Toilets “al Fresco”: Dignity is the Loser on South Africa’s Political Battlefield

I was introduced to the South African comic strip “Madam and Eve” by my husband, who has been hooked on it since he lived in Zimbabwe for three years as a kid. It brightens up my Google Reader feed and gives me an excuse to read about current events in the region so I can understand the context of the cartoons. But when they began their series on “toilets ‘al fresco,’” I was appalled at what the news search turned up.

Flickr, Tracy Hunter

With local government elections fast approaching, the African National Congress (ANC), the country’s ruling party, was quick to condemn the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) for building 50 open-air toilets in a township outside of Cape Town. The ANC Youth League took the DA to court over the issue, arguing that they infringed on human dignity. The municipality was ordered to build enclosures for the toilets. The DA, which is the majority party in Cape Town, is struggling to shed its image as a party that caters to the white elite, and the ANC gleefully cast the fiasco as one more example of racism.

Then it was revealed that an ANC-led area has built 1,600 of the same toilets, some dating as far back as 2003.

Both area governments claimed that they did not have the funds to build the enclosures, and that the residents agreed to build them themselves. Julius Malema, the leader of the ANC Youth League, countered that officials should have known better: “They agree to it because they are desperate, they are poor people, they have no option and they agree to anything that comes.”

“Service delivery,” a term referring to the government’s (in)ability to deliver electricity, running water, and sanitation to citizens, has become a buzzword and a driving force in South African politics. While many are upset that these so-called “toilet wars” are just serving as the current political battlefield, others are optimistic that attention is being drawn to the issue. But the most disturbing aspect is perhaps that it happened in the first place, and that these government officials used a bureaucratic technicality to shirk their responsibility to the dignity of their citizens – to provide something as basic as the right to relieve themselves in private.