Where using the toilet can kill you

2014-01-19 14:00

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The most dangerous thing you can do in Khayelitsha.

On the corner of Jeff Masemola Road and Nyathi Avenue in Khayelitsha stands a row of toilets that are painted in desperately cheerful colours.

Each one of the concrete toilet stalls is a different colour: Grey, then luminescent purple, yellow, blue and green.

The five toilet doors are modestly turned away from the street, facing a triangular patch of sand, bordered by a shocking pink shack and another toilet.

The bright toilets seem almost offensive in such a neglected place, where the stench of human faeces is suffocating.

All but one of the toilets is filled to the brim with a solid mass of excrement.

“They fixed that light when they heard the commission was coming here,” says Phumeza Mlungwana almost proudly, pointing to a street light that seems too far away to light this “bathroom”.

But why would a commission of inquiry into “allegations of police inefficiency in Khayelitsha and a breakdown in relations between the community and police” be so interested in toilets?

In the informal settlements in Khayelitsha, the “most dangerous thing you can do is to try to relieve yourself”, says Mlungwana.

“Some people have been raped, there have been criminals trying to rob them?...?it got to a point where people couldn’t wake up at night and go to a toilet, they need to use a bucket inside their homes because they fear for their lives.”

The 24-year-old general secretary of the Social Justice Coalition says it’s frustrating to see how many people take toilets for granted.

“If you are inside a house, you go to your toilet any time, even with your eyes closed. But if you are in an informal settlement you have to think twice.”

This is what Mlungwana will tell the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry next week when it begins its investigation of the torn fabric of justice in the area.

The commission was appointed by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and is headed up by former Constitutional Court Justice Kate O’Regan and former National Prosecuting Authority head Vusi Pikoli.

Mlungwana, who will be the Social Justice Coalition’s first witness before the commission, states in her affidavit that: “A toilet or using the bush is a place of danger where violence against the person in the form of assault, robbery and sometimes even rape and murder occur daily.”

Mlungwana has always lived in Khayelitsha and has first-hand experience of how normal notions of justice and the rule of law have failed in the area.

“I’ve seen a lot of domestic violence, I’ve seen a lot of alcohol abuse, I’ve seen a lot of people murdered, I’ve heard about a lot of cases of rape and I’ve been a victim of crime myself,” Mlungwana tells me in her parents’ small lounge.

It was behind this house that a boy named Mabhuti was found dead in 2010. He’d been stabbed five days earlier and was only discovered because his body was decomposing.

Walking to school, Mlungwana often had her lunch money stolen, usually at knife-point.

She witnessed her first act of vigilantism at the age of 13 when people from the neighbourhood caught a man attempting to break into a home and stripped and beat him in the street.

The available statistics reflect what she’s saying.

An analysis of the 2013 crime statistics by Lizette Lancaster of the Institute for Security Studies described the Cape Town areas of Nyanga, Khayelitsha, Harare and Gugulethu as the “most murderous” in South Africa.

Mlungwana says that it is common not to report crime. “There are a lot of people who have been experiencing crime a lot of time and people don’t report it. When you ask people why?...?they tell you: ‘Nothing’s going to happen’.”

Enter vigilantism.

In November 2012, City Press reported that a staggering 78 “mob justice” murders had been committed in Khayelitsha in the corresponding crime reporting period.

That was roughly a fifth of all the murders reported in the area.

But Mlungwana says the intention of the people who carry out this sort of justice is often not to kill.

“I think people are angry and they think they don’t have any other options. They hope that another person who is hoping to commit the same crime doesn’t because they see [the] punishment”.

A startling witness statement from a 19-year-old resident of Khayelitsha bears testimony to this: “I would rather go to the community because the reputation of the community is that they enforce the law by finding criminals and beating them up.”

The young woman said: “I see mobs beating people approximately twice a month. I think they should be beaten because they deserve it; I feel this way because there is no other way that criminals are punished for their wrongdoing in Khayelitsha.”

Mlungwana says she understands the violence, but doesn’t condone it.

“I know people take the law into their own hands and I don’t blame them, but I do not condone that method. I also feel crime is at an unbearable level, but you have to see the commission in that light.

“You don’t take the law into your own hands, but you use the law. How many people thought you could actually use the Constitution to actually get something as big as the commission? We did that with something that could go from being an idea to winning in the Constitutional Court.”

When Mlungwana refers to Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s failed bid to scupper the commission of inquiry at the Constitutional Court, her composure cracks just a little.

“I do not understand why the minister challenged the commission in court. He lost in the high court. And he lost in the Constitutional Court. And he still prides himself for being a minister? He didn’t think how the commission could change people’s lives, it’s not just the Khayelitsha community. I felt he was only challenging that because of politics. Instances like that make you feel angry.”

It’s easy to see why Mlungwana, the daughter of a farmworker and a technician, will spearhead the Social Justice Coalition’s submission.

She is frank and passionate, but always self-effacing.

“My parents sacrificed an enormous amount to ensure that we received a decent education despite their limited formal education.

They earned little, but ensured that I had money to travel to school and later to university.”

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