There’s a Message for City Planners in Cape Town Plumbing Poll

Fueled by data collection, residents demand a basic human right.

Story by Ann Babe

Photography by Ann Babe

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A mother and father stand in the doorway of their Khayelitsha home, looking on as their two young children goof around on the small patch of dirt outside. It’s something like a front yard, only that — flanked on one side by the family’s corrugated tin shack and on the other by a public portable toilet balanced precariously on a slope — it’s a stinky and unsanitary one.

On this clear May day, though, the kids are focused on the play, not the bright, plastic porta-potty that looms over them.

In Khayelitsha, the densely packed, sprawling slum in southeastern Cape Town, this scene is nothing out of the ordinary. Chemical toilets — toilets that are not connected to a sewage system but instead store waste in small tanks that use chemicals to control the odor until they can be emptied — were designed to be short-term solutions. In the U.S., they are most often found on construction sites or festival grounds, but in Cape Town they have become permanent fixtures, accounting for more than 75 percent of the bathroom facilities available in some parts of the crowded settlement. And with each toilet shared by five to 20 households, many of them large and multigenerational, the chemicals are far from effective.

The one I’m eyeing has serviced this family for five years. Others have been in use for more than a decade. They pepper the township in unsightly bursts of blue. Their odor is inescapable. And perhaps worse than the sight and smell is what they signify. Residents say the chemical toilets mean they can’t even undertake basic human functions with dignity. Each trip to the bathroom is dehumanizing.

With such limited access to decent restroom facilities, sanitation is a constant challenge in Khayelitsha. The seeming impossibility of overcoming it weighs heavily on the people, who say they struggle with sanitation every single day, which makes them feel like second-class citizens in their own country.

A 35-minute drive west of Khayelitsha is Cape Town’s richest neighborhood, Clifton. The posh bayside area brims with bungalows, luxe shops and fine dining spots where a hearty meal often costs more than an entire month’s earnings for many Khayelitsha families, whose median income is 20,000 South African Rand (about $1,400 U.S.) a year. One glance from Clifton to Khayelitsha, and it’s clear why there is such social strife in South Africa. While the post-Apartheid nation heralds a world-class constitution that guarantees basic human rights for everyone, nearly one-quarter of Cape Town’s population lives in informal settlements — which are overwhelmingly black — where accessing these rights is difficult, if not impossible.

A child plays near several chemical toilets in Khayelitsha.

Khayelitsha is the biggest and fastest growing of the slums, larger than many midsize American cities. It clings to the outskirts of the Mother City, as Cape Town is known, like a forgotten child at a dress hem. Residents feel disconnected from the city, they say, with many of them unaware of what services they can reasonably expect or what laws say they can expect them. “We are in a community where we don’t know our rights,” says Nosiphelele Msesiwe, a Khayelitsha resident. “We don’t know that it’s our right to get better service delivery.”

Msesiwe, who is 33, moved to Khayelitsha’s Enkanini subsection in 2006 with her son Oyama. For seven years, she endured the inadequate sanitation, talking to her neighbors about the problem, but uncertain of how to go about changing it. Then she heard about a group of residents called the Social Justice Coalition that were asking questions about toilets — and a lot of them.

Msesiwe joined right away. “Since then, I’ve never turned back,” she says.

Established in Khayelitsha in 2008, the SJC is a member-based social movement, 2,500 strong, that aims to increase the people’s awareness of their rights so they can make informed demands of government.

A key part of this education is to vigorously, and systematically, compare what the township dwellers expect based on the city budget with what they actually experience, and then relay those disparities to the public officials with the power to address them. The process reviews official records of government-reported expenditures to determine whether that spending matches up with delivery on the ground.

This is a practice of participatory democracy known as the social audit — and now it is at the heart of two lawsuits against the city of Cape Town.


Filed in July, the SJC lawsuits against the city of Cape Town allege that city government has denied “the right of access to sanitation of poor, black and marginalized residents of informal settlements.” The sanitation struggles described in the suit’s affidavits, filed on behalf of a handful of Khayelitsha residents, represent the complaints of many in the community, as documented by the SJC’s social audits.

The concept of the social audit saw its beginnings in Rajasthan, India, when a grassroots organization called the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) was struggling for minimum wages for rural laborers in the 1990s.

