Winning a battle over loos

2009-06-30 00:00

SHORTLY after I had taken over as city engineer in Pietermaritzburg in 1977, I discovered something that not only amazed me, but appalled me. As we were still well entrenched in the apartheid era in South Africa, one of the bizarre side effects of the implementation of this policy was that all toilets had to be segregated. Even to the extent that there had to be separate toilets for whites, Indians, coloureds and blacks. Taking into account that there were the usual separate toilets for male and female, it meant that there were eight separate facilities that had to be provided in each case of establishing a set of toilets.

As there were no people of coloured extraction working in the municipal offices at 330 Church Street, there were no toilets provided for these people. The City Engineer’s Department occupied three floors of the municipal offices, with the other floors being occupied by the Treasury, the Estates Department, the Health Department and the Licensing Department. My department was responsible for the administration and maintenance of the entire building.

A woman by the name of ­Stella* worked in the Town Planning section of my department as a tea-maker. Stella had been born in Egypt and the South African government had in its wisdom decided to classify her as “coloured” in terms of its racial classification criteria. One day the head of the Town Planning section happened to mention that Stella had just left the building for a few minutes “to go to the toilet”. On inquiring what this exactly meant, I discovered that Stella had to walk 200 metres up the road to a private office where there was a toilet for “coloured” people.

Without consulting anyone other than the chief architect, and his chief technician, I decided that one weekend we would remove all the racial signs from all the toilets in the building. These were signs such as “Whites only”, “Indians only”, “Bantu only”, etcetera, and replace them simply with “Male Toilets” and “Female Toilets”.

This was done, and on the ­following Monday morning all hell broke loose. The most vociferous of the objectors was a person in the building who was a pillar of his church and a proverbial Bible-thumper if ever there was one.

The furore reached the town clerk’s department in no time, and the town clerk was soon on the phone appealing to me for “sanity”. When I explained that this was exactly what characterised my move he became flustered and said he would have to put the matter to the city council.

By this time the press had got hold of the story and had a field day, with such headlines as “Council to sit on toilet issue”. And “Nowhere to go”, and so on.

The town clerk raised the ­issue at a council meeting, and the answer was the proverbial melon. The council, after lengthy debate and by a majority vote, noted that the building was my responsibility and it was not prepared to interfere.

I thought that this was a rather neat way of ducking their ­responsibility. I would have ­preferred it to come out in open support, or alternatively ­issue an instruction to revert to the status quo. However, it ­realised that ­either way would have brought public criticism and would, ­particularly in the case of a reversal, have damaged the “liberal” image that it was trying so desperately to create.

The toilets remained multi­racial and apart from the odd complaint that they were “dirty”, implying that this was the result of “non-white” usage, the whole thing died down after a few months. I suspected that some whites who opposed the move deliberately fouled the toilets on occasion in order to advance their warped ideas.

* Name changed

• Do you have an apartheid story to tell? Send it to features@witness.co.za.

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