On eve of World Cup, South Africa's 'toilet wars' reveal volatile politics

Ahead of the South Africa World Cup, Cape Town has been gripped by its 'toilet wars.' After an opposition party erected shacks for the open air toilets in a shantytown, supports of the governing African National Congress tore them down, and did not replace them.

Rodger Bosch/AFP
Protestors clash with police during protests over the removal of open-air toilets in advance of South Africa's World Cup in Khayelitsha, on 1 June, near Cape Town, South Africa.

It is unlikely that the tens of thousands of foreign tourists flooding into South Africa for the World Cup, will take time to look into a rather embarrassing political dispute called “the toilet wars.”

The dispute surrounds an effort by the city of Cape Town to provide toilets to the residents of Khayelitsha, a township, on its outskirts.

For decades, the residents of Khayelitsha have lived in tin shacks without proper sanitation, a situation that the ruling African National Congress promised to correct when it came to power in 1994.

But it took no action and last year, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) started putting toilets and plumbing next to each shack, with the understanding that the locals would build enclosures around them. About 7 percent of the locals either never bothered to or couldn't afford to build enclosures in the interim, and the DA-led local government eventually erected cheap tin shacks around the remainder of the toilets.

The members of the ANC’s Youth League promptly tore the toilet shacks down, arguing they were insufficient and an insult to the residents, though they did not replace them.

The notion that toilets would become a matter of a rather violent struggle between two parties that fought on the same side against apartheid shows that politics in South Africa has taken a turn for the worse.

“The larger issue here is the constitutional right, and one of the most important rights, to dignity, and the way in which toilets were provided were an aberration of that right,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior political analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. “The idea of having open-air toilets is an ANC idea, it was ANC that started building the toilets without enclosures. But both the ANC and the DA were guilty of letting the people of Khayelitsha go without services for too long.”

Toilets, not roses

This much is certain: Neither party has come out smelling like roses. The Democratic Alliance – once seen as South Africa’s best hope for an opposition party that could keep pressure on the ANC – has made Cape Town a showpiece for what it would like to do if given the chance to run South Africa. Its leader, Helen Zille, a former investigative journalist and liberal opponent of apartheid, was seen as the kind of person who stood on principle and wouldn’t brook nonsense from her own party or from the ANC.

But now that her party’s government is in charge, this toilet scandal is hurting her public image.

“We have come to the conclusion that the best way to instill a sense of ownership and an ethos of respecting property is for each family to contribute to the construction and maintenance of their own toilet,” wrote DA party leader Ms. Zille, herself a former Cape Town mayor. “But this type of intervention, which encourages self-reliance and initiative, does not suit the ANC Youth League, who would rather ensure that people remain passive and powerless recipients of government handouts.”

In a country with a poverty rate of more than 40 percent and an official unemployment rate of 24 percent, it’s easy to see why both the DA and the ANC would spend so much time talking about toilets. Sanitation is just one of the basic services – along with electricity, drinking water, schools, and basic housing – that have been promised to the nation’s poor. Pleasing those people wins votes; but failing that, turning them against one’s enemy can be also be rewarding.

This appears to be behind the strategy of ANCYL, who tore down the 51 newly installed temporary enclosures and called the DA’s provision of toilets a human rights violation and an act of racism by the mainly white-led DA city government. Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato last week urged Khayelitsha residents to “burn tires” in protest of the ANCYL tactics, and the ANCYL called for the mayor to be arrested for inciting violence.

All of this makes both sides look silly, of course, but Mr. Matshiqi, the political analyst, says it is the ANC Youth League which comes off looking worse.

“The ANC through the Youth League have shot themselves in the foot,” says Matshiqi. “If the attempt was to shore up their support among township constituencies, they just ended up alienating those constituencies that would otherwise would have been supportive, by tearing down those enclosures. The Youth League looked like thugs.”


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