After finding widescale corruption in wage provisions, the MKSS suspected the government was keeping official records out of public reach to enable its secret misuse of funds. The MKSS demanded access to the records, cross-checked them with community members’ experiences and then made the discrepancies public, reading them aloud at a hearing for everyone to hear. This audit was seen as such a success that the process was actually embedded into Indian law, with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) mandating one be conducted every six months.

Eight years later, Khayelitsha tried its hand at the social audit in hopes of finding similar success. With the help of two activists from the MKSS movement, as well as the support of the Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency in India (SSAAT), the International Budget Partnership (IBP), Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know), and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa foundation, the SJC launched its first audit in April 2013.

Luthando Tokota was one of the organizers of Khayelitsha’s inaugural audit. He has been involved in all three of the toilet services audits that have come since. “[T]here is an increased emphasis on words such as public participation, transparency and accountability in government,” he says. “The social audit brings these words into life.” Tokota, who is 31, has lived in Khayelitsha since 2008. He joined the SJC in 2009.

Two months after I first met Tokota on the ground in Khayelitsha, when he was leading me around the township’s neediest areas, we connect over a crackly Google Hangout connection. He’s with SJC colleague Bonga Zamisa, who also lives in Khayelitsha. At age 24, Zamisa has spent three-quarters of his life in the settlement, moving to the subsection known as Monwabisi Park when he was 6. He is unemployed and has been volunteering with the SJC for three years. Tokota and Zamisa are at the SJC office in Khayelitsha, busy analyzing the findings of the last social audit.

The process of conducting a social audit, after the initial preparation phase, always begins with a mass meeting. Intended to establish a mandate that is community led, the meeting asks and answers questions, plans public involvement and identifies team leaders from the community. Afterward, the surveyors who will go out in the field collecting evidence are selected and trained, and a questionnaire to document resident experiences is developed and tested.

Ultimately, the data will help the SJC make the case that the city needs a comprehensive long-term plan for sanitation in Khayelitsha.

“We don’t actually know what is next for us as the residents,” says Zamisa. “We actually want to know: What is the city of Cape Town planning to do with us? Are we going to be taken out … in the next couple of years and thrown into some bushes where we are supposed to live? We don’t know.”

Ninety-nine percent of Khayelitsha residents are black African. Many of them have migrated from other parts of the country, primarily the Eastern Cape, in hopes of finding a better life in Khayelitsha, which in Xhosa means “new home.” In just over 30 years, this new home has swollen from the small tented town it was in the mid-1980s to the sprawling, dense settlement it is today. So many people have come that no one knows for certain how many live here. Some estimates say 400,000, others more than 1 million. But as the township’s population grows bigger, inadequate resources are stretched thinner.

Meanwhile, the city’s sanitation budget for informal settlement households has gone down, the SJC alleges — from R18 million (about $1.25 million U.S.) in 2015 to R15 million (just over $1 million U.S.) in 2016, even though the overall budget has gone up. While Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille strongly refutes this, saying critics unfairly isolate permanent-toilet spending while ignoring all other sanitation spending, like expenditures on wastewater treatment facilities that also service informal settlements, the SJC finding is supported by an independent analysis by the International Budget Partnership, a nongovernmental organization that promotes transparent and inclusive government. The IBP found that Cape Town allocates a disproportionately low portion of the total water and sanitation capital budget on informal settlements — just 1 percent for 21 percent of the Cape Town population.

Ayamda Qhora is part of that 21 percent. He was 32 when he moved his wife and kids from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town so he could find work. What he found, though, were nearly unlivable conditions. Too poor to settle in the city center, the family settled in Khayelitsha. Twelve years later, they’re still here. Last fall, his daughter Sipokazi, only 15, died from infection. “We are very angry because we deserve the same basic services like anyone else,” he says.

Ayamda Qhora has lived in Khayelitsha with his family for 12 years.

In the case of residents like Qhora, who have little reason to be optimistic, it can sometimes be hard to make a convincing argument that they should participate in a social audit. Because there is nothing about an audit that enforces its recommendations, or holds the government accountable to the commitments it makes, there is no guarantee that volunteering their time and energy will improve their lives in any tangible way. There is no promise they’ll come out the other end with a cleaner, safer toilet.

