Women in informal settlements complain of dirty and unsafe toilets

Noluthando Sithole empties a slop bucket into the communal toilets. All photos by Mzi Velapi

The Water Services Act 108 of 1997 provides for the right to a basic water supply and sanitation service but the lived experiences of women in informal settlements of Khayelitsha tell how just using the toilet can be dangerous.

On World Toilet Day, women staying in informal settlements of Khayelitsha complained that the toilets that they use are not safe, clean or private. Observed by the United Nations, World Toilet Day became official in 2012 to inspire action to tackle the global sanitation crisis. According to the United Nations, 4.2-billion people “live without safely managed sanitation and around 673-million people practise open defecation”. 

In South Africa, the provision and maintenance of sanitation services remains largely the function of local government and according to Cape Town’s profile in Census 2011, 71.7% of households had flush toilets connected to a sewerage system, 10% had no toilet facilities and 6.6% were using a bucket system.

We met Noluthando Sithole as she was going into the communal flush toilets in Ndlovini informal settlement. She was going to empty a bucket that she had used for the previous night’s ablutions. “I don’t have full access to the toilet; I always borrow my neigbour’s key. Even though I stay close to the toilets, it is not safe to use them at night,” said the 49-year-old. According to Sithole, one of the toilets is blocked and the sewerage has been overflowing into people’s yards. “There are some people within the community that voluntarily clean the toilets but in most cases the toilets are always dirty and smell bad,” she said

Nkandla, one of the new informal settlements near Monwabisi beach, only received chemical toilets (mshengus) last month according to one of the residents, Zanele Mrawuli. “Before that, we were relieving ourselves in a nearby veld. The mshengus are stinky and some people, especially children, leave poo on the seat,” said Mrawuli.

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Chemical toilets in Taiwan informal settlement in Site C

Another community that uses mshengus is BM section near Mew Way Hall. The area was established as a temporary camp in 2013, after a fire ravaged the informal settlement, resulting in three deaths and the destruction of 800 homes. “I don’t use the mshengu anymore. I did use it once and I got an infection. I now use the field nearby to relieve myself. It’s not safe… as there is a high risk of being raped. One time I had to run away after spotting a male figure in the dark,” said Zimbini Ndzoyi.

According to the 52-year-old, people have been mugged when coming out of the toilets. “There have been robberies reported by other community members where they have guns pointed at them and their phones taken,” she said.

The porta-potti (pota-pota) are seen as the most undignified type of toilets that the City of Cape Town continues to provide to residents of informal settlements. They have been used as a political tool to highlight inequalities in the City. “Most people in Taiwan informal settlement use pota-potas. I stopped using them because it looks unhygienic to have it inside your house. Sometimes the janitors do not come to collect them and it causes a smell inside the house and attracts a lot of flies,” said Zingisa Lahliwe.

Pota-potas readied for collection in Taiwan informal settlement.

One of the key finding of the social audit by the Social Justice Coalition in 2014 was that one in four flush toilets audited was not working. Other findings were that almost half of the toilets that were inspected were either dirty or very dirty and that most of the toilets are locked and not all residents can access them.

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