TO Molefe

De Lille's attack on SAHRC shameful

2014-07-21 08:18

TO Molefe

Serious question: Has Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille taken leave of her senses? Writing in her newsletter last week, she launched a scurrilous attack on the South African Human Rights Commission, suggesting that the commission's recent report on sanitation in the City of Cape Town was part of the ANC's 2016 local government election campaign.

This is a serious allegation to make against a Chapter 9 institution, so must either be that she's right - or, and this the more likely of the two, she's lost touch with good judgement and is being willfully obtuse.

The report in question criticises Cape Town's basic sanitation programme. It says the city's provision of chemical toilets in informal settlements on a long-term basis and its application of emergency guidelines to determine the sufficiency of sanitation in non-emergency situations (i.e. in informal settlements) was inadequate, unreasonable and a violation of the rights of those residents.

The report also said because the city's actions disproportionately affect residents in the "black/African" demographic, they constitute an indirect form of institutionalised unfair discrimination on the basis of race.

No big surprise

Little in the report will surprise anyone acquainted with the SAHRC's prior work on sanitation, or sanitation issues in general. Nor will the report likely surprise residents of the city's informal settlements, many of whom complain that the city is impervious to their plight and acts in an imperious, unilateral manner.

The Social Justice Coalition, the Khayelitsha-based activist organisation that brought the complaint to the commission, certainly expected the findings.

This alone should have given de Lille pause before she sloppily suggested the commission had, as party to some politically aligned ploy, singled out Cape Town. The truth is that the commission was responding to a complaint about the city brought to it by an organisation based in the city. But, instead of being rational, de Lille decided to make remarks that undermine public trust in the SAHRC and impugn the integrity of Pregs Govender, the deputy commissioner who signed off on the report.

The mayor surely realised she was not offering a fair and considered response when she accused the commission of "playing the race card". The term is shorthand used by those who'd rather not see racial discrimination to describe the actions of those who point out racial discrimination.

So, she essentially attacked the commission for doing its job of investigating and reporting on racial and other forms of discrimination, institutionalised or not, without fear or favour.

ANC vs DA and other illusions

In her response, de Lille was at pains to play up that Cape Town by most official metrics, and unlike many ANC-run municipalities, had the highest levels of access to sanitation. But there are a few things wrong with this.

Firstly, it is of no comfort to the city's residents who are without adequate sanitation to be told that people elsewhere have adequate sanitation. It doesn't help either for them to be told that many more people in ANC-run municipalities are also without.

To offer this in mitigation is nothing but PR directed to the DA faithful to keep them numb to the fact that their beloved party is also objectively not meeting its obligation to provide services to those who need them. And for de Lille to expect a pat on the back from the commission for this is immature.

Secondly, what the official metrics tell us is limited, as evidenced by the de Lille's reply, which counted portable flush toilets (PFTs) as adequate. Many residents have rejected PFTs, calling them glorified versions of the bucket system.

They offer no privacy, are prone to leaks and their cleanliness is dependent on an erratic servicing schedule offered by contractors hired by the city. These toilets appear not to have been included in the SJC's complaint, so the commission only dealt with them at a cursory level.

Nonetheless, they too are a type of chemical toilet, subject to similar issues as those the SAHRC said infringe the rights of residents in informal settlements to equality and dignity.

The city's said before that PFTs are temporary. However, in Khayelitsha alone, they are in 8 600 homes (and growing), according to de Lille. And from how she celebrates their roll out and counts them as adequate, it's clear that the reality is that the city is using this short-term, emergency solution as a permanent fix.

Back to the drawing board

The commission's recommendations direct the city to develop, within six months, new norms and standards for basic sanitation and a new emergency housing programme that incorporates human rights principles.

And contrary to de Lille's claim of being singled out, the commission also recommended, based on this complaint, several changes to national policy that will have effects throughout the country - yes, in ANC-run municipalities, too.

You'd think then that de Lille should be proud that Cape Town served as the basis of recommendations to improve national sanitation policy.

You'd think, but you'd be wrong, though mercifully not as wrong as de Lille was for her unseemly attack on the SAHRC.

- Follow TO Molefe on Twitter.

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