Yet there are people who haven’t given up hope and they are the people who find themselves counting toilets and asking questions, sometimes intimate ones, of their neighbors. Overwhelmingly, this group is young and female. As longtime community members — a majority have been living in Khayelitsha for more than 10 years, says Tokota — they have a vested interest in making it better for the future.


“What kind of toilet does your household use? How many others use it?” asks a surveyor while gathering evidence on a social audit. The surveyor writes down resident experiences and inspects toilet facilities, plotting them on maps and snapping photographs.

“A Mshengu toilet,” the typical Khayelitsha resident might answer, referring to the private company commonly government-contracted to provide chemical toilet services to the community. “This one toilet is shared by five families. It is used by everyone who’s passing by, even strangers,” the resident might add.

“How often is the toilet cleaned? Do you feel safe using it?” asks the surveyor.

“It hasn’t been cleaned at all this week. It isn’t safe.”

When social audit participants go door to door to interview their peers, the experiences they collect are horrifying, but routine — and perhaps the real horror stems from just how routine.

Data from Khayelitsha’s first social audit, conducted in April 2013, found a severe shortage of toilets. Sixty participants interviewed 270 residents and inspected all 256 communal toilets. Their fieldwork found that although government records reported 346 toilets for the area, 90 were missing. Meanwhile, the government’s targeted household-to-toilet ratio of 5-to-1 was far exceeded in each of the four Khayelitsha subsections surveyed, ranging from 10-to-1 in the section of Green Point to more than 25-to-1 in Emsindweni, another area.

The April 2013 audit also revealed widely and wildly unsanitary conditions. Across the settlement, auditors found that toilets were not receiving the daily cleaning mandated by government contracts and 32 percent of them had not been emptied at all in the preceding week, despite contracts stipulating that waste removal occur three times per week. More than 65 percent of the toilets were damaged, and 54 percent were in a totally unusable state. The wide variance could be in part due to how the toilets are serviced — instead of falling under the oversight of the city sanitation workers who handle the job in mapped parts of the city, the work is outsourced to private contractors who are allegedly monitored to ensure they are properly cleaning, removing waste and making repairs.

Security concerns aggravate the problem. While locking toilets is a good way to improve safety and protect them from overuse, there are not enough keys to go around, leaving some people — including janitors — locked out unless they can track down a key-holder.

The data also points to the government’s over-reliance on temporary solutions for a permanent population. A quarter of Khayelitsha’s population has no access to permanent full-flush toilets, according to SJC estimates. Of the 75 percent who do, many say their access is extremely limited. Indeed, one of the affidavits filed in the pending lawsuits against the city allege about 500 families share just seven toilets. As of July 2015, about three-quarters of the total number of toilets provided by the city since 2007 were temporary, according to government data cited in SJC literature, despite the fact that a majority of Khayelitsha’s informal settlement clusters are far from temporary, with 80 percent older than 10 years and 66 percent older than 15.

Most alarming is how dangerous these facilities are, residents say, not only because they’re dirty but also because they’re placed haphazardly and without a plan. The ones too close to families’ living spaces risk contamination and infection; the ones too far spark fears of being mugged, raped and murdered. And when residents without toilet access are forced to openly defecate, they feel at risk to the same dangers. Many people are outright afraid to go to the bathroom. Their worries, statistics prove, are not unfounded.

In a township where many crimes go unreported because people have no faith in the justice system, it’s hard to come up with exact figures. But, in 2015, more than 300 murders were reported, earning Khayelitsha the moniker the “murder capital” of South Africa. The same year, 543 sexual offenses were documented. To handle all of this, the township runs just three police stations, and of the crimes reported, only 1 percent result in conviction.

The most dangerous time for bathroom-related crime is after the sun sets, when many residents are forced to walk in the dark to get to the toilet or the bush. Many women in Khayelitsha say either they themselves or someone they know have been victimized while going to the bathroom at night. Meanwhile, they say, the city refuses to install or repair lighting in the area.

“Every day, someone gets raped in our community, someone gets murdered,” says community advocate Nomthetho Kilo. Kilo assists rape victims in following up on their cases with law enforcement as part of the SJC’s safety and justice program.

