to relieve them- selves. Just imagine there are heavy rains,” says Tokota pointing to the swamp. As if on cue, I narrowly avoid stepping in excrement, parked like a judgment delivered right next to the unstable toilet. “And at night it is also a risk,” adds Nduna. “You can’t see those things [toilets]. You can come inside here and anyone can grab you and do whatever they try to do. It’s not a good place.”
Nduna’s very personal story about sanitation was only part of her testimony to the commission. She also gave evidence about a niece knocked over and dragged by a police car (the case remains unsolved), and closed with an anecdote about vigilantism. The picture she painted was harrow- ing, although she adopted a fatalistic tone in the narration: “Why would our family be any special or different to any other family whose case is incomplete?” After delivering her testimony, she broke down and silently wept, folding her head in her hands. Nduna confirms speaking to the commission was an emotional experience but worth it to make the stories known. “At least something comes out of it,” she says. “I think it will be helpful. There are so many things that were not known but now are out. Everything is out there now, everybody knows about it.”
The general hope among complainants is that any recommendations may also be helpful elsewhere. As Tokota says: “Here in Khayelitsha, the problem that we are facing is the problem that people in Gugulethu are facing. But there, for example, in Crossroads, there are no NGOs like SJC. So at least Khayelitsha has got these NGOs who can expose these kinds of issues.” While that may be so, the police during the commission adopted a bad- apple defence. During Nduna’s pro- ceedings, for instance, legal counsel for the police, Norman Arendse, said: “If we can get the case numbers and any other particulars … so the mis- creants can be brought to book and be disciplined.” This case-by-case approach is consistent with the SAPS official opening statement: “The test of whether or not these complaints collectively indicate general incom- petence or a breakdown in commu- nity relations must be contextual, and objective. In other words, we cannot use the standards of polic- ing found in Constantia or Camps Bay or Rondebosch [more privi- leged suburbs in Cape Town] to be the same as those [of] Khayelitsha. We will therefore submit that there is no systemic failure of policing in Khayelitsha if one takes into account the social and economic conditions of the people of Khayelitsha.”
This includes police resources. A key statistic emerges in the testimony of Dr Gilbert Lawrence, who heads up the Department of Community Safety in the Western Cape government. To continue reading subscribe or get a copy of the print edition