December 2, 2015

South Africans Trek a Long, Winding Road
In Battling for Toilets
– and Justice 

By Charlotte Scott

Khayelitsha is a South African township of more than 400,000 people living on the periphery of Cape Town, geographically and economically isolated from the city’s central business districts. Its residents still contend with the bitter legacy of apartheid – including inadequate municipal services in the township.

More than four years ago, an activist organization, the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), began pushing Cape Town’s city government to improve sanitation in Khayelitsha – specifically by installing more public flush toilets and improving maintenance of existing latrines and portable toilets in the area.

Earlier this year, Ashley Buchalter, a graduate student at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, spent two months at the University of Cape Town, trawling through years of correspondence, email messages, press releases, and news articles about the SJC campaign.

While post-apartheid political structures institutionalize opportunities for engagement between “civil society” groups and local governments, Buchalter said, “True deliberation doesn’t always happen. So I wanted to look at a recent example to see what some of the challenges might be.”

The product of her research is diagrammed in what she calls a “Map of Circumnavigation.” It was developed in cooperation with Cape Town graphic designer Gaelen Pinnock and urban designer Laura Wainer, who oversaw Buchalter’s research. Download the full map here
Through its campaign, SJC managed to put the township’s sanitation needs on the Cape Town public agenda – no small achievement for an historically marginalized area. They won more flush toilets and sanitary maintenance for the township.

Ultimately, however, in addition to employing a robust legal and legislative strategy, SJC also resorted to demonstrations deemed illegal by the authorities. The result was that public officials became less willing to meet or talk with SJC even as the organization realized some of its goals. 

The color blocks along the “map’s” four-year path highlight the stops and starts, successes and setbacks, in the SJC campaign.

Blue blocks represent a request for information, usually from the SJC, or demands for action such as residents’ requests for more capital expenditures on sanitation in their communities.

Green blocks show where some kind of progress was made. For example, in September 2011, Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille requested SJC’s help in drafting a program, which went into effect the following March, employing local residents as janitors responsible for maintaining and cleaning existing toilets.

(However, as the diagram also shows, this program later came under fire as ineffective. A follow-up SJC “social audit” a year after the Cape Town sanitation program began showed that as many as half the toilets inspected were dirty or very dirty and a quarter didn’t work at all. SJC also criticized a lack of consultation by the City with local communities in creating the program.)

Grey blocks represent periods characterized by a lack of response to the sanitation campaign from Cape Town’s government. The result was mounting frustration, evidenced by a scaling up of protests and demonstrations over time.

Red blocks represent the resulting civil or public actions taken against either the SJC or city government. In 2013, for example, the SJC marched to Cape Town’s Civic Center to demand that the mayor commit to deadlines to develop a plan for the janitorial service. The mayor’s office refused to meet protesters, who were instead arrested; 21 SJC activists subsequently stood trial for their part in this demonstration.

Buchalter believes the mapping exercise revealed what wasn’t necessarily apparent from the more episodic attention the sanitation campaign received in news coverage: That SJC was pursuing a cohesive and focused strategy, one modeled on an earlier, successful grassroots effort that increased public access to drugs aimed at treating HIV/AIDS.

“It’s really been a case study that could have resonance for other civil society organizations,” she said.  “Using the map can give other campaigns insight into the way the SJC’s campaign has worked and to help guide them as they face similar challenges.”

Charlotte Scott writes for Future Cape Town, an independent think tank advocating knowledge and citizen engagement to meet the challenges of that city and create a more inclusive city. Future Cape Town is the founding partner of Our Future Cities, a project which also includes Future Johannesburg, Future Lagos, and Future London.

Photo by: Alexander Bryden