There is one story that comes up again and again in Khayelitsha. In March, 19-year-old Sinoxolo Mafevuka was found raped and strangled, her dead body left inside a communal toilet. Her genitals were exposed, and her head was stuffed into the toilet’s cistern. According to a witness, two men, reportedly cousins of her boyfriend, dragged her there.


On a hot summer day in 2015, a few hundred Khayelitsha residents filed into a community high school to attend a public hearing on the results of the SJC’s third social audit of the community’s toilets.

Only a handful of the residents came to testify. The others were there for the question and answer period that would happen after the hearing. They’d been waiting for answers from the public officials who represent them in City Hall. Voices rang out in the auditorium: Why does the city award huge contracts to service providers that do not fully deliver those services? Why won’t the city allocate a bigger portion of the sanitation budget to informal settlements like ours? Why can’t the city provide our community with permanent toilets, especially considering they’re cheaper in the long run than the blue Mshengu toilets? (That final point has been corroborated by a 2016 study commissioned by the IBP and the SJC. The study, by Cornerstone Economic Research, an independent South African consulting firm, found that a single outsourced temporary facility costs almost nine times more than a permanent full-flush one.)

Like many public meetings, this one ends with many questions unanswered.

“When the city of Cape Town and the providers of the toilets were asked to come to the public hearing, most of them were not there,” Zamisa says. “The city officials are probably scared to go there because they know that they are the problem behind the poor sanitation.”

“To use these toilets is degrading, unsafe and demeaning. It violates my right to human dignity, my right to safety and security of my environment, my rights to privacy and my right to be treated as an equal citizen like other South Africans.”

When government officials ignore social audit results, Khayelitsha residents must turn to other forms of activism. Often, they protest.

On May 24, the day before Cape Town’s 2016-2017 budget hearing, more than 100 SJC activists and community members marched to City Hall. Fed up with the government’s continued refusal to present a long-term plan, they delivered a petition signed by more than 5,000 Khayelitsha residents, calling their unequal access to sanitation an “emergency” that “in many cases has become a matter of life and death.”

Mayor de Lille responded the next day in her budget speech. She defended the city’s current provisions for informal settlements, arguing the government has already done a lot to help informal settlement residents — especially when taking into account the limitations of the city budget and the various logistical barriers.

“When we are not able to provide full-flush toilets, it is for the following reasons: Full-flush toilets cannot be legally installed on privately owned property, in areas of extremely high density, under power lines, on landfill sites, in a road or railway buffer, within servitudes, outside the urban edge, in water retention ponds and flood plains,” de Lille said in her speech, noting that “up to 82 percent of informal settlements are either fully or partially affected by one or more of the above-mentioned constraints.”

“What the SJC does not realize, and seems unwilling to acknowledge, is that in a world of limited resources, everything has to be planned for and shared among more than 200 informal settlements,” she said. “What is more, we have made many investments where we can to give people dignity.”

SJC advocates reject the mayor’s claims and say they want to see where these investments are. If you ask, “‘Where did you spend this money?’” Tokota says, “you won’t get an answer.”

The lawsuits are now wending their way through the courts in an attempt to get those answers.

The coalition submitted affidavits on behalf of five women, including community advocate Msesiwe, as part of the two lawsuits. In the affidavits, the women describe the fear and humiliation they feel as a result of Khayelitsha’s inhumane sanitation services. “To use these toilets is degrading, unsafe and demeaning,” one woman says. “It violates my right to human dignity, my right to safety and security of my environment, my rights to privacy and my right to be treated as an equal citizen like other South Africans.”

One suit was filed in the Western Cape High Court, alleging the city violates the Water Services Act because it fails to meet the minimum standards for basic sanitation; the other was filed in the Equality Court, alleging the city violates the Equality Act because it unfairly discriminates against informal settlement residents, who by and large are black. Because of the extensive research conducted by its social audits, the SJC believes it can make its allegations with confidence.

In post-Apartheid South Africa, Cape Town’s poor and marginalized feel their dreams of a rainbow nation have been dashed. “It’s sad that in 22 years of democracy, every administration, regardless of political party, has failed the people of Khayelitsha,” Zackie Achmat of Ndifuna Ukwazi said at the SJC’s press conference announcing the court actions.

