Ferial Haffajee

Don't throw stones if your toilet can flush

2013-07-02 17:31

I did a lot of my growing up in Doornfontein, at the eastern end of Joburg where the magnificent skyline settles into factory drab.

It’s now being delightfully gentrified with the Maboneng Precinct close by, but back then it was simply convenient for my family, who largely worked in the surrounding factories.

My gran, Mabel, ran a warm home in Error Street, with a large family and various migrant cousins who visited for her delicious dumplings and other specialities.

She would bath us young ones on the kitchen table in a basin of water warmed on the cold stove. All in all, I have only warm memories of that time of my life.

But there is one memory that haunts me and that is of my gran’s outside toilet. Gosh! It was an awful lavatory (I think Mabel called it that).

I was scared of the place, its walls built from corrugated iron with a rough wooden seat that ensured splinters got into odd places. There was no easy flush handle, but a long chain that I had to hang on to make it work.

It was draughty and, despite copious pourings of Dettol and other cleansing agents, it was stinky.

Then, when the Group Areas Act eventually chased us out to the coloured suburb of Bosmont, our flat had a spartan single toilet, which was like heaven, with its proper door and lock, nogal.

So, decades on, with my own home, and with the benefit of hindsight, I do understand why I have overcapitalised on my bathrooms. I’ve come to understand it comes from growing up without comfortable commodes.

So I simply cannot join the chorus of moral outrage, produced by even my fine colleagues at City Press, who complain about the brigade of poo throwers at Cape Town International Airport.

Sad fact

The indignant cacophony from the DA, which finds itself in the epicentre of the poo wars; the ANC’s statement this week condemning the Cape Town strewing; and the indignant tones on all radio shows is just so much bourgeois protestation by people who flush, often with the choice of two speeds.

People with flushing toilets should not throw invectives at those without.

The latest census shows that six in 10 of us in Mzansi have flushing toilets. The unlucky four in 10 make do with holes in the ground, ventilated pit latrines, regular pit latrines, bucket toilets or various other forms of temporary relief.

In Nairobi, for example, the people of the Kibera slum have "flying toilets". They use a plastic packet as a toilet and then fling it into the yonder because they have few other options.

To be honest, if I was still, 20 years after freedom came, making do with that Doornfontein toilet, I would protest at OR Tambo International every day and possibly even at the Union Buildings.

And that there are toilets as awful as those in Cape Town in most informal settlements across Johannesburg where the ANC governs is a sad fact, not a get out of jail free card the DA plays it as.

At some point, people have enough of the indignities of inferior sewage systems.

Surely, a flushing toilet or a decent one of your own should be a fundament of freedom, like a decent school with good teachers and hospitals that don’t make you more ill? Surely it is a fundament of dignity?

In my opinion, the absence of toilets is a symbol of our Gini coefficient – the wealth gap.

That you can go from the world’s fanciest toilets in swanky Cape Town or Johannesburg, to the indignities of those in its townships in 15 short minutes is also a symbol of system failure.

Yes, rapid urbanisation makes sewerage planning tough, but the move to the cities is an established trend by now. And all urban studies suggest it will continue and accelerate in the next three decades.

Protests will grow larger and become more destabilising unless planning is improved to make essential services and infrastructure improvements faster and better.

If we were serious about dignity, in a middle-income country that still has decent engineering skills, our government could declare that every household will have a toilet and then make it happen.

If we were serious…

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