Court ruling ends Cape Town's 'toilet wars'

Today's court order for Cape Town to build enclosures around government-provided toilets is likely to become a matter of national political discussion.

By , Staff Writer

With a high court ruling, Cape Town’s brutal – and farcical – “toilet wars” have come to an end.

A court today ruled that the city government must build enclosures around government-provided toilets in the poor black township of Makhaza, ending a two-year dispute that had become a heated political issue between the country’s two largest political parties.

It might seem like a small matter, but with local elections planned for May 18 across the country, the court decision is likely to become a matter of national political discussion, if not significance. Cape Town is run by South Africa’s second-largest political party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), an opponent of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

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The dispute began in 2009, when the DA installed some 1,316 toilets in Makhaza and other informal settlements in the Khayelitsha township on the condition that local residents build their own enclosures as a way to make Cape Town tax dollars stretch farther. Residents built walls around all but 51 toilets, demanding that the city foot the bill.

As a compromise, the city government attempted to build corrugated tin structures around the remaining 51 toilets last year, but members from the ANC Youth League routinely tore them down, turning the toilet tiff into a political showdown. The matter inevitably became a matter of some embarrassment for the DA and a cause célèbre for the ANC.

Now, with Friday's judgment from the Western Cape High Court, the city will have to enclose those 51 toilets plus a few hundred others whose temporary structures built by residents are deemed needing a makeover. Court justice Nathan Erasmus called the living conditions of the Makhaza residents “shocking” and ordered the city to build structures around 1,000 toilets in the Makhaza area.

The local DA government said it accepted the judgment. “It was precisely because we believe communal toilets impinge on the dignity of people, that the City sought to extend sanitation services to every household within available budgets,” the DA statement said. “Nevertheless, we accept the finding of the court. We will now move forward and continue upgrading informal settlements, within the limits of the national housing code.”

Protestors from Khalelitsha, the larger black township that includes the Makhaza neighborhood, greeted the court decision with cheers in Cape Town.

The ANC’s Youth League leader, Julius Malema, was present at court, as were other ANC senior members from the Western Cape. The ANC has used the toilet scandal as a cudgel against the DA, which prides itself on its clean governance and efficient delivery of services.

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