The court papers demand the city produces a long-term plan for permanent toilets within three months of the time of filing — which will be October 1. Going to court, the SJC says, is not the route it would have chosen to take, but it’s the only one left to force the city to do the right thing. “I think we have tried all possible avenues to negotiate properly with the city,” SJC General Secretary Phumeza Mlungwana said at the news conference.

The mayor’s office declined to comment on the pending lawsuits.


With the three-month deadline just days away, there is still no sign of progress. Many have begun to question if the work of the social audit is even worthwhile. After all, the SJC has had to turn to other tactics in the participatory democracy toolkit — like petitions, demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience and litigation — to get results. Critics of social audits say this not surprising because the tactic doesn’t address questions of hierarchy and enforceability, which severely limits their effectiveness.

Still, SJC activists say social audits do make a difference, partly because they produce the data that many of their other strategies rely on. They also point out that social auditing is not meant to be used in isolation — it’s one part of a broader advocacy campaign.

And, perhaps most importantly, social audits are “eye-opening,” Zamisa says. “They give information to the residents, making them more aware [and] enlightened.” And with this information, the most marginalized communities can learn how to hold their government accountable. “Now that people are starting to recognize their rights,” Tokota says, “they are starting to practice them.”

Research from the World Bank Institute examining social auditing’s impact on public awareness supports this contention. The 2007 study, conducted in Andhra Pradesh, India, compared people’s knowledge of MGNREGA, the government program that guarantees up to 100 days of minimum-wage employment, before and after a social audit. The study found that public awareness increased dramatically, from 39 to 98 percent.

Just a few weeks after Cape Town’s deadline to respond to the SJC lawsuits, the United Nations will convene tens of thousands of urban leaders in Quito for Habitat III with a goal of determining a shared global agenda for sustainable urbanization. This New Urban Agenda is being drafted with the needs of fast-growing settlements like Khayelitsha in mind. While the draft agenda that will be negotiated in Quito doesn’t mention social audits, the tool holds relevance to the public officials who ultimately will be charged with translating its recommendations into city policies.

Already, UN-Habitat has experimented with using community-driven auditing processes to inform urban design. First conceived in Canada, the Women’s Safety Audit consists of “exploratory walks” through urban environments that provide women with the opportunity to assess feelings of insecurity and relay their findings to public officials. Since the approach was pioneered in Canada, UN-Habitat has used it in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.

Because auditing allows communities to “help the local government to manage and measure the impact of their departmental operations,” Juma Assiago, UN-Habitat Safer Cities Programme coordinator, says, “you can definitely say [the safety audit] is connected to the way the social audits are oriented.” The approach will be showcased in Quito at Habitat III, Assiago says.

But as similar as social audits are to the UN model for safety audits, there is one major difference: Safety audits require government involvement from the outset, while social audits don’t.

If the desired outcome of a social audit is to realize changes in public policy, government must be involved, Assiago says. “We insist on local government being in the picture right from the beginning,” he says.

“While social audits are generally considered very positively, social audits could also be controversial if it overrides a democratic process [that] is already in place and not all stakeholders have agreed to its use,” says Gordon Weiss, a spokesperson for UN-Habitat.

Back in Khayelitsha, the SJC recently wrapped its fourth public hearing. The group presented the results of a social audit conducted in Monwabisi Park, Zamisa’s home. As expected, given the pending litigation, none of the invited officials attended. But Zamisa remains hopeful. He will continue demanding basic sanitation for his community until it happens. “What I want from the government is only to provide proper sanitation,” he says. “That’s simply what we want. We just want to be able to relieve ourselves when we want to relieve ourselves and not be worried.”

Ann Babe reported from South Africa on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

This piece is part of a series of reported articles and op-eds that Next City is publishing related to preparations for the United Nations’ Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016. With a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we’re covering the critical issues at stake on the road to creating a “New Urban Agenda,” and hosting events at PrepCom III in Surabaya, Indonesia, in July 2016, and in Quito.

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Ann Babe is an independent journalist who covers community culture and identity, social problems and solutions, emerging technologies and international development. Her writing has appeared at the BBC, the Village Voice, the World Economic Forum, MIT Innovations Journal and beyond.

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